The XX Factor

Why Is It So Hard to Be an Ethical Parent?

Only the best for your kid

Photo by Michael Kraus/Shutterstock

In this week’s New York magazine, Lisa Miller has a sharp feature about how much trouble people have with ethical parenting. There is an unending, age-old tension between wanting the best for your child (from pulling strings to get them into the best preschool to hiring pricy tutors to raise their S.A.T. scores) and teaching them values like equality and fairness. Or as Miller puts it, “ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game. It’s what parents do.”

Miller argues that parents have a harder time modeling ethical behavior than they did in previous generations. She cites a 2009 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, in which over half of people 17 and under believe that to get ahead, you must lie or cheat, compared with under 20 percent of people 25-40. Which means that even though parents believe that ethics are important in theory, the message isn’t getting through to their kids. And who knows how those less-ethical kids are going to, in turn, raise their children.

Her theory for why this is happening—that we live in an age of a constricting middle class, where opportunities for success, or even solvency, are slippery at best—rings true. Parents feel they must do everything they can to get their kids onto ever-shrinking safe ground. Furthermore, today’s high schoolers came of age during a financial crisis in which the middle and lower classes lost their homes and had to go on food stamps, while the banks that helped create the mess were barely punished. No wonder they believe that you need to lie and cheat to get ahead.

That said, I don’t think raising children in most places is as cutthroat, nasty and, yes, unethical as it is in New York City, something Miller doesn’t really mention. She talks about kids whose parents pay $22,000 a year for tutors, and savvy Fieldston grads (tuition at Fieldston is $41,400 a year, K-12) whose peers took Adderall to do well on tests. But this is really not the norm anywhere else.

Still, the answers for why things are worse in New York are already in Miller’s thoughtful piece. First, as Miller points out, social psychologists have found that rich people are more likely than poor people to “to lie, cheat, and disregard traffic rules,” and at the same time, “they are likelier to believe that social status is a matter of merit.” New York has more rich people than almost anywhere in the U.S. (average rent in Manhattan is almost $4,000 a month). New Yorkers also have less space, and there’s more competition for everything. “The urge to ferociously protect kids in an environment of scarce resources is not a modern impulse but an animal one,” Miller says.

A few years ago I wrote an essay about whether or not my husband and I were going to raise our (then hypothetical) kids in the City. I got an impassioned email from an acquaintance who had moved from city to suburb and back, telling me I should ditch New York as soon as possible. In the suburbs, she could just enroll her kids in whatever activities she wanted, while there was a waitlist for everything from gymnastics to chess in New York. In the suburbs, she could just roll her kids on down to the public school without jockeying to get into the “right” one, because there was only one. Resources weren’t so scarce up there, she said. Things were easier. Perhaps the answer here, then, is to leave New York City if you want to be an ethical parent—and raise ethical kids.