Bragging backfires

Angela Duckworth is a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and the CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to character development. Her latest newsletter reminds parents that publicly bragging about your children’s college acceptances, test scores, and other achievements can actually have detrimental effects on your kids.

Does everyone in the universe really need to know where your kid is headed for college this fall? Even if your child is marching through the front door of a highly selective university, there isn’t much to be gained by announcing this news publicly. In fact, there’s a lot to be lost. I say this as a daughter who remembers cringing, literally, when my dad—upon meeting old friends, new acquaintances, or just innocent bystanders at the local hardware store—would somehow work into the conversation an update on one or another of his children’s accomplishments.

Expressing your pride to your kids makes it about them. But openly bragging about your kids makes it about you.

Watching and learning

As college admissions decisions roll in and students decide between their available choices, it’s more important than ever for parents to remember one of their most important jobs—to model adult behavior for their children.

Here are a few examples where parents forget the importance of this role:

  • Calling the admissions officer and yelling at a staff member
  • Treating a denial like a tragedy
  • Disparaging a classmate who was admitted
  • Double-depositing at two different schools
  • Acting as if the outcomes of the process are happening to you, not your student

The role might not always be an easy one to play. But your kids are watching…and learning.

A counselor practicing what he preaches

How would you expect one of the most widely respected, admired, trusted college counselors in the country to guide his own daughter through her college application process? Patrick O’Connor shares his approach in his recent post, “The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone,” the gist of which is best summed up in this line:

“Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly. Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive.”

Snowplowing parents

This recent New York Times piece, “How Parents are Robbing their Children of Adulthood,” introduces the term “snowplow parents,” those who relentlessly clear away any potential obstacles to their children’s paths to success in the hopes of preventing any failure, frustration, or missed opportunities.

And it includes this punchy quote from the inimitable Julie “Dean Julie” Lythcott-Haims, 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:

“Snowplow parents have it backward…The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Teach our children well

College counselors often come across parents who couch their kids as victims in the college admissions process. They’re victims of a system that seems unfair or of purported preferential treatment toward other students. And in some of the more bizarre expressions, they’re victims of the lack of a life tragedy (which is now being labeled as a disadvantage).

I’ll admit that while I still don’t agree with those characterizations, since having children of my own, I have more empathy for the parental love that drives them. Wanting more for our kids is part of a parent’s job. That’s a big job, one over which we only have so much control. It’s only natural that the responsibility can lead to occasional irrationality.

A recent Atlantic piece, “Dear Therapist: I’m Worried the College-Admissions Process Is Rigged Against My Son,” doesn’t pull virtual punches in its tough love-infused response. But it also addresses some of the facts many parents who feel this way might be overlooking. And even more importantly, it offers some good reminders for parents to avoid injecting feelings of disappointment or failure where our kids may be naturally resilient enough to move on. This passage in particular captures that notion well:

“… how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your son will respond to it. It’s true that sometimes there isn’t enough to go around—there are only so many leads in the school production, so many spots at a given college, and so many openings for a job someone really wants. At the same time, parents have the potential to turn a situation that their kids would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s miserable. At that point, it’s the parent creating the child’s misery, not the situation. The messages parents send their kids have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would ever do. You have a great opportunity right now to teach your son well.”

Where accepted status won’t change

Brennan Bernard’s latest Forbes piece, “A Letter To College Applicants,” is written for students. But it really should be shared with their parents, too. Parents, your kids are going to need you to help them see the message conveyed within, that their life will be about many things bigger and more important than any decision from a college. Teens don’t have the life experience and perspective to zoom out like that, to see the bigger picture when the present reality looms so much larger than the unclear future. The college admissions process has a way of not only exacerbating the pain of that inexperience, but also of luring so many parents to lose the same perspective. Bernard’s piece just might help both parties regain their footing.

And while Bernard offers an invitation to students to express their love and appreciation for their parent or the caring adult in their life, the college admissions process is the perfect opportunity for parents to do exactly the same in reverse. Remind your son or daughter how much more they are to you than a grade, test score, or admissions decisions, and that their accepted status for your family will never change.

When all you can do is the best you can do

Parents, imagine that you’ve just applied for ten new jobs at different organizations around the country. You’ll be receiving decisions from all of them in the next 30 days. Each opportunity has its own pros and cons. And each will require that you make a significant life change—new responsibilities, new co-workers, maybe even a new location. You’re nervous, you’re excited, and you’re uncertain. People in rooms together are making decisions about you and your life, and now that you’ve applied and interviewed, there’s nothing else you can do to influence those outcomes. You’ve just got to sit and wait.

That’s not unlike what seniors are experiencing as they wait to hear back from colleges.

The best way to support your teens during this time is to remind them through words and actions that you’re in their corner, that you just want them to be happy, and most importantly, that you love them no matter which colleges say yes. Don’t inject more gravity and anxiety into these forthcoming decisions by talking about them incessantly, rethinking the application approach, or preemptively strategizing to work around bad news that hasn’t even arrived yet.

Just wait with them and live your lives. It’s really all you can do, but it turns out it’s also the best thing you can do you.


Where can you take options off the table?

How can a softball pitcher keep her focus and retire the side when getting shelled on the mound while the runs are adding up?

How can a speech and debate competitor keep his composure when he loses his train of thought?

How can the teenage part-time restaurant hostess manage a growing crowd of hungry, impatient diners when there just aren’t enough tables to go around?

How can the student body president get the cabinet back on track when there’s dissent in the ranks and nobody seems to want to work together anymore?

How can a test-taker stay calm and forge ahead when the last three questions have left him rattled and questioning his level of preparation?

There may be more than one viable way to overcome those challenges. But in each circumstance, the student needs to go through the experience to learn how. And a parent stepping in to handle it for them? That option was never even on the table.

But where else in your student’s life does that option remain? And more importantly, where could you use the challenge as an opportunity to help your student learn, grow, and emerge better prepared to handle the next inevitable challenge?

Parents—and students—where else could you take the option off the table?

Parents should be consultants, not managers

Dr. William Stixrud, author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, recommends that parents be their kids’ consultants, not their managers. And in this 50-minute interview, well worth the listen, he shares some great advice including:

• Why giving kids more sense of control sets them up to thrive
• A more effective approach to homework battles and technology use
• The parenting magic of the words, “It’s your call”
• How to prepare your kids for college (and it doesn’t involve preparing for standardized tests)

Our praise and their pride

Praise is a powerful instrument, especially when delivered from parents to their kids. Although some teens may go to great lengths to appear otherwise, they thrive on parent approval. Parental praise has byproducts, as teens are likely to seek out opportunities to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.

There’s no itemized list of good and bad praises, and let’s not inject unnecessary worry or strategy into parental expressions of admiration towards their kids. But there are two particular types of praise that can actually have the opposite of their intended effect:

1. Praising intelligence
“You’re so smart” certainly has a nice ring to it—who wouldn’t want to hear that? But in addition to praising something the student had virtually nothing to do with (intelligent kids should be praising their parents for passing on good genes), the bigger issue is that research has shown that praising kids for innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.

When an intellectual challenge eventually presents itself, students who identify as intelligent can panic. This is one of the reasons so many students who attend highly selective colleges suffer from impostor syndrome on arrival. It’s a rude awakening to find out on day one that your former moniker as “the smartest kid in class” no longer applies.

A few alternatives: Praise their curiosity, effort, or willingness to take on challenging subjects. Those are repeatable behaviors regardless of how readily the student can understand what’s being presented.

2. Comparative praising
“You scored the most points,” or “You were the best soloist tonight,” or “You got the highest grade in the class!” are praises based on comparison. The message they give your student is that to be praiseworthy, someone else needs to be less praiseworthy. Nobody’s suggesting that we should divide our praise equally among every participant. But your student’s not always going to be the top scorer, performer, or achiever. To set them up for future success, praise the traits that put them in those positions: their hard work, commitment to their goals, willingness to take on challenges, etc.

When in doubt, praise away. If your worst crime as a parent is that you praised often but not perfectly, that’s a pretty great track record. But if we can be mindful about what we’re praising, our kids will be more likely to continue doing those very things that earned our praise and their pride.