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Getting In at All Costs

Winning by any means necessary is not something any parent should teach their children. The recent nationwide college admissions scandal in which parents of means paid big money to help get their kids into elite and selective colleges showed that some people will try to win at any cost. The problem is the parents were cheating their own children out of the lessons of success, achievement — and defeat.

Children learn early on that passing tests and getting good grades are important. It’s the way they make it to the next step. Applying themselves to task will get them there. When a child comes home with an “A” or an improved grade of “B,” they hope you are proud of them. But what you want most is for them to find pride in their own achievements. When they don’t make the grade, we have to encourage and help them to do better the next time. Or maybe find that there is another course of action to take academically.

What you ultimately want is what I discovered as a young girl: I wanted to get good grades for myself and not my parents. I wanted to be the best I could be. If I didn’t do well on a test or in a class, I often knew it was because of the amount of work I put in.

I had many days of struggling to help my children with their homework and school projects, but eventually that all stopped and they were on their own. Lord knows I had no idea how to do the math. I also admit I didn’t have much patience. Around sixth grade, with encouragement from school, my kids were on their own. I still gave them the tools they needed to do well, such as tutors, counseling and extra practice. But they were in charge of their own grades.

As high schoolers, both my daughters struggled with the SATs. But there was no way I would petition for them to get extra time, like some of the parents in the admissions scandal did. My daughter Grace might have qualified for extra time after suffering multiple concussions while playing sports. However, the cost to pay an expert to evaluate her was ridiculous.

It’s easy to see how parents get sucked into these things, though. Getting into college takes a lot of hard work and dedication — and it’s often a process that involves the entire family, as college visits require time and money. My oldest daughter Paige planned a week-long road trip through upstate New York and New England to look at colleges. The whole family had to buy in, even her little sister who had to sit through the long information sessions that the colleges held.

For the kids who are athletes, the process to get recruited is not as simple as posing in a uniform for a few pictures and then getting someone to say you were on their team, like some students involved in the admissions scandal did. Page wanted to play basketball in college. She spent a lot of time making videos and sending them out to coaches and communicating with coaches to get them to take a look at her. It also meant she had to work hard on the court during every practice and every game if she wanted to be noticed.

Knowing all the work she put into applying to college and later law school, I asked my oldest daughter what she thought about the scandal. “You and Dad always made it clear that if I wanted to get into a good college, I had to do it on my own,” Paige says. “You didn’t have extra funds for fancy tutors or donations to help push me over the edge and get me in. And even if you did have the money, I’m glad you didn’t use it. I’m proud that I got myself into college and law school on my own.”

When kids get into college on their own merit after putting in the work, they get to feel their success. They can own the achievement. When they own the achievement, they are encouraged to achieve even more. This process doesn’t start in high school; it starts the day they take their steps. And, no matter what, we have to let them take them.

About Adranisha Stephens

When Adranisha Stephens isn’t chasing down a story, she is traveling, blogging, photographing or spending time with family and friends. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Frostburg State University and a master’s degree in journalism/digital storytelling from American University.

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