Our Sick Culture of Competition

Before we roast these college cheating scandal parents on the scapegoat-altar of our media culture…
Before we throw too many self-righteous stones…
And even before we get too high and mighty about the privileged and the wealthy and how they get special treatment (which is all true, of course)…
We must turn a harsh light on our culture as a whole. We must acknowledge that our society has created a deeply sick culture of competition for our children, especially among the children of the upper-middle-class and the wealthy.

This scandal didn’t fall out of the sky. These parents didn’t develop this attitude about competition all by themselves. They soaked up the sick culture of competition all around them, and they pushed that culture to its logical extremes. You can roast them on the altar of self-righteous scapegoating, if you want. But just realize that the problem is far deeper than forty parents and a mastermind. Their actions are the twisted, but somewhat predictable, result of this sick culture of competition.

Somebody asked me yesterday if i thought these parents are now embarrassed and ashamed.

I told them, quite the opposite. I believe, without any doubt, that some of them are simply angry that they got caught and would do it all again. Far from being remorseful, they live deep inside a world view that “everybody cheats,” and that “any parent” in their position —with their finances and privilege — would have done exactly what they did.

This is the “dog-eat-dog” and “winner take all” attitude I see among far too many parents today.

This sick culture of competition, without question, is predominantly a disease of wealth and privilege. It’s a disease that runs rampant among those who already have a lot of social, economic and educational capital.

Said another way, it’s a disease of those born on third base.

By the way, lest you assume I’m being all judgey here, I put *myself* and our family in this category. And many, but certainly not all, of you reading this will be too.

Our daughter attended what is arguably one of the premier public high schools in the nation. There are a bunch of similar schools here in North Texas. She grew up with kids who went to these schools, or the bevy of elite private schools that have popped up alongside of them. The heart of this world is in North Dallas, and our northern suburbs…places of extraordinary social, economic, and educational capital.

We saw this world first-hand, as we sought to raise our child in this environment. Our first stunning insight about this culture was that some parents didn’t see the public schools as “good enough.” Keep in mind, these are, by all measure, *exceptional* public schools.

But, apparently, the weren’t good enough for some parents. They enrolled their children in elite private schools instead. Mind boggling to us, but there you go.

My first clear personal memory of the sick culture of competition came at “kindergarten round-up” That’s the meeting where you meet you child’s kindergarten teacher and principal.

As the meeting began, the literal first words that the principal said were, “Welcome, we are so glad your child is here…and we promise that they will be more than ready for the standardized tests in the third grade…”

We thought, “Wait….THAT’S the first thing you want to tell us? What about recess or play time? What about learning our ABCs?”

It was a telling and revealing moment, and it did not indicate any flaw in that specific principal. It was the CULTURE. It was the driven, sick culture of competition that led her to lead with a worry about competition and achievement to a room full of five-year-old’s parents.

All throughout Maria’s growing up, we saw parents enrolling their children in scads of “activities,” not because they thought they would help their children be more well-rounded, but because they would look good on a college application.

Maria moved up through that elite system…elementary school, junior high, and high school. And our general attitude was: “Our child was born on third base…she’s almost certain to go to college…and from there she will be launched into society in a way that many other children never experience…”

We didn’t worry too much about *which* college, and we knew that her high school was so incredibly super-competitive that she might not make the “top ten percent” that would guarantee her admission to UT or A&M.

Sure enough, she had amazing grades. She had a 94-something overall GPA in high school.

But! As we expected, in that rarified atmosphere a 94-plus GPA was NOT high enough to qualify her for the top ten percent.

Yes, read that over that last sentence another time…

That school is SO super-competitive that a 94 did not get you in the top ten percent. I tell this not out of bitterness, but out of a desire to illustrate the nut of the problem, and that which tends to create this rarified, sick culture of competition.

Instead of taking a truly impressive GPA such as that, and being happy that your child will almost DEFINITELY go to college somewhere, far too many parents push even MORE.

They are *not* satisfied that their children will “launch” well, and land well, at some truly fine American university. That’s not enough in the sick culture of competition.

Instead, they hire private tutors and private coaches to help not only with schoolwork, but also with college admissions themselves. They push those aforementioned “extracurricular activities.”

I am pretty confident that some parents even push their kids to attend a church youth group or campus ministry…not because they are concerned about their child’s spiritual life, but because they believe it will look good on a college application.

It’s from this hyperdriven culture soup that the sick culture of competition grows. And like the frog in the pot, those who live inside of it gradually assume that “every parent does this…”

Which is not true, of course. But IS true in that rarified atmosphere.

We haven’t even talked about the affects of all this on the children and parents of the poor and middle class. They look at scandals like this, and I assure you they are NOT surprised. It reaffirms the belief that the game is fixed, that the playing field is not level, and that we do NOT live in a “meritocracy.”

Which is all horribly true, of course. Scandals like this just rip that bandaid off, and expose the privilege that those among the upper-middle-class and wealthy still have today.

And what is the actually POINT of all of this sick competitive culture, anyway?
Does anybody ever stop to ask that question?

I mean, it can’t be to launch healthy kids. It can’t be to insure that your kid does well in college. Because, if you cheat to get there, then what? What do they do on that first day when Mom and Dad aren’t around any more?

This is the logical conclusion that apparently far too few parents think about.

Because, eventually, Mom and Dad *won’t* be there to clean up every mess. These kids are actually LESS ready for college that previous generations….because they haven’t learned to fail…they haven’t learned to experiment and dream. They have been regimented and scheduled during each and every waking hour of their lives.

They don’t know how to THINK for themselves. They don’t know how to REASON.

I remember hearing that Dr. Gerald Turner, the President of SMU, has talked about this very thing over the past few years. He says that these current students applying for school have some of the most impressive resumes ever, and yet on average they are “least college ready” the university has ever seen.

All colleges know that, in case you were not aware. This is a system-wide crisis in higher education. Universities know that this sick culture of competition is NOT really preparing kids to excel in college…it’s just trying to get them in the door.

Dr. Turner told us once that the old expression “Helicopter Parent” no longer applies. Now, the joke is, they are “Lawnmower Parents.”

They operate that close to the ground.

He said a generation ago it was common to have parents call the administration offices to complain about their child’s treatment. Now —perhaps more than once— the first call is not from a *parent,* but from the family’s *lawyer.*

Again, to what end?

What do these parents —what do we— believe the actually END GAME is, here? If you are protecting, coddling, and sheltering your child all along their educational path, how do you expect them to actually grow?

Think about, as one horrible example, these kids in the cheating scandal. It seems to me they awoke to two horrible lessons this morning:

1. “I never deserved to be at this college.”
2. “My parents never believed in my ability.”

How is THAT good for a child?!!

Life is full of disappointment and failure. Or, it should be. That’s how we grow. We learn the most when we have to resist against obstacles and overcome them. In the case of college, the best students learn to think for themselves, reason for themselves, and formulate their own opinions.

And if parents are constantly moving ALL obstacles out of the way…and making the path super straight and easy….the result will not be super-successful children, but culturally diseased ones. Children unable to really operate in the real world.

And how is THAT a good goal?

I keep going back to what Jesus might say about all of this…

“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life,” Jesus says, “what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?”

“If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?”

You see, I believe that one of the tragic underbellies of all of this is that it indicates a fundamental lack of faith in God’s goodness, grace and mercy.

We create our sick culture of competition because we fail to believe that God will provide all we need. We believe we must do it all ourselves, and that if don’t, nobody else will. And we believe everybody ELSE believes this way too. WE believe the world is a harsh, dog-eat-dog place. We believe the unless our children are a the “top of the pile” their lives will be somehow ruins.

And while we may criticize the parents who cheated in this scandal, we should probably take a look at the logs in our OWN eyes…the logs of fear, competition, and mistrust that drive far too many of us every day, even if we never overtly “cheat.”

Many of you reading this have children who were born on third base. But you can’t see that, because you’re always so worried about the future, and what’s in front of you. You never stop to look around and see just how good you already have it.

So, take a breath. Consider the lilies.

Trust that your child will have a wonderful life. Don’t miss their life *now* by over-scheduling the few precious years you have left with them.

Let them fail. Let them learn how to deal with disappointments. That’s how they’ll get strong. Remind them that their own hard work will help them achieve their dreams, and that social status and achievement is ephermal and unstable.

And, above all, don’t worry so much.

Your kid will be fine.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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