Was the College Admissions Scandal Fueled by Narcissism… or Ignorance?

To see if we can glean some understanding about how this mess even happened, therapist Tasha Jackson takes a deep dive into the psychology behind the college admissions scandal.

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Learning about the school bribery scandal—most people, myself included—experienced a little bit of schadenfreude, right? I mean, come on; it’s oddly satisfying to see wealthy and powerful cheaters (who seem to “have it all”) get busted for their misdeeds. I doubt we’d feel the same way if the families in question were not filthy rich.

But with wealthy, entitled people? It feels like justice is being served.

It would be easy to sit back, enjoy the Robin Hood-ness of it, and just roll our eyes at the whole thing. However, social media has given millions of people an outlet to vent their outrage, which people are doing. But rather than simply flaming these people online and washing your hands of the whole thing, I’d like to dive deeper into the psychology behind this scandal to see if we can glean some understanding about how this mess even happened.

Of course, caveat time: this is broad spectrum speculation. I’m not diagnosing anybody with anything. It’s all hypothetical.

The Parents Lack Of Self-Growth Hurt Their Own Children

No one is disputing that the accused parents royally messed up. They did, so I’m not making excuses for them. Considering how the privileged elite in this country (Hollywood celebrities, especially) love to project an image of “having it all together 24/7,” if you were able to pierce that thin veneer of confidence, you might find some of these parents likely have their own mental health issues, which (partly) resulted in their involvement in this illegal scheme.

With the parents, it may be their lack of healing from their own childhood wounds, that created lifelong insecurity, which drove them to involve their kids in this illegal racket. Perhaps they didn’t want their children to repeat the cycle of not having a good degree, which could’ve been spawned from personal insecurity of not having an elite education themselves (or no education at all)?

The parents who are wrapped up in this bribery scandal clearly lacked the ability to differentiate their successes with their children’s successes—which often is a reflection of their own identity flaws. All of these reasons could’ve affected their parenting ability because, generally speaking, the better the mental health of the parents, the better the parenting.

In the book, Parenting from the Inside Out, child psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and early childhood expert Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., wrote, “With a deeper understanding of our own life stories, we can help raise compassionate and resilient children.” So, somewhere along the way, these celebrity parents involved in this scandal, probably have not dealt with their own “baggage?”

“Generally speaking, the better the mental health of the parents, the better the parenting.”

Perhaps, these parents simply lack the self-awareness about their own life stories, which resulted in:

  • A lack of attunement with their kids, which prevented them from giving them age-appropriate autonomy.
  • Passing down poor values about their self-worth and what achievements they value in their own children.
  • An inability to give their kids the “gift of failure” by allowing them to sink or swim on their own merits when submitting to college.

Not to mention, they cast a long, shameful shadow on their kid’s lives, at least for the near future, until our media cycle forgets all about them, and moves on to the next scandal. But who knows how long that will take? Will these kids be shamed on campus, no matter where they end up now? Probably at least to some degree.

Why Go Illegal When You Could Just Go Unethical?

Now, I realize that few people with kids (like me) are hitting our heads on the top of Maslow’s pyramid as fully actualized “perfect parents.”

It’s very hard to raise a healthy child without screwing them up so, I don’t want to sit here lobbing firebombs at these shamed parents, but I have to ask—Why the heck didn’t they just use the legal bribery route, and buy a freaking library for the University to get their kids into school? That’s what many rich people do.

Now, I realize some people donate generous amounts to universities and don’t ask for anything in return. But let’s be real: a lot of parents donate money to their Alma Mater in hopes of receiving favors back from the university. Depending on the donor’s intentions, they might be crossing an ethical line by simply following this well-worn path. But it’s still “legal.” So, if the legal bribery route was not good enough, clearly the lack of integrity ran deep in these parents.

“But, I’m Special, That’s Why!”

I’d like to believe the parents naïveté about the process kept them in the dark when it came to the dirty details. Maybe they didn’t grasp how kids with zero athletic careers could possibly receive lucrative athletic entrance to these universities without all the faking of documents, the Photoshopping, the test proctors, the falsifying of applications, and so on. Is it possible they were told by the ringleader of this scandal, “This is just the way things are done?” That is a big ask; I’m not sure any of us are buying it.

I also can’t deny this scandal reeks of pathological narcissism, and the sense of entitlement that grows so powerful that you feel you are so special, that you are literally above the law.

Not to mention, how these parents’ actions superficially values the (paid for) achievement of getting their kid into an elite school, while not thinking about all of the other children who were passed over, just to keep up the false image projection that makes their (let’s just call them somewhat average) kid seem extraordinary.

And are we as a society feeding into their narcissism?

“Narcissism is a popular mask to hide behind when you have deep inner insecurity.”

Narcissism is a popular mask to hide behind when you have deep inner insecurity, and these parents clearly fit that bill, while also clearly guzzling their own P.R Kool-Aid. They probably still are. Old pathologies die hard.

Who Are The Real the Victims?

Obviously, the biggest victims in this story are the (aforementioned) hard-working, intelligent children who were passed over for university admittance because privileged parents bribed their children into school.

For every rich parent who paid their kid’s way onto campus, there is a lost opportunity for another child, and their family, to get a leg up by getting educated in what they thought was a merit-based institution. That is inexcusable and rightly worth our scorn.

Now, I may be in the minority, but I also see the rich children as victims too. Strip away your preconceived notions of privilege for a moment, and these kids were unknowingly subjected to poor ethical role modeling while being emotionally isolated from their parents, and now likely, are dealing with a profound mistrust of the people they are supposed to trust the most. And it’s a really sad message to send to your kids, that they need extra help to get into college because they alone are not good enough.

These actions seem to validate Dr. Madeline Levine’s (author of The Price of Privilege) theory that states, “There is an inverse relationship between parental income, and the closeness between children and parents…people assume the wealthy have the resources to take care of themselves, (but) two key indicators of dysfunction are achievement pressure, and emotional isolation from parents….so (for these families) external accomplishments become more important than happiness, or human agency.”

What kid ethically thrives in this dynamic? I would wager not many.

But Are the Rich Kids Really to Blame?

Of course, many of the outraged, seem to disagree with me. From what I’ve read, the prevailing sentiment is the rich kids are just as bad as their parents. The argument I’ve heard is the kids should have known better.

But they are just kids.

“It’s likely that the kids just adapted to the toxic environment created by their parents.”

And kids tend to repeat the belief system and life patterns of their parents, so this is probably not the first time they have heard the “I am special” script. They’ve likely heard it their entire lives. Perhaps, they had to bribe their way into preschool, elementary school, and possibly high school, too?

So, it’s likely that the kids just adapted to the toxic environment created by their parents. Sure, they made the mistake of trusting their parents’ guidance, but how would a kid know their parents were way out of line if that was all they knew?

Are There Any Healthy Take-aways?

We can’t deny that the Ivy League school education and the networking it provides, can potentially open big doors for college kids. Yet, I know C-level executives who, off the record, tell me they try not to hire kids from elite universities. They actually prefer hiring people from B level schools, why? They believe, these kids “have stronger work ethics, better critical thinking skills, and (most importantly) a lack of entitlement.”

Additionally, Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, points to the many benefits of being a “big fish in a small pond.” So, for all the non-rich qualified kids who were passed up by these universities, perhaps we can take some solace that, in the real world, a sense of entitlement will eventually catch up with you.

For all of us parents who will have our kids in college one day, I hope we can move on from our schadenfreude to come to a level of understanding about what drove this scandal, so we can make sure it never happens again. And just like in all matters of life, compassion and togetherness is a choice. What do you choose?  

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