How appealing to a parent’s vanity ultimately leads to a kiddo’s heartbreak

IMG_2981.jpgMy nine year old daughter wept and screamed at me through breakfast this morning.

Not a great day-starter.

And the irony is, the episode was an outgrowth of something that seemed, at first blush, a wonderful thing.

A little over a week ago, I went to the mailbox and found a formal-looking envelope addressed – in faux caligraphy – to “The Parents of Lily Grekin-McKee.” Curious, I tore into it, read the first couple of paragraphs, and instantly beamed with pride. Yep. Tears actually rolled down my cheeks as I read this:

It is my pleasure to inform you that your daughter, Lily, has been nominated by [a teacher from Lily’s school] to participate in the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF): Pathways to STEM, an Envision program to be held at [nearby college] this summer, 2018. Only the brightest, most highly motivated students are singled out by their teachers for nomination to NYLF Pathways to STEM. You should be very proud of this achievement. Lily was selected because [her teacher] recognizes her as a student who already demonstrates exceptional maturity, scholastic merit, and leadership potential even at her young age.

I mean, what parent wouldn’t lap this up?

I joyfully cried some more, re-reading the letter a few times, and I shared a photo of it on social media.

I thought about how excited Lily would be, and how much it meant to me that her teachers recognized her academic promise and character. I was so happy for her, and for the experience she could have at this five day overnight camp, which offered cool activities related to forensics, medicine, and engineering. “What an amazing opportunity!” I thought.

For someone with a handful of degrees, I can be remarkably dumb at times.

Because when the parent of a classmate of Lily’s reached out, having also received a letter, she remarked on the astronomical cost.

I hadn’t even looked for that information yet, so swept up was I by visions of Lily at this camp for young geniuses.

“Yeah,” I wrote back, like I already unearthed how much it was. “Joe and I will have to talk about it.”

At which point I rooted around the package of materials and found it: $2,200 if staying overnight; $1,800 if being dropped off and picked up each day.

Um, what now?

The company said they had scholarships, which I knew we wouldn’t qualify for – nor should we, frankly – and they recommended crowdfunding.

So deep was I in my daydreams at that point that I thought, “Yeah, a GoFundMe page! That sounds reasonable!”

Again, I was in a rose-colored fog.

I told Joe about it, and when Lily came home, we showed her the letter specifically addressed to her. It was a variation on the “blow-sunshine-up-the-parents’-rear-end” letter we’d received, and Lily’s eyes and smile grew huge as she read it.

Even knowing the crazy-high cost, I was still leaning toward finding a way to make this camp happen for her somehow. I utterly adore her, of course, and these letters seemed to validate the notion – for us and for her – that she was special kid. She immediately started brainstorming ways she could raise money with her friends (though I’ve never known of a lemonade stand that netted two grand), and spoke of offering paintings as donation incentives on her crowdfunding page. That had some potential, at least.

But then this same, far more sane fellow parent pointed me toward doing some research on Envision, the company with the fancy gold seal that puts on these camps.

Oh, yeah. It wouldn’t be that hard to look into this, would it?

Sometimes it’s like I don’t have years of experience as a journalist. But parenting does crazy things to your brain.

Not surprisingly, the first several things that come up take you to the company’s site itself, but not much further beyond that, you learn Envision is a for-profit company, and that while teachers do often nominate their best students, students can just as easily nominate themselves on the site, and there’s no vetting process of any kind; thus, an invitation to the camp is not nearly the super-selective honor that the company leads you to believe it is. Looking beyond all of this, you start seeing negative reviews from parents on the Better Business Bureau site, as well as Yelp; a New York Times article that takes a hard, but fair, look at Envision; and a parenting blogger’s own experience and thoughts upon receiving these same materials from Envision. The camps aren’t a scam, but they certainly appear to be an attempt to shake down parents who are looking to give their children “special” opportunities.

Damn it. I suddenly felt like a dupe AND a bad mom. Where did the critical thinking skills I pride myself on go, exactly?

They vanished when I read in a letter the very things, as a parent, I so desperately wanted to hear.

But because I was gullible in the moment, I’d inadvertantly set my kid up for heartbreak. I mean, how do you explain this situation effectively to a nine year old who just feels like your stinginess is taking away her glory?

I actually thought I’d laid the foundation for this let-down the day I researched the company online, telling Lily that I was feeling a bit less inclined to send her, based on what I’d read about the company running the camp. I told her that the best thing about this whole experience was that her teachers recognized her achievements.

She seemed to absorb that, and I thought, “Huh. That went better than I thought it would.”

Cut to this morning. Joe left the house before dawn to catch a flight to Miami, for a hearing, and while eating Honey Nut Cheerios, Lily said, “So have you set up my fundraising page?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I thought we talked about this the other day. I looked into the company that puts on the camp, and I found some bad things.”

Cue the tears dripping into her cereal bowl. The rage. “YOU MEAN I’M NOT GOING? BUT IT’S ABOUT DETECTIVE WORK! I CAN’T DO THAT STUFF ANYWHERE ELSE!”

I explain that forensics was only one of three fields she’d be exploring over the course of a few days. That as far as I knew, she’d spend just one day on that stuff (the company’s not really specific in its “typical day schedule”). I also reiterated that it wanted $2,200 for five days – not even a full week.

Lily heard none of this. In her mind, I was de-valuing this company that had recognized her individual gifts. “It’s a sleepaway camp!” she screamed. “It’s always going to cost more than regular camp.”

I had to break it down to the lowest common denominator.

“Kiddo, almost everything I read about this company was bad,” I said. “And we’d be paying a TON of money on something I can’t feel good about. I know you’re disappointed … “

But she wasn’t ready to hear anything more. So she sulked, got snippy and rude with her sister (which I shut down), and stomped off into her school building with the most cursory “goodbye” possible.

I’ve been stewing in her disappointment since.

Yes, I was initially furious with myself for falling for this pricey castle in the sky, but now I’m angry with the company that puts on these camps. They’ve clearly made a study of effective educational marketing, and consumer psychology, and they push ALL the buttons, where both parents and students are concerned.

The fancy, gold-seal-laden “you’re amazing!” letters, designed to make both parents and the student feel as though we’re totally “killing it” already; a card that insists you immediately register online to confirm you’ve received the information (so it feels, right away, like you’re on the clock to accept this amazing offer); the phone call that immediately follows your online registration, congratulating you and your child, and asking if you have any questions about the program.

It all, in retrospect, feels so precisely calculated.

Yet I totally believed it, simply because, like all parents, I yearn for validation – some recognition that we’re doing a good job – and because I do, of course, happen to think my kid’s pretty amazing. She’s self-possessed, and smart, and empathetic, with she has artistic talent that wows me almost daily. I was excited by the thought that others recognized her gifts, too, and that terrific opportunities would follow.

They still might in the future, of course. I hope they will.

But for now, this whole debacle offers nothing more than profound disappointment for Lily, and a really, really hard parenting lesson for me.

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