March 28, 2019, was Ivy Day, the day that Ivy League schools announced their acceptances and rejections for the 2019-20 academic year. As an elementary school head, I was not aware of that. But someone shared a letter with me last week, written by Aviva Walls, dean of academic affairs and college counseling (a poignant title) at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. You know the story she is referring to but you might not expect her angle. And while Westchester Day School (WDS) is not a high school, the message certainly applies to elementary schools as well, and not only because the last two lines of Aviva’s letter are very similar to what WDS administrators say to 8th graders at the end of their mock high school interviews. We - the partnership that is parents and educators - must start preaching and living this message from our children’s earliest moments. By the time the 12th grade rolls around, it’s much harder to learn. Aviva wrote:
Dear Parents and Students,
There seems to be a cycle to the way the media covers college admissions and the frenzy of selectivity and decisions. I’ve come to expect the article in March or April that discusses how awful and flawed applying to college is. The ones that say it’s too hard, it’s too competitive, no one gets in, it’s all pointless. That we need to protect our children from this plight.
And then this year happened. Even a week later, the vast conspiracy of bribery and deceit, racketeering and indictments is alarming. It would be easy to show disdain, even contempt for the individuals involved. It may have even been my first, internal reaction, but that thawed into empathy. I understand why parents would want to shield their children from disappointment and anxiety and why they might think the “right” college is the ticket to future success and happiness. In the Jewish community, we often express our love by caring for a child’s education.
The reality is, as Jonathan Haidt describes in The Coddling of the American Mind, that what we think is protection, can actually be harmful to children. That clearing the paths ahead can instead cripple growth. So while I understand the (misguided) impulses of these parents, I turned my empathy to the teens involved, the children of those who’ve been arrested and all that that’s been stolen from them. Yes, they earned a seat in the college of their choice, but something far greater has been sacrificed.
If your 17-year-old doesn’t learn to manage the anxiety of waiting for a college decision, how will they learn to manage the stress of applying for a job, or going on a date or starting a new business? If we try to guarantee outcomes, how will our children learn to strive and learn from the vulnerability of failure and disappointment? When we write personal essays for them, we deny them the opportunity to voice their own stories and define their futures. In attempting to cheat the system, I worry that the underlying message is, “you are not enough” and in trying to avoid disappointment or anxiety, perhaps is the notion that “you can’t handle this.”
However, deep in the roots of this scandal is the assumption that a particular college will be the ticket to a beautiful future and who wouldn’t want to provide that to our children? Both our experiences and the data prove this isn’t true. We all know people who have achieved great success in their lives without a degree from a highly selective institution. We know others who have graduated from institutions with Ivy-covered walls and struggle. The Director of Admission at UCLA, Gary Clark, often notes that there are two names on a college diploma, yours and the school’s. The habits, character and strengths embodied by that student are just as, if not more, important than the opportunities that the university provides.
In the next few days and weeks, our seniors will begin hearing decisions from colleges. Inevitably, some of those decisions will be congratulatory and some will offer words of explanation as to the number of applicants and the scarcity of space in the freshman class. What I know from experience is that where a student is admitted does not determine the core of who they are. Nor is a student’s value as a human being reflected in a letter of rejection. It is absolutely hard to remember that when logging into an admissions portal or opening an envelope.
And so I say to our seniors:
You are enough just as you are. I hope the college of your dreams recognizes that, but if they don’t, I guarantee you, it’s their loss.
Dean of Academic Affairs
It is never too early to tell our children that they are enough just as they are. It doesn’t mean pulling back from trying to help our children reach their potential. But it does mean emphasizing our priorities with our actions rather than just our words. It means letting our children fall and fail and helping them through the process of getting up. As adults, we experience that daily. The sooner we let our children experience it, the sooner they will be on the path of reaching their potential.
We should all be asking ourselves every day: Did I communicate to my child today that they are enough just as they are? If yes, great. If not, how will I do it tomorrow?
By Rabbi Joshua Lookstein
Rabbi Joshua Lookstein is head of school at Westchester Day School.