Review and Commentary on What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know): 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kids into the Top Schools, by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross
I seldom have the urge to hurl a book across the room (anything that’s “magical realism” comes to mind) but recently I’ve read one that I want to hurl directly at its author’s head. It’s one of the most repulsive books related to college admission I’ve ever read, and its author, Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, proud of having essentially manufactured her two sons’ lives and (supposedly) their entry into Ivy League colleges, comes across as a monstrous harridan unafraid of inserting herself into any and all aspects of children’s lives in order to get the results she wants out of them. She makes the idea of the “helicopter parent” seem benign; she’s more like Victor Frankenstein, assembling her (and others’) kids into “perfect” specimens out of freshly dead but highly desirable body parts. Although there’s some decent boilerplate advice about college admission in the second half of the book, this is really a child-rearing primer for parents who think we’re in a Hobbesian war of all against all. They’re the kind who will hold their child back from kindergarten so that when he finally gets there he’ll be bigger and faster and (maybe) smarter than the others, casting his shadow over the weaklings and winning every race.
Wissner-Gross has no real interest in anything but making sure the kids she works with get ahead of everyone else’s, a premise she demonstrates by an insane overinvolvement in her own children’s lives. Ridiculing the idea that high school students applying to college can be thought of as independent beings, she insists that parents must be “cheerleaders” and “team captains” for their children in order to get them into the best colleges and, by extension, “success.” Early on she writes, “If you want to help manage your kids’ education, you need to have an understanding of what your children are up against in the greater world. Who are the students competing against your son or daughter for a spot in their dream college?” Only by carefully crafting a master(race) child, she says, can you ensure your success as a parent. Your child’s success depends on how much you as the parent are willing to do for him or her. Wissner-Gross does everything but suggest hiring a hit man to eliminate the poor saps in Junior’s way.
The book’s basic premise is that parents must take charge of every aspect of their children’s lives in order to get them into a top college, which is the sine qua non of the rest of one’s life. It is their responsibility to do everything for their children, from monitoring their grades to getting them “interests” to putting them into every “educational” situation possible (this includes having their birthday parties at science museums if they show an interest in science). There is no ambiguity about this tenet; it appears many times throughout the book. In her first chapter, “The Shoo-In Kid,” she writes,
“The vast majority of parents of successful students [i.e.,
those at most-competitive colleges] can take credit for helping
their kids get into the school of their choice, often investing
hours to do so.” (p.2)
All well and good, but Wissner-Gross isn’t talking about parents who have lovingly and supportively reared their children to value education, learning and maturity by reading to them, enjoying their company, talking and singing with them, encouraging to try new things and teaching them to value others. Far from it. In fact, she finds those qualities to be impediments to getting into college, setting the stage by insisting that a child can’t do anything on his own:
“…not all parents are equally capable of helping….Others claim
to want to encourage independence (which is not achieved, I should
emphasize, by ignoring a child’s needs)….[B]ut don’t be fooled
into thinking that some of the most successful kids just make it on
their own. Very, very few do nowadays—no matter how independent
their parents claim they are. Your extremely competent, deserving
high school student needs your help.” (p.3)
For Wissner-Gross, a child’s “independence” is bunk and a child’s “needs” are infinite; parents must take charge of everything from developing opportunities outside of school for their children to exploit to pre-screening recommendations when the college process finally gets into full swing. Other qualities like “sportsmanship” also fall by the wayside in the process of clawing one’s way to the top: Secret 25 is “Create out-of-school opportunities for your children, and don’t teach your children to accept positions that are not challenging or interesting.” She says that your child shouldn’t take anything less than he or she (or you, the parent) thinks she deserves: “While that may sound like you’re teaching her good sportsmanship, patience, or values, this is a case where ‘nice guys finish last.’ Instead of teaching a child patience, teach your child the importance of not wasting time, a most precious commodity.”
Part of the horror of this book is that it actually encourages parents not only to rear their children as if they were manufactured objects but also to do everything for them, no matter how “competent” their children may appear. (One would think having a “competent” child would obviate this need, but that doesn’t occur to Wissner-Gross.) To Wissner-Gross, parents who strive to teach their children values like independence, patience, and good sportsmanship are chumps: “Parents who accept this line of thinking generally have children who are less successful at getting into more competitive colleges. More-involved parents tend to have more success.” (p. 3) And by “more involved” she means everything from forcing children to audition for the New York City Opera (which she did with her own two boys) to, well, everything else: “The best resumes don’t just happen–they’re carefully planned. When should you start planning? Now….[Y]ou, the parent, should figure out the opportunities. You’re the chief scout. Find that audition, science class, rocketry camp, or architecture competition. Inspire multiple interests and expose your child to multiple fields. The younger the child is when you start, the greater the resume and the more opportunities that will become available.” (p. 4)
This book is a child-rearing manual written by an unreconstructed eugenicist with the moral values of Kenneth Lay. Only the end result is important; only “success” is valued, and that success is as much the parents’ as the child’s. And only “top” colleges will ensure this result. In this book the child is merely an extension of the parents’ goals and desires. In Secret 50, Wissner-Gross writes, “You’re a team. If your child gets a C, then you get a C as a parent. Invest yourself in this process.” Secret 66 is: “Successful parents participate in homework–even in high school and even for (especially for) the most successful students.” Secret 20 suggests that “The most successful parents are those who treat their kids’ high school as a supplement to the home-school curriculum…” And if your child isn’t good enough, you can always re-engineer her: When a student just misses a college “cutoff” for admission, “Jessica and her parents reinvented Jessica as a caring, energetic social activist. Her mother arranged for the girl to play violin at local charity events. Jessica performed at fund-raisers for cancer research, hospitals, and disaster relief.”
It would be nice if this were the worst of the book’s egregiousness, but such is not the case by a long shot. Parents should never leave anything to chance, so Wissner- Gross suggests that they closely monitor teachers’ grading “rubrics” and challenge anything they see as wrong: “If your child is not earning the desired grades, you should take it personally.” Secret 71 recommends that parents encourage their kids to drop courses they find too hard: “Colleges are not impressed with kids who ‘tough it out’ in courses in which they’re not doing well…You may think this shows character. It doesn’t. It shows bad judgment.” Learning be damned, we need to get you to Ivy U., sweetheart! Secret 101 suggests that parents have their children “take standardized tests annually, starting in sixth or seventh grade for practice…” Continually and proudly, Wissner-Gross describes how to form your child like a bonsai tree, ceaselessly pruning and fertilizing it to get a perfect form.
No time period is to be left fallow. Secret 27 is “Summer is your child’s chance to win the edge, to beat the competition.” She demands that parents seek out “enrichment” so that “by fall, your son or daughter [will] possess an entirely new repertoire of abilities. Anything else is a waste….Don’t let your children waste their summers ‘hanging out.'” And there’s more: “Before the summer, you and your children should set goals. What would your son like to gain by the end of summer? What will he get to add to the resume? Design your daughter’s summer so that her days are crammed with activities and creativity.” God forbid he or she should have a chance to breathe under the never-blinking Gorgon’s eye.
Once the child has been twisted into submission, the actual application process begins. Normally, one would assume that it is the child’s responsibility to do the research, write the essays, and fill out the applications. Again, according to Wissner-Gross, one would be wrong. Letting your child do things himself is for losers. Having gotten your child the best grades and positioned him for his shot at the Ivies, you the parent now must spend every waking minute with him to ensure that everything gets done. You should stay up when he does to do homework, take SAT practice tests when he does, and compare notes about what the tests are like. Chapter 7 is called “How You Can Help with the Application Forms,” which practically tells you all you need to know about what Wissner-Gross’s advice will be. Secret 171? “Before approaching your son to write his essays, make a written list of some of the events in his life that you think might merit a particularly interesting story.” Then, “Tell your daughter that you did some brainstorming to make the application process easier, and these were the best ideas you could come up with.” The message: Don’t take a chance that your child might write some crappy thing that would be appropriate but not up to your standards or expectations. After all, your reputation is on the line, too.
It’s futile to continue this tirade because there’s so much to loathe in this book. In its portrait of raw ambition and Darwinian struggle to survive, it turns almost everything most people value about child rearing on its head, all for the sake of getting into “the Top Schools.” Every non-essential element is shorn away: delight, pleasure, investigation, serendipity, curiosity, even the capacity to make mistakes and perhaps learn from them. It is the ugliest manifestation of top-college mania I have yet encountered. It sent me back to Marilee Jones’s and Kenneth Ginsburg’s book, Less Stress, More Success, which takes a totally opposite view of rearing children and approaching the college process. They write in the Introduction: “When overly involved parents take charge and increase the pressure, they send their kids the message that they aren’t capable or independent. The consequences are clear: Young people are disempowered and lose out on opportunities to learn to trust their own instincts and abilities. Parents unwittingly deprive them of a chance to grow up, take chances, perhaps fail at a few things, and learn to deal with adversity and bounce back.” (p. xiv) A little later they write, “As long as we focus only on a short-range goal (college admission), we undermine the real goal: creating a generation of young people who will thrive and be prepared to live productive, joyful, and satisfying adult lives. This is true success.” (p. xvii)
Reading Jones and Ginsburg after Wissner-Gross is like taking a vacation in northern Wisconsin after fifteen years in a steel mill. But there is a clear choice for parents: They can manage and control their children to within an inch of their lives, grooming them for the “best,” or they can let them be themselves with a healthy dose of loving guidance in preparation for a future on their own. I don’t think it takes too much thinking to know which one is the better way.