Five application management tips for parents

I spend a lot of time here reminding parents that your most important college-admissions-related job is to be the parent of your applicant. Love your student unconditionally. Remember that it’s all about them, not you. Cheer them on and don’t act like a lunatic on their behalf. During this stressful time, your kids need a parent who takes this job seriously.

But at some level, many parents are in fact managers of the college admissions process.

I hesitate to use the term “managers” because it can conjure up expectations that you’ll run the show—making every decision, tracking all the progress, and even hijacking the entire project from the student who needs to be driving it.

But it’s natural for a good parent to feel some sense of responsibility for their kid’s success. The cost of total college admissions failure, like missing all the deadlines or ending up with no colleges to attend, would be a lot to bear for both the student and parent. And much as great managers at work find ways to help their employees drive their own success without the manager being in the middle of it all the time, parents can strive to do the same thing with their college applicant in the house.

So here are a few management principles that can be applied productively for parents of college applicants.

1. Remind them of their strengths.
A great manager notices the unique strengths of each employee and then makes sure the employee both recognizes and deploys them well. Nobody knows your kids better than you do. But many people, not just teens, aren’t yet aware of those areas where they are at their best. So point them out. Have they always set high goals for themselves? Do they always seem to treat people well? Are they fearless about initiating new things, or able to meet new people easily, or so responsible that people look to them when the chips are down? This is the perfect time to not only point those strengths out, but also remind them that it’s these strengths that will make them successful at whatever college is lucky enough to get them.

2. Agree on expectations.
Does your teen know what you expect of them during this time? High expectations paired with unconditional love strike a good balance with kids. Do they know which parts of the process they’ll retain full responsibility for, and where they can expect help? Do they know how you define success? Have a conversation early about those expectations. And ask them about their own. How would they like this to go? What does success look like? What do they want to own and where do they feel they might need help? And as you have these conversations, please remember to keep the expectations focused on outcomes your teen can control. Progress, meeting deadlines, and communication with you are under their control. Admissions decisions are not.

3. Ask them, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?”
This one is important. A great manager knows that some people need a lot more direction, feedback, and opportunities to ask questions than others do. So they start by asking, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?” Notice that the manager presumes those check-ins will happen, but they give the employee the choice about how often. If your teen responds, “Please just let me handle it,” consider agreeing with that proposal conditionally. Ask them to check in with you at well-defined intervals that you agree on. The goal of these interactions should be to make your student feel supported, not directed.

4. Recognize and praise great work.
Nobody likes working for a boss who only chimes in to tell an employee what they’ve done wrong. And everyone likes to feel recognized for praise-worthy work along the way. Frequent praise done well not only motivates people, it also helps them bring out even more of what’s already working. Here’s a past post with some advice on how to praise effectively.

5. Confront poor performance early, but not punitively.
If an employee struggles to meet the expectations, a great manager intervenes early, and does so from a place of concern. They don’t necessarily do so at the very first wisp of difficulty, but they don’t let a struggling employee languish, either. So if you see your teen struggling, or creeping too close to deadlines, or outright ignoring the work you agreed together they would do, have a direct but nurturing conversation. Tell them you’re worried, express your desire to help, but remain vigilant in your commitment to let them retain ownership of their process.

Also, Patrick O’Connor just reposted his wonderful recommendations on this topic. I believe they work nicely alongside mine, though Patrick’s also involve pizza, which is certainly a bonus.

Why teens need play time, too

If you’re a parent for whom the phrase “play time” has a frivolous connotation when applied to your teen, this ten-minute interview with Denise Pope of Challenge Success and Sandra Russ, clinical child psychologist and professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University, might change your mind.

They’re not advocating that kids sacrifice their ambition and work ethic so they can goof off with their friends. But Pope and Russ do remind us that play time is linked to creativity, stress release, and interpersonal skills, all of which are crucial factors to success before, during, and after college.

Back-to-school tips for parents and students

Parents, as your kids head back to school, consider investing 50 minutes listening to this interview with Denise Pope (senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success) about how to raise well-balanced kids who are engaged in their learning. If you’d prefer the bullet-point version, here are Challenge Success’s “Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help Your Child Thrive.”

And here’s a past post of mine, “Back to school: greatest hits edition,” with links to advice for parents, high school students, and college students.

The days are long, but the year is short

As a parent of two children under five, I’ve found that some advice I hear from other parents is sound in principle but difficult to follow in practice, especially when those with older children remind me:

“Enjoy every moment.”

“Soak it in. It all goes by so fast.”

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

They’re right, of course. There’s something special about that time in a parent’s life when you’re the center of your little one’s world, when their first instinct so frequently is to run, talk, or look to you for everything.

But it’s not always easy to embrace that lesson when you’re in the middle of it. You’re tired. You’re frazzled. Some days you might even yearn for the older and less dependent age to come in the future. It’s natural to miss the concept of me-time and free-time that seems to have gone by the wayside since your kids arrived.

Intellectually, I understand the day will come when I’ll want to travel back in parental time to where I am right now. But as much as I know I should make every effort to enjoy this time, there are plenty of days when I feel like I’m experiencing the throes of parenting rather than the joy of it.

If you have a student who will soon be applying to college, you’re likely experiencing something similar.

The college admissions process has a way of distorting what’s really important. That one grade, that one test score, the pressure and anxiety and confusion that surrounds the process–it’s perfectly natural to feel like you’re in survival mode, just battening down the home hatches until the application storm passes later next spring.

But much like the early years of parenting, a focus on just getting through it can ruin the opportunity to actually enjoy a time that won’t be coming back.

One year from now, your senior will likely be departing for college, with all the tectonic family shifts that come with it. Do you want to look back on the next 12 months as one long march filled with anxiety, project management, head-butting and hand-wringing? Or would you rather take a breath and relish this time as your young adult prepares to leave the nest?

The same sense of longing you feel looking back at their younger years can be channeled into joy while looking forward to their future years. Raising a mature, capable, responsible adult who’s ready to go to college is a pride-worthy achievement for a parent. Why not enjoy it? Why not soak up the opportunity to watch your once dependent child take some of their most important independent steps? And most importantly, why not embrace the lessons you might impart on a new parent like me and make every effort to appreciate this as the remarkable time that it is?

Put a different way: How many days are left until your teen departs for college? You don’t need to calculate the answer to embrace the lesson.

The days may be long, but trust me, this year will feel short.

How, not who

I’ve heard the conversation-starter, “Who would play you in a movie about your life?” But for parents of kids going through the college admissions process, I think it’s more compelling to consider the how, not the who.

If a movie were made that accurately depicted your words, your actions, your relationship with your student, and all of the associated outcomes as pertaining to the college admissions process, how would your actor of choice portray you?

Would your character make college admissions the focal point of family conversations? Would they prioritize the outcomes above all else? Would they step in and take over, making decisions or filling out applications or revising (or even outright writing) essays themselves?

Would they be portrayed as someone who was putting their needs (from social pressure to parental pride) ahead of their student’s needs?

Or would they be portrayed as someone who decided their most important job was to just be the parent of a college applicant? Would they be the parent who understood this was not their process and that all the adverse pressures were happening to their kid, not to them? Would they be a supportive guide, offering opinions and encouragement when necessary without overstepping and taking over?

And whatever your answer, how would you feel watching how you were portrayed? Would you be proud, or secretly wish the script and the actor hadn’t captured you so completely?

As parents, we’re on stage all the time. Our kids are watching, listening, and learning from what we say and do. But it can sometimes be difficult to evaluate our own behaviors, especially as they relate to our own families. We and they are too close to the action.

Sometimes it helps to step outside and consider the ramifications of what we’re doing. And one way to do that is to imagine this time in your life on film. Sure, it’s fun to think about who would play us. But it’s more thought provoking to consider how they’d do it.

Who is this really for?

I saw an ad on social media recently that included this language:

“The competitive edge your child is missing…”

“The secret behind taking your child’s soccer game to the next level…”

“See better decision making, improved performance, and more confidence…”

It’s pretty clear this product is designed to appeal to the parent, not the player.

Sure, there could be instances where a young athlete laments their lack of progress or outright asks for this kind of assistance, in which case a parent might feel like they’re just supporting their kid’s interest.

But it would appear from that language that the market for this product is the parent. It’s for the parent who believes the “competitive edge is missing.” It’s for the parent who wants the child’s game raised to the “next level.” It’s for the parent who wants to “see better decision making, improved performance, and more confidence.”

For that particular parent customer, how much agency is their child feeling for his or her own experience? How much additional pressure is being layered on from Mom or Dad? How does it make a young player feel to know that their own parents want to see improved performance in an activity that, no matter how competitive it may be at some levels, is always supposed to be enjoyable at the core?

Before you invest in tutoring, test prep, college counseling, private coaching, or any other product or service purported to help your child, it’s worth asking the question, “Who is this really for?” And if it’s not for them, maybe it’s worth reconsidering the investment.

Even a generous gift doesn’t feel so thoughtful when the giver actually bought it for themselves.

Check your progress

Parents, imagine you have a meeting scheduled with a co-worker and receive a call from the colleague’s parent requesting that the meeting be rescheduled to allow their (grown) child to fulfill a conflicting commitment.

Or what if you were a manger and received a call from the parent of one of your direct reports wanting to speak with you about their kid’s performance and how to improve it?

What if the colleague who was assigned to work with you on your latest project ended up doing so because their parent called to advocate for the opportunity on their kid’s behalf?

How would it affect the way you view this person? How would it impact your work together moving forward? Would it increase or decrease the level of respect and trust?

These scenarios likely sound ridiculous (though, perhaps surprisingly, they do occur). But what steps are you taking to ensure that your own child doesn’t grow up to expect the same level of parental involvement from you?

Self-sufficiency is a process, not an overnight transformation. But a process is always a series of steps designed to achieve a particular goal. And it’s worth taking a moment to occasionally check the progress, both yours and your student’s.

Happier if you do

Dóra Guðmundsdóttir studies happiness and well-being at the population level. Her research uncovers how different groups within a country are faring and helps policymakers understand the needs of their citizens. And her work uncovered something interesting that might be a good lesson for both parents and students, as related in “What We Can Learn About Happiness from Iceland,” a recent piece in Greater Good Magazine:

“When we studied the effects of the banking system collapse in Iceland, we found that happiness among adolescents went up after the collapse, even though the happiness levels of adults went down. That’s because after the collapse, adults were working fewer hours, which meant parents had more time to spend with their adolescents. As it became easier for the adolescents to get emotional support from their parents, their happiness increased, even though working less may have resulted in a lower GDP [Gross Domestic Product] for the country.”

It’s worth mentioning that her research also found those who have trouble making ends meet have the lowest happiness score of all groups, so I don’t believe the intent of that insight is to encourage parents to ignore their jobs entirely to focus on their kids.

But what I found interesting was that there was no mention of parents having more time to manage homework, secure tutors, or drive other educational outcomes. They simply provided more “emotional support.” And while that support is undefined in this article, my guess would be that asking thoughtful questions, listening to the answers, and even just spending quality time together is a good start.

And teens, if your parents were to make themselves available to support you in ways that have nothing to do with preparing for the ACT, would you walk through that door? Will you give them more than the universal teen one-word answer? Will you actually tell them what’s on your mind, where you need advice, or what they could do to support you?

Research shows you’ll be happier if you do.

Left, right, left again

I’m currently engaged in a lesson with my four-year-old that every parent reader has taught their own kids—how to cross the street safely. We’ve practiced together under the safety of hands held: look left, look right, look left again. He’s pretty much got it down, but he still occasionally makes mistakes. So I’m letting him make them while keeping close watch within grabbing distance to prevent him from marching out into traffic.

I feel like this comparatively easy experience is emblematic of the parenting struggle that persists through the teen years. He’s not ready to do this by himself. To send him out there on his own would be negligent. But at some point, he’ll simply have to learn to do this without me holding his hand (that’s why you never see seventh graders crossing the street connected to a parent). And the critical step towards getting there is to let him make mistakes, but without abandoning my watch until he’s learned the skill. The mistakes are part of the learning. And I have to let him make them.

This short video featuring Challenge Success’s Madeline Levine reminds parents of this lesson. If we’re constantly stepping in and handling challenges for our kids, they won’t learn how to handle challenges that inevitably arrive without us close by. She relates the story of a freshman on the Stanford campus who can’t remember where her first class is and decides to solve that problem by calling her mother. That’s not a joke—this kind of thing happens all the time these days, even with the most accomplished kids on the most selective colleges’ campuses.

There’s no playbook telling parents exactly when to step in or step out. But when in doubt, give them some guidance and let them try. If the cost of failure is minimal, let them fail. If not, stay literally or figurately close by, ready to step in, but only if absolutely necessary.

It’s our job to keep them safe, but also to help them develop into capable young adults. And they’ll be more prepared for any obstacle when instead of relying on our hands, they rely on that challenge’s version of left, right, left again.

Future fodder

Every Friday, we pose a lighthearted “social question” to all of our colleagues at Collegewise. From “What’s the best concert you’ve ever attended?” to “Got a snack that you’re addicted to?” to “What were you best known for during your college years?” the replies always lead to revelations and more than a few chuckles. Participation is entirely optional, but we regularly hear from a healthy contingent.

The responses to last week’s question–“What did you get in trouble for as a kid?”–were particularly enjoyable. I’ll share a few here:

Threw a house party in high school. Got a bit out of control and the cops came to shut it down. I was grounded for a month. Totally worth it.

Talking. Constantly. My dad had to establish an elaborate bribing system of “dad dollars” that he printed from our Gateway computer to incentivize me to stop talking in class and stay out of trouble.

Sass. My son is paying me back.

I tried to flush lots of things down the toilet, from my mom’s new markers to my sister’s Walkman.

Painted the neighbor’s brand-new racing green Jaguar red. There is a reason why I ended up in boarding school.

Whether it was simply pushing the boundaries of physical safety by climbing anything and everything, or refusing to eat dinner’s vegetables until falling asleep at the table, or reading late past the designated bedtime, every one of their answers hovered somewhere between harmless and hilarious.

But I’ll bet they didn’t all seem that way when they occurred.

It’s easy to laugh about minor and even semi-major youthful transgressions when both the youth and the transgression are part of the past. Today, these Collegewisers are happy, successful, and yes, responsible adults. To my knowledge, none of them are throwing house parties at their parents’ homes or flushing others’ personal belongings down the toilet (though a few still read way past their bedtimes). The people they are today aren’t reflective of peccadillos from the past.

Parents, if you could imagine your teen of today as a happy, successful, fulfilled adult (who still visits regularly), how would you feel about whatever behavior is frustrating you today?

Would the less-than-enthusiastic approach to standardized test prep still drive you crazy?

Would a C on the biology exam send you into a state of panic and a search for the best local tutor?

Would the room that could vie for inclusion on an episode of Hoarders seem quite so disrespectful (albeit still disgusting)?

I’m not advocating that we parents move from strict to entirely slack. Part of good parenting means setting appropriate boundaries. It means being OK with our kids not liking us when we enforce the consequences. And if the innocuous moves to the dangerous or even illegal, there very well might be no funny story to be found, today or tomorrow.

But—and I’m working, often unsuccessfully, to do this myself—what if we imagined how this could be replayed 5 or 10 or 25 years from now? Will that transgression today make for a good story and maybe a few laughs as you look back tomorrow?

If so, maybe we could treat these situations not as something that costs us frustration in the present, but instead as something that will repay us with a good story in the future.

We might find the trouble less troublesome when we treat it like future fodder.