Today’s parents are stalked by the twin fears that their kids will be kidnapped, raped and eaten—or not get into Harvard.

When either of those fears reaches a boiling point, parents do crazy things. I once got a letter from a 15-year-old whose parents wouldn’t let him out of the house, even to walk to the school bus stop: “My dad says I could be ‘abducted or killed.’” So while he was allowed to play video games at home, eat snacks and watch TV, he could not take a ball to the park. “I don’t want my kids, if I ever even have kids, to live like me at all,” he wrote.

His parents were so afraid he would be kidnapped that ... they kidnapped him.

And now we have learned of the 30 or so families who were so afraid their kids wouldn’t get into the “right” schools that they got them into the wrong schools—schools where their kids most likely did not belong. To do this, they cheated for them. There is no excuse for this except that we are in a culture that has made childhood into a landscape barren of almost everything except college prep. To many parents, schools and districts, admission to a “good” school is the be-all and end-all.

Whether that’s because an elite school seems to guarantee economic security for life or because it confers prestige on the parent and child, or because we live in a sort of brand-crazed culture that believes in a Princeton diploma the way it believes in an Adidas sneaker—or all these reasons—the college admissions game has been ratcheted up to the point that even tots are in training. Recall the kindergarten that canceled its play so the kids could have more test prep time. “The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career,” read the note sent home.

So now, rather than piling on the accused parents who are already mortified—a fate so close to death that “mort” is right in there—let’s take a moment to be glad that most of us did not get to the point of “Brown or bust.” And then, let’s think of ways to dial back this mania.

Kids need to discover, wander, play, goof off and find things that interest them. When kids are truly taken with something, they usually end up developing all sorts of skills—persistence, curiosity, focus—that will serve them well in the classroom and beyond. Let’s replace some resume-building time with free time. Think of it as building a “resume for life.”

Kids also flourish when they know their worth is not measured by grades, trophies or the college banner on the wall.

We can dial back the college thing by thinking about all the amazing people we love or admire who didn’t go to Harvard—or maybe any college at all.

And finally, think back to your own childhood. Aren’t you glad that it wasn’t all about college, college, college? That your life had some meaning and joy beyond that?

Now that the cheating scandal has broken, my wish for those kids is the same thing I wish for all kids: to not be defined by their worst moment, to be able to love their parents and themselves despite it all.

And to grow.

Lenore Skenazy is founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?” Reach her at lskenazy@yahoo.com.

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