SALT LAKE CITY — Olivia Jade Giannulli probably wouldn't have been too upset if she hadn't gotten into an elite college.
Before her mother, actress Lori Loughlin, was revealed as one of 33 parents indicted in the nationwide college admissions scandal, Giannulli told her social-media followers, "I don't really care about school" and said she was mostly looking forward to football games and parties.
Her parents cared deeply, however — so deeply that they allegedly paid a self-described "admissions counselor" $500,000 to ensure their daughter's acceptance to the University of Southern California, according to federal prosecutors.
The alleged actions of Loughlin and other parents named in the scandal — with more charges said to be coming — have people talking about the lengths to which some parents go to protect their children from the pain of rejection and failure.
But Olivia Jade's comments about school suggest that in taking extreme measures, some parents may be really protecting themselves from feeling like they failed at parenting.
Regardless of age, knowing how to weather rejection and failure is an important component of emotional well-being, psychologists and child development experts say. And rather trying to protect children (and ourselves) from failing, we're better off if we learn early on how to shake off failure and rejection.
In fact, there are ways that you can "practice" failing with your children so they won't be devastated a decade or so from now if they're not among the 5 percent of applicants who are accepted into Harvard or Stanford.
The first lesson can be on your next family game night. And you also might want to rethink what papers you're hanging on your refrigerator, says Stephanie Lee, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City.
The value of struggle
No students have been charged in the admissions scandal at this point; only parents, coaches and other people involved with admissions. To Richard Watts, a California attorney and author of the 2018 book “Entitlemania,” that makes sense.
“The kids are not at fault here at all. This is 100 percent the parents’ fault,” he said.
Watts believes that many American children have developed a sense of entitlement that is enabled by parents who are overly “kid-centric” and give their children too much. While all parents want the best for their children, many well-meaning mothers and fathers work so hard to make life good for their children that they “take away the struggle.”
“We have devalued the currency of struggle in our world,” Watts said.
Watts lives in Laguna Beach, California, where two of the indicted parents are from, and said he works with wealthy families in his practice but that it’s not just the wealthy who are guilty of this. “We all do it,” he said. “You have every desire to save them and fix things; we love our kids so much.” But he believes that children need “combat training” before they turn 18, and that parents need to sit back and let their children face rejection and failure while offering them love and affirmation.
“We need to sit back and say, ‘I’m here for a much bigger purpose. I’m not going to be here on this planet forever. By the time I leave, I need to have you confident enough, and experienced enough, in failure and recovery that you survive when I go,'" he said.
Parents who are heavily invested in their children may be focused not only on protecting their children from failure and rejection, but also themselves, said Nina W. Brown, professor and eminent scholar in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Brown, the author of “Children of the Self-Absorbed,” said that such parents are sometimes wrongly deemed narcissistic, and that narcissism is a form of mental illness whereas self-absorption might be passing and “not necessarily a fixed trait.”
The self-absorbed parent might be overly involved in the child's life not for the benefit of the child, but for the parent, Brown said. They tend to micromanage their children to forestall the possibility of failure, and they crave admiration and attention. "Having their child be super successful gets them that attention," Brown said.
Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and family physician who wrote "The Collapse of Parenting," said that while some analysts speculate that the parents indicted in the scandal were seeking glory for themselves by having "trophy kids," it's equally reasonable to believe that they were sincerely pursuing the best education for their kids. It's also possible that both explanations are true, he added.
Evidence-based research shows that of an array of traits — including things like friendliness, emotional stability and openness to new ideas — the ones that best predict future success in children are honesty and self-control. Those qualities matter more than common sources of parental pride, such as grades or where a child goes to college.
“So it follows that if you’re a parent, your first priority should be to teach honesty and self-control to your child. That’s not a sermon. It’s a robust, empirical finding,” he said. “And coincidentally, honesty and self-control are not innate. They’re not genetically programmed. They are completely taught, and you, the parent, must teach them.”
The value of rejection
Writing in The Wall Street Journal March 25, columnist Andy Kessler listed successful people who encountered lots of rejection with no ill effect, including University of Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes, who still has all his rejection letters from jobs he didn't get.
“These happy rejects are in good company. One publisher turned down Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’ saying, ‘First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?’,” Kessler wrote.
He added that high school seniors used to paper their rooms with rejection letters, then called “boot letters,” and that college seniors would tack rejection letters from companies to which they’d applied on their dorm doors.
It’s hard to imagine the recently indicted parents or their progeny making light of rejection, but such resilience in the face of failure can be learned and taught, said Lee, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorder Center at the Child Mind Institute.
“Failure is a part of life, and it’s the parents’ job not to protect the child from failure, but to prepare them for it,” Lee said.
Parents can teach children how to fail in the safe environs of the family by doing things like making sure a child doesn’t always win at board games, then coaching them through loss and rewarding them for behaving appropriately.
Similarly, find ways to acknowledge and reward good sportsmanship when your child or the child’s team loses an athletic competition, Lee said.
The language that parents use when coaching a child through failure is important, Lee said, urging parents to employ a “growth mindset” that teaches children that failure is a teacher and that challenges prepare you for later success.
Parents can also help children by being open about their own failures and modeling appropriate behavior as it occurs. “We can say a lot of things, but children and adolescents pay a lot of attention to what we do,” Lee said.
Watts, the author of “Entitlemania,” said it’s difficult for today’s parents to even acknowledge failure in a culture that’s obsessed with winning. “We say, ‘My kid can’t fail,’ and the last thing we want to do as a parent is to share our failures.”
But confessing to times when we didn’t measure up, and making clear to our children that their effort matters most, regardless of how things turn out, can help turn them into adults who can cheerfully face failure and rejection and move on easily.
For parents of young children, one opportunity to teach this lesson is through grades.13 comments on this story
Watts, who was usually an “A” student, remembers bringing home a “C” and being worried about his father’s reaction. But his father said, “That’s good. It will be important to you later to realize that failure is just as important and it drives you to be more successful the next time. I have every confidence in you. Just keep driving; you'll be fine."
And Lee, at the Child Mind Institute, said a test or paper that gets an A+ often winds up on the refrigerator, but there are some Cs that belong there, too. “If you know your child really studied and worked hard and they got a 78, it’s really important that the 78 finds its way to the fridge. It's important that we celebrate the effort and not just the result."