Would You Lie for Your Children?

Lying to the Nazis to hide Jews, absolutely. Lying to an abusive husband to protect a child, yes. Lying to protect your child from the consequences of their actions? No. Most people wouldn’t think twice about lying to protect their child from real harm. Would you lie, cheat and steal to get your child into a top Ivy League university?

You’ve probably read of the college admissions scandal in which 33 parents received federal indictments for paying off schools and falsifying information in exchange for their child’s admission. The parents are wealthy CEOs, lawyers, industry leaders and Hollywood stars. In some cases, their children did not know they had a hand up from their parent’s actions. The parents want the best for their children, and are prepared to pay for it through unscrupulous means. They were not concerned with ethics or morality. These parents paid great sums of money, or had test scores altered, or lied about sports achievements in order receive athletic recruitments. Why? Power, status and earning potential. It is thought that graduates of elite schools have more earning power after graduation.

This is not just a United States problem. For example, Chinese parents also go to extreme lengths to boost their children’s academic success. Around 2,000 parents protested in 2013 to demonstrate against measures imposed to stop their children from cheating. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Apparently cheating is so common in Chinese society that not cheating would put children at a disadvantage.

Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, says that very few people lie a lot, but almost everyone lies a little. Ariely wrote “We want to view ourselves as honest, wonderful people and when we cheat . . . as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can still view ourselves as good people, but once we start cheating too much . . . we can’t view ourselves as good people and therefore we stop. So this model of trying to balance the ability to view ourselves as good people on one hand and the ability to cheat on the other hand predicts that people will cheat a little bit and they will still feel good about themselves . . . That’s what we see across many, many experiments.”

It turns out that rich people are more likely to lie, cheat and steal than people of lesser means. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley studied wealth, power and privilege. The rich are more likely to cheat on their taxes, cheat on their romantic partners, and are more likely to shoplift. They are often less empathic. In studies of charitable giving, it is often the lower-income households that donate higher proportions of their income than middle and upper income people. Studies suggest that wealth and power decrease inhibitions, increase risk taking and increase feelings of entitlement and invulnerability. Power makes people less able to see others’ perspectives.

The great lengths that celebrities and CEOs go through to advance their children’s education may actually be a waste of money. In 2014, economists Dale and Krueger published an analysis of the benefits of attending a highly selective college. Students who are poised to succeed tend to do so even if they don’t get into the Ivy League. But there was a crucial exception. There are strong benefits for the subset of black and Hispanic students, and for those whose parents had few educational credentials. It turns out that students who come from less privileged backgrounds benefit greatly from selective colleges. Elite higher education gives them social capital they didn’t already have.

Are the prestige and status granted to students of elite schools worth the price of arrest? Not for most of us.

Do you ever lie for your children? Under what circumstances?


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