On high-pressure parenting

Loyal reader George sent me this recent Economist piece, “High-Pressure Parenting,” which poses the following: “We invest far more time and money in raising our children than our parents did. [Writer] Ryan Avent wonders whether we’re doing it in their best interests – or in ours.”

As often as I share advice on this blog about resisting over-parenting, what resonated with me is that Avent, a parent himself, seemed to genuinely consider the quandary that many parents face. Are we putting our kids at a disadvantage if we don’t jump in and over-parent like seemingly so many other families are doing? He acknowledges that it’s difficult. He sees it firsthand with his own kids. And he ultimately arrives at this realization:

“But in life, unlike in education, there are no winners. University is full of binaries. You get into Harvard or you don’t. You graduate or you don’t. You finish top of the class or you don’t. Life is not like that. There is no finish line after which results are compared and winners and losers determined. Parents are investing massive amounts of time preparing their children to win a race that cannot be won. Those children learn to run like mad in pursuit of some elusive end result, until they give up or expire from exhaustion.”

Good drivers help others drive (better)

Willard Dix is a former admissions officer at Amherst College, a former high school counselor, and an outspoken advocate for more sanity and common sense in the college admissions process. His most recent Forbes piece, 10 Ways To Bond With Your Child’s College Counselor, offers some great advice for parents to help you forge a productive, collaborative relationship with your student’s counselor.

I was surprised that he didn’t encourage parents to help their kids take responsibility to bond with their counselors. After all, it’s the students, not the parents, who are going to college. And those same students may need counselor recommendation letters to get there.

But I suspect Dix based his advice on the realities for many high school counselors—all too often, it’s the parent, not the student, who ends up driving the interactions with the counselor. If parents can become better drivers themselves, they’ll be in a position to help their kids do the same.

You didn’t have to be there

Unless you’re a parent or student at Colorado Academy, you didn’t have the opportunity to hear their recent guest speaker, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. But thankfully, their generous counseling department not only wrote a summary of the talk, but also posted an announcement to social media inviting anyone interested to read—and benefit from—gems like this one:

“As dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims was in an ideal position to see the harm that over-helping does to our children. Particularly in the age of the smartphone, when parents are just a text away, kids become dependent on this lifeline and rely on it because they’ve never had to figure out life’s little details on their own. She met a student who texted her mom several time zones away to figure out where one of her college classes was held. The student had many more resources to figure it out being the one physically on campus, yet she had her mom ‘Google it’ for her. Parents are reaching out to college professors, residence hall directors, and deans to manage details and disagreements that students can and should be navigating on their own. If this is the culture we create with our children, when and how does it change?”

You can read the entire summary here. Thanks, CA counselors, for sharing the lessons with those who couldn’t be there.

For parents: on setting good examples

Every good parent feels a responsibility to set a good example for their kids. Depending on your values and your worldview, those examples might include:

Hard work
Fulfilling your responsibilities
Treating people right
Commitment to your school or church or community
Prioritizing family

All of those can be effective and laudable examples. But remember that kids also need to learn how to respond to the world when it doesn’t go as they planned.

What about the last time you failed, or were disappointed, or missed out on something you really believed you deserved?

Did you talk with your kids about it? Did they see for themselves how Mom or Dad felt—and what you did—when you didn’t get the promotion, or were turned down for the loan, or felt embarrassed at work or in a social setting?

You might be tempted to hide these moments from your kids. But as much as they may behave otherwise, teens learn from their parents. They observe what you do and how you do it. And they particularly appreciate when the values you espouse are matched by your actions.

The parent who doesn’t get the promotion and then uses it as an opportunity to evaluate their work or their job is setting a good example.

The parent who was turned down for the loan, acknowledges the disappointment, and then sets out to find the most productive way forward, even if it’s not the path they’d envisioned, is setting a good example.

The parent who was embarrassed by someone else’s judgmental comment, who acknowledges how it made them feel but then resolves not to be anyone other than themselves, is setting a good example.

Your teens will notice even if they seem to not pay attention. They’ll learn by your doing even if they can’t do it themselves right away. They’ll appreciate it even if they don’t say so.

And your examples will help them be more successful before, during, and after college.

Sometimes the worst experiences let you set the best examples.

Natural parental leadership

The former quarterback of my high school’s football team is having a good week. His son, also a quarterback, is starting college as a spring admit. And Dad has been spilling pride all over social media.

He posted updates as the family prepared for his son’s departure. He posted videos of the family enjoying the new student orientation on campus. He posted pics of the dorm room with the headline, “All moved in!” Every one of these posts brims with Dad’s excitement and pride.

And while his post reminding fellow parents that dropping your child off at college is a bittersweet moment that doesn’t get any easier (this is his second time going through this), he closed by expressing that he was feeling proud, blessed, and happy for his son.

The college? Northern Arizona University.

This is a dad who’s embracing this experience as one to enjoy as a family. He’s injecting fun, pride, and excitement into the process, which only makes his son feel (even more) loved and supported. And he’s behaving as if he’s only going to get to do this once with each of his kids, because that is exactly what will happen.

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why his son is beaming in all these posts (not a single teenage eye roll in sight). But Dad has done his part to instill that feeling in his son.

He was a natural leader on the football field nearly 20 years ago. He’s a natural leader as a parent in the college admissions process. And I can’t imagine a better example for parents to follow as their kids find their way to the right colleges.

Secondhand stress

I’ve written before about just how harmful parental peer pressure can be during the college admissions process. It just takes a couple of misguided friends to make you feel like your family is behind, at a disadvantage, and at the mercy of a cutthroat process where only the straight-A’s survive.

It turns out there’s actually a scientific basis to this. Shawn Achor is a Harvard professor of positive psychology. As he describes in this five-minute talk, when he and his team look at actual brain scans, they can see changes occurring based on a subject’s surroundings.

“It turns out that negativity, stress, uncertainty—we can actually pick it up like secondhand smoke. You don’t even have to be the one smoking to have negative health effects. The same is true around the ways that our brains are designed. If you’re surrounded by people who are pessimistic about the future, they’re gossiping, they’re negative, they’re full of complaints, even if you have an optimistic brain, your brain will start to process the world like that person is unless we’re conscious of it.”

One of the core tenets of a successful, enjoyable college admissions process is to focus on the parts that you can control (while letting go of the other parts). You can’t control the way fellow parents behave. But you can control your own behavior, and whether or not you engage with those people who ruin what should be an exciting time for your family.

You’re only going to experience this transition from high school to college once with each of your kids. Don’t let other parents ruin it for you. Spend time with other people who love their kids and just want to see them happy at whatever school they attend, who don’t feel the need to turn this into a status competition, and who project an air of support and that you’re all in this together.

Your family’s college admissions process will be happier and healthier without secondhand stress.

Look for the teaching moments

One of a parent’s most important goals during the high school years should be to prepare their student for life on his or her own, without managing every decision, challenge, and uncertainty. It’s not that you’ll ever stop being a parent—it’s a lifetime gig and your kids won’t ever stop needing you. But unless you plan on moving into the dorm next door (not a good idea), the roles, both yours and your student’s, are going to change. The high school years are the perfect opportunity to prepare by looking for the teaching moments.

“Can you take care of this?”
The first step is to look for opportunities to stop doing for your kids those things that they could do for themselves. That’s the teaching moment. Start by asking them more questions and to describe what they’re facing. If they’re having trouble in a class and want you to talk to their teacher for them, ask them to tell you more about what kind of trouble they’re having, how long it’s been a problem, and what they’ve tried so far. Questions like these move kids from dropping a situation on your plate–and waiting for you to fix it–to examining what’s facing them. They can’t find the answers if they don’t first learn how to examine the problems.

“What do you think I should do?”
As kids get better at assessing what’s facing them, they’ll move to seeking your advice. “Can you take care of this?” will become, “What do you think I should do?” Instead of just answering the question, use it as a teaching moment. Ask if they’ve tried anything to solve it themselves, and if not, what they’ve considered. Help them think through their options, and explain your thinking, too, as you come up with an answer together. The goal is to move them from asking you for a solution to presenting you with one they found themselves.

“Here’s what I’m going to do.”
As their confidence builds, kids will begin coming to you to share not just a problem, but also their intended solution. It’s a way of checking in to make sure they’re not missing a better option or making an irreversible mistake. The teaching moment presented here is to highlight what they’re doing right, even if you don’t entirely agree with the course of action. If they’re examining the challenge, considering solutions, and showing the initiative to make a choice, they’re on the right path. Remember, the goal isn’t necessarily for them to do everything perfectly the first time. It’s to learn from these experiences, and that means that some lessons will sting more than others. Have faith that while you’re not protecting them from every potential disappointment, you’re setting them up for independence, success, and happiness.

“Here’s what I did.”
Eventually, one of two things will happen. Your kids will either begin coming to you to share how they’ve handled what’s faced them, or they’ll stop sharing updates at all because they’ve learned to take care of those things that formerly resided on your docket. Both scenarios are parental victories. When you do learn of these instances, praise the effort and thinking even if the outcome wasn’t perfect. That’s your teaching moment, and it will only increase their confidence in themselves and their trust that you’re still looking out for them even if you’re no longer their manager, assistant, and publicist.

It’s a process, one that takes faith in your parenting and in your own son or daughter. And like most parts of parenting, there’s no short class to take to learn exactly how to do it. But the good news is that while there may not always be a right answer, there will be plenty of available teaching moments.

Parents’ hopes and fears

Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. His piece in the Washington Post, The deepest fears — and hopes — parents harbor about their kids applying to college, is worth the quick read for parents. While managing to give some tough love to those parents who lose sight of what is really important during the college admissions process, Barnard also injects some support, understanding, and an acknowledgment that even when misguided, parents really do just want what’s best for their kids. And he sums it all up nicely here:

“As we help our children plan for the future and deal with adversity or disappointment, let us remember what motivates us — the desire for them to be their best and find success.  They will have to discover what that means for themselves — and we as parents will continue to balance our hopes and fears as we begin a new year.”

Crisis today, anecdote tomorrow

I still remember the consternation my wife and I felt when her maternity leave was coming to an end and our firstborn still wouldn’t take a bottle. She shared her worries with her own mother about how we’d tried every bottle size and shape, but he wouldn’t take any of them.

I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. What if this doesn’t change? What are we going to do? What if he won’t eat and I have to quit my job and I’m chained to this kid forever just to make sure he doesn’t starve?

As only a wise grandmother who’s successfully raised two kids of her own could do, my mother-in-law just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Someday, this will just be an anecdote.”

It didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time. But she was exactly right. As my wife describes it, what two new parents saw as a crisis situation is now a story that goes like this when we talk about it:

Remember how he wouldn’t take the bottle, and then he did?

Not dramatic at all in hindsight.

Grandma knew that this is pretty much what happens with kids. You love them, you do your best, and things eventually work out. Everything in between is just a future anecdote that appears when you’re looking back and no longer in the middle of it.

Parenting a teen through the college admissions process can feel like parenting a fragile newborn all over again. Every decision, every outcome, feels so magnified, like it’s charting an irreversible course. No mistakes allowed. Better get everything perfect the first time or he’ll never recover!

But those experiences that feel like crises today will be just another anecdote tomorrow.

Remember when you didn’t make the football team and then found wrestling?

Remember when you didn’t do well on the SAT and still got into lots of colleges?

Remember how you were sure you could never be as happy as you would have been at Stanford, and today you can’t stop talking about how much you love Colorado College?

When you feel the anxiety and pressure and complexity getting to you, try to remember that there are almost no college admissions-related crises today that won’t transform into anecdotes tomorrow.