Parents in the college admissions scandal cheated their kids out of learning grit

There’s an upside to failure.

Bad test results can teach us valuable lessons. The parents implicated in the largest alleged college-admissions conspiracy federal prosecutors had ever encountered were shielding their children from developing vital qualities like grit and resilience, experts say.

Prosecutors on Tuesday charged 50 parents, college coaches and college-exam administrators in connection with a nationwide scam alleged to have involved cheating on college-entrance exams and falsely passing off students as athletic recruits. “Full House” alumna Lori Loughlin, her fashion-designer husband Mossimo Giannulli and “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman were among those accused of being involved.

‘Success is determined by your perseverance, your resilience and your grit.’

— Linda Kaplan Thaler, co-author of ‘Grit to Great’

The wealthy parents entangled were obviously trying to give their kids a leg up in life, according to Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of “Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem” and a psychologist in private practice. “They are also painting a very narrow view of what success looks like and modeling a morally bankrupt attitude that it’s OK to lie and cheat to get what you want.”

“But, especially now that the scam is public, the message that they’re sending their kids is, ‘I don’t have faith that you are capable of succeeding based on your own skills and hard work, and I don’t believe you’re strong enough to cope with disappointment,’” she said.

The alleged scheme, which has spurred much discussion about privilege and inequality in higher education, also presents an opportunity to “enlighten parents and kids that success is not determined by the college that you attend,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, co-author of “Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary.”

She told MarketWatch: “Success is determined by your perseverance, your resilience and your grit.”

Students with more grit are more likely to show higher levels of self-control, resilience, growth mind-set, mental well-being and life satisfaction, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Psychology review of three studies of grit in university students.

Experts cite Steve Jobs’ low high-school GPA and Steven Spielberg’s initial film-school rejections as examples of how hard work leads to success.

Thaler and her co-author, Robin Koval, define grit by the acronym “guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity,” contending that this overall trait is many people’s secret to success. They cite the late Apple AAPL, +1.11%   founder Steve Jobs’ low high-school GPA and Steven Spielberg’s initial film-school rejections as examples of how hard work can be more important to success than innate ability or talent.

“The message being sent to these children is, ‘You don’t have to do a thing,’” Thaler said.

Kennedy-Moore says that kids don’t learn from failure, but they do learn from picking themselves up after failure “by tolerating the disappointment, moving on, trying again, or perhaps focusing on different goals,” she said.

Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Raising Resilient Children,” agrees. “They’re not permitting their kids to learn how to deal with setbacks and obstacles, or how to cope with stress,” he told MarketWatch. “All kids are going to face obstacles and disappointments, and if they learn to cope with it, that only makes them stronger.”

A 2015 Harris Poll survey of more than 1,500 first-year U.S. college students found that those who said they felt less emotionally prepared for college were more likely to report their college experience as “terrible/poor” and have a lower average GPA. (Emotional preparedness was defined as “the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, control negative emotions or behavior and build positive relationships.”)

‘All kids are going to face obstacles and disappointments, and if they learn to cope with it, that only makes them stronger.’

—Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist and author of “Raising Resilient Children”

Meanwhile, Caroline Adams Miller, a positive psychology coach and author of the book “Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose,” argues there are positive and negative types of grit. The parents implicated in the scandal, she says, are “a textbook case” of what she calls “faux grit.” That is, they’re pretending to have accomplished something difficult, but faking achievements or taking shortcuts in the process. Examples include cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping disgrace and Volkswagen’s VW, +1.12%   emissions scandal, she said.

The long-term consequences of handing your kids everything and helping to rig the system in their favor include self-entitlement, heightened “tension with the universe” and less wisdom, said David Palmiter, a professor of psychology at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. That formula can put kids at greater risk of conditions like substance abuse, eating disorders and depression, he said.

“The values that we pass on of hard work, perseverance and integrity are the most important legacy we can pass onto our children — far bigger than a bank account or a bogus SAT score to get you into an Ivy League school,” Thaler added.

Here’s how to foster greater grit, resilience and well-being in your kids, according to experts:

Have them make their bed in the morning. “Making your bed in the morning teaches you to do a task in the beginning of your day successfully and to completion, so that you start each day knowing, ‘I’ve done something,’” Thaler said. “Though it seems like a laughable thing to do, it has helped an enormous amount of kids and adults to start that day by doing a small task well done.”

Let them be bored. “When you are bored and you don’t have the opportunity to go to your phone and look at stupid cats on YouTube GOOG, -0.65% what happens? The mind ideates; the mind makes connections,” Thaler said. “When we allow ourselves to be bored, we force our brains to start thinking in non-linear patterns.”

Encourage them to choose “hard goals,” not mediocre ones. “When you’re constantly picking easy goals or no goals or just being reactive to life, you don’t end up having a score card that says, ‘I can do hard things,’” Miller said.

Keep them humble. Gritty people have both social humility and intellectual humility, Miller said. “Social humility has honesty, thoughtfulness, maturity and unselfishness at its core,” she writes in her book, “while intellectual humility is made up of curiosity, a willingness to learn from others, and an openness to new ideas.”

Get some perspective. “Getting into a fancy college is exciting and potentially a great opportunity, but it certainly isn’t a necessary or sufficient path to happiness and well-being. External accolades can’t build real self-esteem. People who buy into that myth are on a constant treadmill of having to prove their worth,” Kennedy-Moore said.

Never stop learning. “We need to help our kids move beyond that by helping them focus on learning and developing genuine competence, building those intimate relationships where they feel known and valued, and making choices that express their values and connect them with something bigger than themselves,” she added.

Consider what actually makes your kids happy, Palmiter said. “What truly produces joy and meaning?” he said. It might be spending time with family or friends, living a simple life within your means or traveling the world on a budget and working odd jobs. “That’s a much better research task than the rankings of U.S. News and World Report.”

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