Life grades on a curve

A recent Atlantic article, “The Ethos of the Overinvolved Parent,” made the rounds in our counselor and admissions officer social media groups yesterday, generating frustration with the reality but also a fair amount of understanding, especially from fellow parents, about why it’s so hard to let go.

Stacy, the mother interviewed for the article, argues that for $65,000 a year—the cost of her daughter’s “prestigious private college”—she won’t hesitate to call school officials when she perceives things aren’t going well. That’s exactly what happened when Stacy’s daughter waited four weeks for the school to schedule an interview for a desirable internship at a local hospital. Stacy intervened and called her daughter’s advisor.

As Stacy describes today’s college experience:

“‘It’s a lot for them to navigate, and it wouldn’t be fair to tell them to navigate it on their own,’ she said. ‘It’s not called helicopter parenting. It’s called Parenting 2017.’”

I can see the basis for this argument. Parents like Stacy pay a lot of money for college. And they’re evaluating not only what the post-college return on that investment will be, but also the degree to which the promises are being kept for the benefactors—the students.

But here’s the twist I would add. At what point will it be her daughter’s responsibility to manage her own life, and how soon before then should she be allowed to start learning those lessons?

I don’t know what steps Stacy’s daughter had taken with her advisor to get that interview scheduled. Had she checked by phone or email? Did she visit during office hours? Did she offer to schedule the interview herself, only to have all of these efforts rebuffed or ignored?

Or did she just sit back and “frantically wait” as the article describes it?

Whichever scenario it was, it would seem that the only lesson this student likely learned is that when she experiences a frustration or setback, Mom will swoop in and fix it for her.

What would have been the worst-case scenario had Stacy not intervened? The student doesn’t get the internship? I find it hard to believe that there’s only one worthwhile internship available to a college kid in Boston. And the lesson learned might have been an invaluable one—if you really want something, show initiative. Be resourceful. Don’t just sit back and “frantically wait.”

The world is not a place that caters to our every whim. We all have to face obstacles, deal with difficult or unresponsive people, and navigate our way through situations that don’t have a clear path or correct answer. It takes time to learn how to do these things. There’s no class kids can take to learn the steps in just one semester.

But life is its own best teacher here. It will throw a lot of material at kids as they get older. And this instructor is also forgiving of many wrong answers as long as kids learn from their mistakes. It’s up to parents to let their kids enroll in this course, and to commit to offering only the occasional guidance or tutoring rather than jumping in to do the homework or take the tests for their students.

Students won’t get a perfect grade in this particular class—nobody does. But most successful people have failed in their lives. And that’s proof that life grades on a curve.