Books October 2006

The Drama of the Gifted Parent

Hey! Leave those kids alone!

The frenzy of academic competition, particularly among affluent American families, has triggered a spate of cautionary new books. The titles reviewed here are all excellent: I give them all A+’s—or, in the parlance of today’s elite high schoolers, weighted GPAs of 4.687, including 5’s in fifteen AP courses and a combined math/verbal SAT score of 1540.

Of course, I’m a biased reader; in my estimation, there can’t be enough books written on the topic. I say, let’s hurl them, one by one, at today’s frenzied “helicopter parents,” who deserve to be, if not bombarded, at least given a simple clonk over the head with a frying pan while a trained therapist yells, “Stop the insanity!”

Winning admission to a coveted college is so do-or-die that today’s über-protective parents leave nothing to chance—which is to say, nothing to the bumbling students themselves. For our most obsessively college-minded parents, it seems foolhardy to allow high-school seniors to track the progress of their own applications, to solicit their own letters of recommendation, even to write their own autobiographical essays about why they want to go to college. At a certain point, one might ask who is actually hoping to pull on that crimson sweatshirt.

In a telling USA Today essay on such parents, the MIT admissions head, Marilee Jones, wrote that they even “make excuses for their child’s bad grades and threaten to sue high school personnel who reveal any information perceived to be potentially harmful to their child’s chances of admission.” (Indeed, in The Overachievers, Alexandra Robbins points out that the number of teachers purchasing liability insurance rose by 25 percent between 2000 and 2005.)

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Stop the Insanity!" (September 5, 2006)
Sandra Tsing-Loh describes the elite, utopian island of urban private education—and explains why she opted to steer clear of it.

And when these litigious parents’ work is well done, they need only stand back as their mini-me’s shamble forward, robotlike, hurling lawsuits for them. In 2003, with acceptances from Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Princeton, and Cornell already in hand, the New Jersey senior Blair Hornstine sued her school district for $2.7 million for the pain and humiliation of having to share her valedictorian title with another student. Diagnosed with chronic fatigue, Hornstine had completed much of her coursework at home with private tutors, while being allowed to skip gym class (where even an A+, valued at 4.3, would have lowered her AP-fueled GPA of 4.6894). Her father, Superior Court Judge Louis Hornstine, didn’t just support his daughter’s campaign; he helped complete her volunteer work, driving groceries to the local food bank on her behalf. (In June 2001, Blair Hornstine also received a Congressional Award Gold Medal, an honor that requires a student to have performed 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, and 400 hours of community service. Talk about chronic fatigue!) After winning sole-valedictorian status and settling with the district for $60,000, Blair, in a bizarre twist, was de-admitted from Harvard upon discovery that she had plagiarized some material in her local newspaper columns. Also in 2003, the Michigan valedictorian hopeful Brian Delekta challenged district regulations that allowed him at most an A for summer legal work, as opposed to the A+ that—yes—his own attorney mother had awarded him. (In the suit, Ms. Delekta served as her son’s lawyer. They lost.)

On the one hand, I worry that unless they join some sort of MTV-sponsored witness-protection program, such children have no hope of ever getting laid. (One imagines Brian and his lawyer mom, or Blair and her judge dad, years down the road, sharing a lone Zima at a vast granite kitchen island as the pair of them nostalgically go through old torts.) On the other hand, I have to admit to a grudging admiration for the sheer professionalism, the smoothly oiled Bonnie-and-Clyde teamwork of these academic parent-child hit squads. I too had insanely pushy parents, but in retrospect they seem like pikers. Yes, my Danzig-born mom wrote all my sister’s school papers (which my sister then dutifully copied and presented as her own). However, the result was not Ivy League entry but instead, as my sister will joke, “my strange German syntax, to shake, I have never quite been able.” When I was a senior at Caltech, my Shanghai-born scientist dad kept calling my dorm to shout, over the thumping ZZ Top, “Sandra! Apply to any grad school in any engineering major!” Sadly, thanks to the freedom of the EZ student loan the great cheapskate himself had helped me secure, I was already off dating a rock-bagpipe player and spectacularly bombing my physics GRE. (Out of a possible 99, my percentile was 7—that’s right, one digit—a number so low it inspires almost Talmudic awe in those who hear it uttered.)

By contrast, today’s top students don’t seem to have the sheer Falstaffian airspace in which to belly flop—and even when they do, they enjoy odd new protections. (Robbins cites a teacher’s surprise when a star student suddenly came in with a diagnosis of “difficulty with Gestalt thinking”—which, conveniently, allowed her to take all subsequent tests untimed.) However, these soaring levels of academic achievement and care seem to be generating not satisfaction but epic levels of misery … particularly for the sons and daughters of America’s most affluent, education-obsessed families. Such kids are fueling their own exploding at-risk statistics: among all socioeconomic groups, they’re now the leaders in adolescent rates of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. The gnawing discontent shows up less in colorful Jerry Springer–style drama than in a kind of beige blankness, personality absence, or paucity of self. In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine notes a widespread lack of what she calls an “internal home,’” described thus:

It clearly is not built of bricks and mortar, but of the psychological building blocks of self-liking, self-acceptance, and self-management. It is the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world … For me, this internal place looks and feels very much like the big oak tree I used to climb up in my backyard when I was a child.

Which sounds quaint until one considers that in today’s overscheduled families, climbing a tree and sitting in it is practically unheard of.

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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