Stretching the Boundaries of Parental Ethics

by Colette Moran

New York Magazine ran this article last week looking at the myriad ways parents breach ethical standards to get their children ahead in life. All I can say is I’m thoroughly depressed by the idea that my children are competing with the children of parents like the ones described in the story.

Sure, we’ve all helped our kids a bit too much when they had a tough assignment. And getting our child an internship at a buddy’s workplace or coaching our kids’ teams so they can get more playing time isn’t really unethical, right?

But check out these examples that the article presents as commonplace:

They’ll fake recommendation letters; they’ll neutralize their child’s competition for a spot on the hockey team by whispering something about someone’s alcohol use; and they’ll administer the occasional misbegotten tablet of Adderall. The ­ultimate litmus test in New York City is this one: How many good people do you know who have lied about their address to get their kids into the better public school?

While one expert describes the tendency to use unethical methods to help our kids as an addiction, another points out this paradox:

“It’s the opposite of the free-rider problem,” the Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz explains: If everybody recycles, then you can be the one person who doesn’t, and you still benefit from all the recycling that goes on. But if everybody is occupied full time making sure their kid wins and other kids lose, then taking the high road doesn’t serve you at all. “It’s a corrupt system, and your opting out won’t change it. You gain nothing, and you lose a lot.”

Hmm. Nothing to gain except self-respect, and teaching your child a lesson in integrity. Do we really want something that requires us to compromise our values? Can’t we still choose honesty, even if it means allowing the unscrupulous to get ahead?

The article also points out the obvious — that parents often find themselves preaching “do as I say, not as I do” despite their best intentions.

Of course, there are serious consequences to parents’s cheating to help their children; children don’t learn to fend for themselves and become ethically ambivalent when their parents’ behavior confuses them. Not to mention the inner conflict when children don’t even want what their parents are unethically procuring for them. (And not surprisingly, the article points out that the more affluent parents are, the more likely they feel “bending” the rules is okay.)

I couldn’t help thinking that parenting ethically must be more difficult without the benefit of a strong religious faith. Whatever the case may be, all parents should want to monitor their own behavior as much as their children’s in our highly competitive world.

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