When parents break the law for their kids, who are they really trying to help?


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These parents get an “F” in parenting.

The biggest college admissions scandal the U.S. Department of Justice has ever prosecuted named dozens of moms and dads this week — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — who allegedly paid bribes to get their kids into elite and Ivy League schools like Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California.

‘More privilege comes with a sense of entitlement and whatever I can’t get, I’ll try to buy.’

—Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York

Media coverage has focused on how the parents were apparently trying to help their kids. It’s an example of over-the-top devotion to their children, observers say, but the reason parents break laws for their kids has more to do with themselves than their offspring. And there’s a common thread regardless of the crime: Entitlement.

“These crimes aren’t for the kids, these crimes are for themselves,” Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York, told MarketWatch. “Their children’s successes are a reflection of their own pathological narcissism,” he said.

Children also learn by example. When kids see their parents break the law, they’re likely to follow in their footsteps. Kids whose parents commit crimes are more than twice as likely to also break the law or exhibit criminal behavior themselves, according to a 2017 study from the journal of Aggression and Violent Behavior.

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Felicity Huffman was one of the 50 people charged in the college admissions scheme this week. Her husband, actor William H. Macy, has not been charged.
These wealthy parents like to be able to predict the outcome

Wealthy parents, experts say, don’t like uncertainty. Just like markets don’t like uncertainty, such parents like to be able to predict the outcome without any margin for error, even if it costs them tends of thousands of dollars to do it. They want to make sure their children are guaranteed the same lifestyle they enjoyed or, ideally, have a better life. That guarantee can come at a high price.

Wealthy parents who are not used to being told “no” can tend to lose sight of their moral and ethical values when faced with a challenge in achieving a goal, and often act on a lapse of judgment, Fornari explains. That seemed to be the case with the 50 parents accused of paying Newport Beach-based consultant William “Rick” Singer to alter SAT scores and Photoshop students onto stock photos to make them look more athletic so that admissions counselors would consider their applications.

The college fraud case is not the first example of parents accused of committing crimes to help their kids.

“More privilege comes with a sense of entitlement and ‘whatever I can’t get, I’ll try to buy,’” Fornari said, adding: “I don’t think they had the awareness, or the self reflection. I don’t think they were thinking about consequences, they were thinking about the goal.”

Last year, federal prosecutors charged New York Republican congressman Christopher Collins with insider trading and lying to federal agents when he tipped off his son and others that a drug company he invested in, Innate Immunotherapeutics, had failed a drug trial — information that could have been used for financial gain.

Collins, one of the company’s largest shareholders, served on the company board and had access to the information before it was public. Collins has repeatedly denied the charges. His son passed along the insider information to his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s mother, and another friend, according to prosecutors. All parties involved sold more than $1.78 million in Innate shares, reportedly dodging around $768,000 in loses.

The college fraud case is hardly the first example of parents accused of committing crimes with presumed good intentions of helping their kids. The father of a former Harvard student pleaded guilty to charges of falsifying income information in 2014 to get more than $160,000 in financial aid, the Boston Globe reported.

Kids whose parents commit crimes are over twice as likely to also break the law or exhibit criminal behavior themselves.

The parent, who faced a maximum of 20 years in prison, allegedly filed false tax returns to make it look like the family was less well-off, and Harvard canceled the $55,450 in aid the college promised to provide. Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, penalties for falsifying information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid can include a fine of up to $20,000, or up to five years in prison.

Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish says that when parents enable their kids — regardless of their intentions — it does them a great disservice in the long run developmentally, and can perpetuate more failure and a sense of entitlement.

“It’s giving children a covert message that they don’t believe in them, that they don’t have faith or confidence that their kids can make it on their own,” Walfish says. “There’s a message of you’re a bit of a failure on your own without mom or dad’s name, power or money. Growing young adults need to have a sense of, ‘I did it on my own.’”

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