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When Did Good Parenting Become a Problem?

Donna was behind the bar. "Hey, good to see you," I said, as I sat down. "How you doing?"

"Not so well," she said. "I've been feeling guilty as all get-out."

"Why's that?" I asked.

"It's this college admissions scandal thing," she said, crumpling up a dirty napkin.

"Yeah, it's nauseating," I said. "But why would you be feeling guilty?"

"Well," she said, "you know that I play NPR during the day when it's slow in here. And all their hosts and guests have helped me understand how the whole scandal is really a window into systemic inequality and my role in it. I mean, we bought a house specifically so our kids would attend good schools. We've paid for tutors when the kids struggle. We've sent our kids to camp."

"Okay," I said. "But why should felonious conduct by sleazebags and inept college admissions staff have you feeling guilty about any of that?"

She shook her head. "You're not connecting the dots. It's about privilege. Sure, we can tell ourselves that we pinched pennies to pay for things, but that's part of the problem. I understand now that that mindset is how we justify a rigged system, even as we're unfairly giving our kids opportunities and support that other kids don't get."

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "You've told me that you guys don't take vacations other than to visit family. That you tend here full-time and drive Lyft on the side. That your dad worked auto assembly his whole life. I think the real problem is that they've got you thinking that making sacrifices to be a parent and a provider is a problem! What do they want you to do—spend everything on iPhones and microbrews instead?!"

"Oh, lord," she said. "You sound just like one of those right-wingers they were talking about. They explained that your kind of reasoning is mostly an excuse to turn a blind eye to structural inequities. The real story here isn't a little bribery, it's America's shameful culture of privileged parents assisting our kids."

"I don't get it," I said, my hands starting to wave madly. "We're talking about a bunch of rich people working with sleazy middlemen to engage in felonious conduct, and college staff that were either on the take or asleep at the switch. How do these hucksters get you feeling like responsible parenting is the real problem?"

She just shook her head at me. "I hear you. I do. It's pleasant to think that way," she said. "It lets us feel virtuous about our advantages. But when I hear about these parents who hired someone to falsify their kid's bio or cheat on their tests, it reminds me of all the times that I've assisted my kids with homework. I think of how we sent our high schooler to computer camp—totally hoping it would help when she applied to college. I am part of the problem."

By now my hands were hopping about with a life of their own. "What would they have you do?" I asked. "Of course, you should help your kids. Of course, you should send your kid to computer camp. This is why parents work and save. This is what prods us to be better, more responsible people. These loons have got you thinking that the most human and admirable of impulses is suspect. That's not learned. That's inane."

She just looked at me as if I were the world's biggest dope.

"Look," I said, "I get that there are structural problems. I do. If you tell me it's a good idea to let students choose schools, so that school assignment isn't dictated by neighborhood, I'm there. If someone has sensible ideas for providing more opportunities to kids who need them, I'm totally open to it. I'm all for pushing colleges to abolish legacy admissions and to stop hooking up the kids of big donors. But I don't get how this scandal turned into an excuse to beat up on responsible parenting."

"Well," she said gently, "I think the problem may be that you're behind the times."

I nodded. "You're probably right. At least according to the NPR crowd," I sighed. 

"And those guys are wicked smart," she observed, as she turned to greet the next customer.

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