March 8, 2022
There are two universal myths far too many parents believe: One, overall success in life is determined by which college their child attends and, two, experiencing failure is bad for their child’s self-esteem.
I work at The Alexander Dawson School, an early childhood to grade eight independent school in Las Vegas, NV. When the news of the college admissions scandal broke, our school’s administration received a flood of communications from colleagues from independent high schools across the country. Here’s the interesting part: Of the many messages received, none of them expressed shock or surprise. The consensus was you would be hard-pressed to find faculty, counselors, or administrators in any high-performing high school who didn’t see this coming. One colleague shared that when the college counseling team at his elite Massachusetts high school heard the news, they sighed heavily, shrugged their shoulders, and agreed it was business as usual in the private school pressure-cooker.
Dawson is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school. For the uninitiated, the Challenge Success program was created by Dr. Denise Pope of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Pope was alarmed by the high level of suicides and other severe mental health issues high-performing high school students in the Bay area were experiencing. She conducted groundbreaking research to help pinpoint why this was happening and, more importantly, to help find solutions to a problem that was costing children their lives. Dr. Pope created the Challenge Success program to share her research findings with students, families, and school administrators. The synopsis: the rapid increase in student mental health issues directly correlated with an equally rapid decrease in a healthy school-life balance. In other words, student achievement has become more important than overall wellbeing, and the price students and families are paying for this imbalance can be devastating.
Another surprising and significant research study Dr. Pope conducted found that which college a child attends has little to no effect on their overall career and life success. The exception to this rule is only for children living in underserved communities, where researchers found that the name of the college did enable these students to gain more and better post-college career opportunities. The New York Times featured an insightful article on “snowplow” parenting, which is exactly what happened when the parents involved in the admissions scandal made the choice to lie and cheat – behavior they would likely never condone in their child – in order to guarantee their child was admitted to a top college that, based on the child’s merit alone, would have not happened.
The Challenge Success white papers and NYTimes article are connected to the college admissions scandal by a common thread: They remind us of the serious consequences that can occur when we parent our children from a place of fear and anxiety. Two of the most common fears are the fear of missing out (FOMO) and the fear my child will experience failure and/or consequences. The parents involved in the college admissions scandal bought into the fallacy that anything less than admission to USC or Stanford for their child would have been, you guessed it, a big failure. But these fears do not suddenly surface when children are preparing for college. Unfortunately, parents’ belief that their children must receive or experience the best of everything in order to be successful in the long term—and never truly experience failure or consequences—as well as their willingness to rationalize the parenting choices they make to guarantee the best for their child, is increasingly commonplace from preschool to post-college.
When parents internalize “fear of missing out” and “fear of my child experiencing failure/consequence”, their parenting choices begin to reflect this skewed mindset, often without realizing they’ve fallen prey to it. It starts with seemingly innocuous choices, such as requesting a different teacher than the one to whom their child is assigned, putting the finishing touches on a science project because their child did not complete it in time, or running missing homework to school “just this once” so their child’s grade doesn’t suffer. Yes, these may be occasional one-offs. But in my 11 years as an independent school administrator, it is more common to see this type of parenting behavior develop into a pattern: requesting specific teachers year after year, over-involvement in their child’s school projects or heavily editing school essays, making their middle school-aged child play sports every day after school to improve his or her competitive advantage for college applications (!), enrolling first graders in Kumon or similar programs to give their child an academic edge over their peers, or debating with a school whether there should be a consequence when their child engages in poor behavior.
The more insidious factor here is how many adults also believe that if they do not provide the absolute best for their child then, well, they’ve failed as parents. But when a child experiences failure or rejection, and if that experience is approached by the adults in their lives – whether they are parents, coaches, teachers, or mentors – with love and understanding rather than fear or anxiety (which can often express itself to a child as anger and disappointment), that child will begin to equate failure not with inadequacy, but with a growth mindset that sees failure as simply another opportunity to learn. Fact: Cultivating a growth mindset, above all else, is one of the greatest indicators of long-term success and happiness in life. Also a fact: Shielding your child from the growth that happens when they experience failure, consequences, or rejection can have the opposite effect.
Rather than parents worrying about ensuring “the best” of everything for their child, I argue the “best” thing parents can actually do for their child’s future success is to teach them not to fear failure. The next “best” thing we can do is not treat it as lip service but model it for them. When was the last time you shared with your child your own experiences with failure, like the time you didn’t ace the big test, score the job you really wanted, bombed the big presentation, or dropped the baton and cost your elite college team the national title? How did you handle difficult moments as a child, and did the adults in your life help you handle them well? Knowing now how important it is for children to develop a resilient mindset about failure, and knowing that this is a tried and true indicator of lifelong success (no matter how you measure it), what would you have done differently? When was the last time you allowed your child to see you not as a responsible adult or parent or teacher, but as a fallible human being who, in spite of your personal experience with failure, turned out pretty okay? If I had to guess, it’s probably been a while.
Here’s the other important piece: there isn’t an independent school out there that expects their parents to do this alone. Even though we place tremendous importance on educating current and prospective families about who we are as a school community and what we believe is best for children, how you approach failure and the development of growth mindsets at home is very personal. Yet, every parent should know that most independent schools believe deeply that students need a positive attitude about failure to nurture a growth mindset and build resilience. This belief is why Dawson became a Challenge Success school, why we are always evaluating homework loads and class schedules, and why we talk with our families and students about the importance of downtime, wellness, and sleep. As important to a child’s overall development is what faculty do each day in the classroom to reframe what it means to fail. At Dawson, this emphasis comes not from intuition or a “we know best” attitude, but from one of the Dawson Core Beliefs that our faculty and staff model on a daily basis: We are a true learning community. Dawson’s faculty and administrators model lifelong learning by investing in educational best practices, advances in technology and relevant world development. In other words, we do our homework, too.
Here’s how this Core Belief (and our research) plays out in the classroom: we use design-thinking principles in almost every subject (try-fail-and-try-again); place more emphasis on building the skills of collaboration, citizenship, and teamwork than on individual achievement; recognize and honor the ways in which each student learns (and therefore, how they also learn to cope); and we are working to improve our message to students that their voices truly matter. We, as adults, need to do a better job of listening and learning from our students because it is vital they feel heard, that their opinions are valued and that they believe they can effect change in their school community. What the sum of all this means is, all of us at Dawson function as both teachers and students, and we are always learning and growing.
The college admissions scandal, which has shone a bright light on the lengths parents will sometimes go to guarantee certain outcomes for their children no matter the consequence, and the ensuing blogs, research articles, and opinion pieces that have followed, all serve as an important reminder that our children’s long-term success in life rests not on removing obstacles for them, but in letting them figure out how to do it themselves. Challenging experiences and the resulting resilience, growth, and confidence that comes from overcoming them are the purest and most honest guarantee of long-term success in life.
As we teach at Dawson, failing is just another word for learning. If independent schools could convince their families to trust this truth and partner with schools to prioritize students’ mental health and wellbeing over their achievements, it may be the closest schools and families can come to guaranteeing both students’ future success and happiness.
But we still have a long way to go. Dr. Denise Pope gave a talk at Dawson a few years ago that covered her research on student school-life balance, shared tools for families to help bring balance to their home life, and tried to debunk the myth that where a child goes to college determines long-term life success and happiness. After her talk, one parent of a fifth-grade student raised her hand and asked, “So, Dr. Pope, this is all great, but if I actually want my child to get into Stanford, what do I need to do?”
Dawson administrators sighed heavily, shrugged our shoulders, and agreed it was business as usual in the private school pressure-cooker.