The Civic Cost of Adolescent Immunity

The college admissions scandal is a reflection of a broader problem

Posted May 13, 2019

The headlines for the college admissions scandal feature notable parents using wealth and social clout to secure their children’s admission to elite institutions of higher learning. Our indignation turns to blame of those privileged parents who violated the law and an underlying moral code. However, the bad mother and greedy father are just tips of the huge iceberg that hide a deeper problem. The cheaters who were caught represent a larger group of parents who in wanting to pave their offsprings’ path to the future are robbing their sons and daughters of the psychological boot camp of adolescence.  Across time and cultures, adolescence is a time of hard work, uncertainty, tension, negative feedback, experimentation, and emotional lability—all in the service of maturing and discovering one’s fit in society. By trying to circumvent this crucible moment in life, these parents purchased glittering credentials for their teenagers at the cost of opportunities for self-development and subsequent experientially-based lives.

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Parents want the best for their children, but they can go too far
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If only the feckless few in the headlines were at stake, we would not be making this comment. But it seems a large segment of contemporary parents is engaged in the enterprise of short-circuiting the vicissitudes of psychological adolescence. Using data over a 45-year span on thousands of high school seniors per year, Jean Twenge reported that standard markers of adolescent development have undergone a remarkable delay. Working part-time, obtaining a driver’s license, drinking alcohol, even going on a date, have all been delayed or forestalled. Instead of occurring at, say, age 16 or 17, these markers have been pushed back to age 18 or older. Sociologists who verify this shift suggest that competition for college admissions is a major culprit. Instead of having their adolescents work part-time as they did 30 years, many parents enroll them in SAT/ACT tutorial sessions and in programs that cultivate specialized talent meant to enhance a college application.

Service is another of these credential-building diversions. We know that regular stints at a soup kitchen or year-long tutoring children enrolled in low-performing schools can bring about insights on who one is in relation to society, one’s moral obligation to others, or one’s civic responsibilities. But arranged service trips that are designed to catch the eye of college admissions staff seem more like stunts whose momentary value is much like the good feeling one gets after visiting a museum. Evidence is clear that for service to have a developmental impact, it needs to be persistent and force individuals to come to grips with the realities of the lives of the people being served.

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Community service can shape civic identity
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One often reads that, whereas young voters clearly favored Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, too few of them voted to make a difference. Indeed, in all five presidential elections held in the 21st century, the lowest turnout of any age group occurred for the Millennials, ages 18- 29.  This fact has aroused scholars to consider ways of improving civic education and finding effective ways to promote youth’s civic and political engagement (see our book Renewing Democracy in Young America). An overlooked factor that the admissions scandal brings to light is the role that contemporary parenting may play. Insofar as parents have focused their adolescents on college as the key to the good life, they have overlooked the importance of adolescence as a critical period in which citizens identity is formed. By sheltering youth from the vagaries of adolescence, parents may be forfeiting their children’s right to form their own identities as political agents. Not only is the growth that comes from the uncertainty of adolescence lost, but so is the potential for democratic renewal that each new generation of enthused citizens can bring.