Competition for College Admission is Ruining Childhood

Yesterday’s New York Times “Motherlode” blog featured an entry about getting girls into college. The blog was a reaction to a recent article on The Daily Beast about how this year’s college application cycle was particularly brutal for “white girls without a hook.” “Hook” is college admissions parlance for that activity or interest that sets you apart, the thing you do better than anyone else. Because there are so many high-achieving white girls and colleges want well-rounded classes, not well-rounded kids, it’s apparently harder for these super-girls to get into the best schools.

The Motherlode blogger, Belen Aranda-Alvarado, thinks her ten-year-old daughter has just the hook she needs: She is a burgeoning equestrian, which creates an unusual combo — a Latina girl from the Bronx who rides horses. Aranda-Alvarado writes: “If my 10-year-old’s experience isn’t a college application essay waiting to be written, I don’t know what is.” She goes on to say, Tiger Mom-like, that she’s so sure this is her kid’s ticket to the big time that she won’t let her opt out:

If she complains it’s too hot to ride? Strap on that helmet, my wee one. She wants to stay after school and play with her friends? Tie on those riding boots, little missy. Grumbles about the subway and train ride to get there? Get. On. That. Horse.

So this is what parenting has come to? Sizing up the hobbies of ten-year-olds for their college application street cred? Viewing our kids’ merit through the small, warped aperture of an admissions officer’s gaze? I had to wonder what a college admissions officer would make of how my six-year-old daughter spent Memorial Day weekend when we visited friends in Vermont. What would her hook have been?

She seemed to excel at rolling down a steep, grassy hill, which she did for hours on end. Her rolling was punctuated by long, drawn-out rests in which she just flopped onto the ground and stayed there, like a rag doll dropped from the wide blue sky. Occasionally, she’d turn a few cartwheels before running back up to start again.

At other times, the candidate could be found digging toys out of the basement storage room and putting them to good use, perhaps most deftly in the case of the child-size sleigh she lugged outside. She demonstrated great persistence in trying to get her two-year-old sister into the sleigh. Failing that, she showed ingenuity by popping her Build-a-Bear birthday bear into it instead, and carting the bear around the yard, rope leash tied to her waist as if she were an Alaskan sled dog.

She also tried — and failed — to catch a fish. First, trying to lure her prey with an old fishing line she found, a rubber worm still attached. Then, by tying the fishing line to a fallen branch and standing for what seemed an inordinately long time alone on the dock, no fish in sight. Later, our host guided her with an actual rod and reel, but she seemed to prefer her early, solitary attempts. (Not to be upstaged by his sister’s fishing, one afternoon her big brother canoed across the lake to forage in the woods for morel mushrooms to eat for breakfast the next day, returning with a bag full of them.)

Should the admissions officer be wondering about the candidate’s athletic ability, it behooves me to mention that she beat her father 38-2 in a game of T-ball, in large part because she kept playing long after he retired to the house for a nap.

In all, the candidate seemed to demonstrate the rare ability to be bored, to find pleasure and purpose outside any organized activity, to flop in the grass without worry or care. Does that count? Sadly, as Aranda-Alvarado would point out, no. None of these activities would turn a college admissions officer’s head, and there isn’t a high school counselor in the world who would say she should write a college application essay about it.

Then again, maybe such a sprawling, unstructured weekend is so rare in this age of tightly managed childhoods that my daughter would truly stand out.