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.

When great parenting = great managing

The increasing complexity of the college admissions process can occasionally leave parents unclear as to what they should be doing to best support their kids. Yes, we all know to take care of them and to love them unconditionally. But when does supporting them become over-parenting? When does backing off become disengaging from their lives? When does encouraging them to pursue their dreams become pushing them too hard? Much like the job of a great manager is to help their employees be happy and successful at work, an argument could be made that one important job of a great parent is to help kids be happy and successful in life. Here are five ways great parenting looks like great managing.

1. Define what success looks like.
A good manager doesn’t just define the job responsibilities—she defines what success looks like in the role, how it’s measured, and why it’s important to the mission of the company. A great parent can take the same approach with his kids. Rather than create a narrow definition that ties to transcripts and test scores, think of the values you’d like your kids to develop and take with them when they leave the nest, like work ethic, character, curiosity, and kindness. High school is going to end someday, but a broader definition of success, one that isn’t prescribed by the college admissions process, is something they bring with them into adulthood.

2. Offer regular recognition and praise.
Great managers know that effective praise and recognition can help employees better understand both their own value and what’s important to the organization. And great parents know that one of the best ways to encourage the success they define in #1 is to recognize and praise the right behaviors when they see them. I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on how to praise effectively.

3. Let them find their own route to success.
The best managers don’t legislate every step an employee should take to do an important job well. And they don’t constantly jump in and take over to make sure things are done to their exacting standards. Instead, they describe the desired outcomes, offer appropriate support to guide their people, then let their employees find their own individual routes to get there. Great parents make their expectations clear, but they also acknowledge that every kid is different. They recognize and appreciate what makes each of their kids unique. Instead of expecting that your kids will approach the world exactly as you or their siblings do, encourage them to find how they learn, work, and thrive best.

4. Allow for recoverable failures.
Workplaces can’t benefit from innovation if they don’t allow people to try things that might not work. So great managers encourage employees to experiment, to initiate, and to try new things, all while making sure that any potential failure is one that’s acceptable and recoverable. Great parents appreciate that many of the best opportunities for learning and growth come from the failure that follows trying something that’s new, different, or challenging for their kids. As long as kids aren’t doing anything to put their health or their future at risk (crimes, not test scores, put their future at risk), the occasional recoverable failure can breed resilience, knowledge, and long-term success. Embrace and encourage those opportunities, help them see the ensuing lessons, and enjoy the benefits that come from raising kids who aren’t afraid to fail.

5. Care about the person, not just the results.
Great managers don’t just care about the work—they care about the people behind the work. Employees need to know that they are more than just a name on a paycheck and that someone is concerned about them as people first and employees second. I know that parents don’t need to be reminded to care about their kids. But kids need to know—and to occasionally be reminded—that their parents love them for who they are, not just for what they achieve. Don’t allow the college admissions process to overshadow what’s really important. Happy, healthy kids who feel cared about will bring more joy and fulfillment to your family than any grade, test score, or admissions decisions will.

Stretch, learn, and grow

Since becoming a parent myself, I bristle a little at didactic parents who dispense free advice about how people should raise their kids. Beyond the universal parenting principles just about everyone can agree on, every kid is different. What works for one may be a train wreck for another.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, recently gave a talk at Cannon School in Concord, North Carolina, on how parents can help kids ages 5-10 start learning skills that will later help them succeed independently from their parents. She also distilled that advice into Avoiding Helicopter Parenting: 8 Tips for Parents of Young Children, a piece published in the school newsletter and shared publicly here.

I mentioned the earlier caveat because while I agree with Lythcott-Haims’s suggestions, they may not be appropriate for every child within that age range (it took me several tries to figure out how to correctly do a load of laundry with our new washer—I can’t imagine trying to teach a five-year-old to take that chore on).

But if you have younger kids, give the piece a read and ask, “Which of these suggestions could my student do with just a little help getting started?” If you make a habit of helping your kids to take on just a little more responsibility for themselves, I think you’ll enjoy the feeling of watching them stretch, learn, and grow.

 

Parents: how to build better parent/school relations

Parents, here’s a simple exercise that will help you engage productively and appropriately with your student’s high school, forge healthy relationships with faculty, and even give you a nice mood lift.

1. Identify five positive things you’ve witnessed, experienced, or appreciated in the last three months at your student’s school.

Maybe the chemistry teacher spent a lot of extra time with your son helping him improve his grade. Maybe the school gave the girls’ cross country team a lot of well-deserved recognition on campus when they won the league title. Maybe you’re always impressed when you attend the jazz band concerts, or the counselor was the sounding board your student couldn’t find in someone else, or the steps the school is taking to curtail drinking during formal dances makes you feel more secure sending your kids out on those nights.

Just five positive things, big or small, that resonated with you.

2. Thank the person or persons responsible.

Send an email. Write a note. Or say thank you in person. The delivery method doesn’t matter nearly as much as the message does.

You might also have a list of concerns, negative experiences, or constructive criticisms. But that’s not what this exercise is about.

Teachers, administrators, parent leaders—they all appreciate the occasional thank you and pat on the back, just like the rest of us. And in many schools, those expressions don’t arrive nearly as often as the recipients deserve.

So find five reasons to express thanks. And if you can make it a regular habit, imagine how much more receptive those parties will be in the future if you do have a concern you’d like addressed.

Not-so-harmless embarrassment

I worked with a student years ago who told me that when her father drove her to middle school every day, he’d roll down the windows and purposely blare his “old-time music” as he approached the school’s curbside. Then he’d yell, “Go get ‘em honey—another day to excel!” as she exited the car. She still rolled her eyes about it at age 17, but there was also a touch of love for Dear Old Dad as she retold the story.

I’ll admit that I usually find it endearing when a parent does something that exasperates their teen to the point of venting, “You’re embarrassing me!” They’re usually harmless acts with no lasting damage done, even to the most fragile of teen psyches.

But last week, an admissions officer from a selective college posted a description to a private social media group of some recent parent behavior during the school’s tours, none of which seemed endearing.

One parent demanded to sit face-to-face with the admissions representative responsible for their territory. The current admissions officer who was slated to speak with interested families? Not an acceptable option, apparently.

Another berated the tour guide, who was unable to immediately fulfill the parent’s request to speak with a mechanical engineering professor.

And yet another showed up outside the scheduled group tour times, was unhappy that they would not immediately do a tour just for her family, and then not only inserted herself into a private tour organized for a specific high school, but also dominated the Q and A portion at the end.

What’s most troubling is that it wasn’t just one parent, and the incidents weren’t isolated. These kinds of behaviors are showing up regularly from parents of potential incoming freshmen.

That post included an acknowledgement that not all parents are like this. But it concluded with a reminder of just how important it is for students to speak for themselves.

Parents, there’s nothing wrong with you being an engaged participant in your student’s college search. It’s your child, after all, and you deserve to be included and heard, especially if you’ll be paying the bill.

But if your behavior—on a tour, at a college event, on the phone with the admissions office, etc.—demonstrates that you’re demanding and difficult, that you expect concierge-like service, and most troublingly, that you do not allow your student to ask their own questions and make their own collegiate discoveries, you’re embarrassing your student, potentially in a not-so-harmless way.

A toolkit money can’t buy

Stanford Radio just aired this interview with former dean of freshmen and author Julie Lythcott-Haims on the dangers of overparenting and how to avoid that behavior. But she also takes the time to acknowledge that the overparenting phenomenon is present primarily in upper middle class families with parents who have disposable time and money and can invest resources to direct and manage their kids’ lives. A working class family holding down multiple jobs doesn’t have the same amount of time and money to invest in what she calls “cultivation of childhood.”

So what did she notice in both groups of kids when they arrived at Stanford? This portion starts about 28 minutes in:

“…as dean, I saw first-gen kids, kids from working class or poor backgrounds, come to this campus with such a sense of self. When they had a problem, they would say, ‘How am I going to handle it?’ They would come to me for advice. But they spoke with a strong letter II’m going to try this and I’m going to try that. I’ll come back and see you and follow up. Whereas their more affluent counterparts were more likely to text their parent and expect their parent to jump in and handle the problem, whatever it was. So they [under-resourced kids] basically came to campus…with an extra tray in their toolkit.”

If you’re a parent who isn’t able to spend time and money to shadow, cultivate, and orchestrate every moment of your kids’ lives, you can take some pride and comfort in the fact that you’re likely helping them learn some of the important skills they’ll need to be successful as young adults.

And parents with time and money to invest should be proud and appreciative of the life you’re creating for your family. But remember that if you can step back and embrace the opportunities for your kids to find their own way, to make and learn from their mistakes, and to manage their own challenges, you’ll be helping them add a tray to their toolkit, one that money can’t buy.

No parents allowed

Some friends were recently telling my wife and me that their four-year-old daughter began ballet classes a few months ago. But until the first recital, they’d never actually watched their tiny dancer do any ballet. It’s not that they aren’t invested parents—they are. But the instructor has one rule that must be followed: Parents are not allowed to observe the classes. In fact, they need to physically leave the building for the entirety of the class.

Four-year-olds can be easily distracted. And according to the instructor, that’s especially true when a parent is within their child’s field of vision. The problem is only exacerbated when parents can’t help but snap pictures, film video, or even lob their own instructions to their newbie ballerinas.

When it’s recital time, parents (and their cameras) are invited and warmly welcomed. But the classes are for dancers only. No parents allowed.

When I write often here about the need for parents of teenagers to stop hovering, to step back, and to allow their teens to take more responsibility for their own lives even if that means occasionally letting them fail, it’s never lost on me just how much worse the opposite problem would be. Better to be a little too invested than to completely ignore your student.

But in your search for the right balance, consider whether or not your presence (at the practice, the performance, the tournament, etc.) is a positive addition for your teen. When in doubt, just ask your son or daughter. Express how interested you are, but acknowledge that they should get to decide whether or not they want a parent in the literal or figurative stands.

It might be a temporary blow to your ego not to get an invite. But if given the choice, you likely would not want your teen in the room when you give your big sales presentation, or when the boss is delivering your annual performance review, or when the results are announced for the PTA election in which you’re a candidate. It doesn’t mean you love your kid any less. It just means that sometimes, having an audience creates more stress than it does support.

Our friends easily embraced the “No parents allowed” rule as an opportunity to take a nice walk together for an hour every Saturday. Maybe staying back can benefit both you and your student?

Engage, attend, and cheer on when you’re invited and welcome. And when you’re not, accept—and embrace—when no parents are allowed.

Parents: start the trend at home

Some college admissions articles resonate so much with readers that many people forward them to me, and that was certainly true with the recent New York Times piece “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person.” But the article also struck a chord with the counselor community as a whole, both inside and outside of Collegewise (many have been posting and commenting on social media).

I can hear what the cynics will say.

It’s a sweet message, but “nice” doesn’t get you into good colleges.

You can’t list “nice” on a college application.

If the writer likes nice kids so much, why did she and her former colleagues at Dartmouth focus so much on grades, test scores, and impressive activities?

But naysayers, especially those who are parents, are missing the larger message.

Parents, what kind of teen are you hoping to raise?

Do you want to raise one with perfect grades and high test scores? Or are you trying to raise a mature, compassionate, and, yes, nice human being?

Of course, those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of kids at the top of their class who are also compassionate, sensitive, generous, etc.

But here’s the parental gut check: are you teaching, acknowledging, and praising the behaviors that make your teen a good person? Or has the college admissions frenzy caused you to ignore those traits in favor of teaching, acknowledging, and praising behaviors that lead to stronger GPAs, test scores, resumes, etc.?

The author would love to start a trend where colleges “foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit.”

Until that day, why not start the trend at home?

Five examples parents can set for teens

One of my college planning themes is that parents are always on stage. Your kids are learning from your behaviors even if you aren’t intending for those behaviors to be teaching moments. And beyond the obvious ones like “Don’t lie, cheat or steal” and “Be nice to people,” there are plenty of opportunities for parents to use their own interests, lives, and challenges as opportunities to set good examples for their kids. Here are five that will teach them skills that can help them get into college–and also be successful once they get there.

1. Share your own goals.
You probably have goals of your own. Maybe you’re vying for a promotion at work. Maybe you want to initiate a new project with the PTA. Maybe you just want to spend more time with your family. But whatever your goals, share them with your kids. Talk about what you’re reaching for and why it matters to you. Include the details about what’s difficult, intimidating, or just plain unknown. Setting and striving for goals are skills that kids can learn. And showing them how will be a lot more powerful than telling them will be.

2. Let them see and hear your passion.
What is it that you love to do? Practice law? Cook? Play golf? Whether it’s your profession, an obligation that you embrace, or even just a hobby, today’s kids need to be reminded just how much value there is in finding and doing what you love. So share your enthusiasm. Even better, invite them to experience it, too. They may shun you and feign teenage embarrassment. But even if they roll their eyes at how much Mom or Dad loves to go to work at the restaurant every day, or do home improvement projects, or watch their alma mater’s football games, you’re still showing them just how much joy can be found when you do what you love, part-time or full-time.

3. Show your love of learning.
Learning begins at home, and so does the love of learning. What have you spent time, energy, or even money to learn? Even better, where did you invest those resources willingly, not because you were obligated to do so? That’s the learning sweet spot, and it sets a great example for your kids. A former Collegewise student wrote his essay about how much his dad loved to read about business, how he’d sit in his easy chair with a highlighter and pore over a different book every weekend. This student didn’t have a personal interest in business, but the example his dad had set resonated with him. Many of today’s students are so focused on achieving high GPAs that they’ve lost (or never had) any joy around learning. Demonstrate at home that the opportunities to learn, and to fall in intellectual love with a topic, are everywhere. The attitude will leave a lasting impression even if the love-worthy topic hasn’t presented itself yet.

4. Don’t hide your failures.
Parents aren’t perfect. Sometimes we go for promotions that we don’t get. Sometimes we don’t handle a difficult situation as well as we should have. Sometimes we paint the bathroom and don’t realize until it’s over that we’re not as proficient with color choice as we thought we were. I’m not suggesting that you should create and celebrate a family culture of continuous failure. But kids need to learn that part of being successful means trying difficult things that might not work. If your kids see you not just fail, but also bounce back and keep going, that’s a wonderful example to set for them.

5. Focus on the right things.
When you’re elderly and you look back on your life, do you imagine that you’ll think, “I’m so glad I obsessed about my son’s SAT scores as much as I did,” or, “She’d be nowhere today if she hadn’t gotten accepted to Duke,” or, “My proudest accomplishment as a parent was the day I won the grading war with her high school Spanish teacher”? Those might seem like ridiculous scenarios to propose. But one way to evaluate your behavior today is to imagine how you’ll look back on that behavior many tomorrows from now. Your kids’ education is important. But GPAs, test scores, and admissions decisions from a particular college? None of those things are more important than family, health, and happiness. So yes, treat your kids’ college future with the attention it deserves. Combine high expectations with unconditional love. But don’t forget to appreciate the things that really matter in the long run. If you keep setting good examples, your kids will appreciate those things, too.

Better for parents, too

I write often here about the dangers of overparenting, of doing for your kids what they can (and I would argue, should) do for themselves. Overparenting sends your student the message that you don’t have confidence in their abilities to succeed without you. It teaches them to sit back and wait for Mom or Dad to take care of everything. And it doesn’t prepare them for the independence of college.

But overparenting is damaging to parents, too.

Good parenting is a difficult job. Why make it more difficult by adding the additional jobs of manager, agent, and publicist?

Adults—especially parents—have enough responsibilities without assuming those that should reside with your kids.

Good parenting sometimes means doing things that kids will resent you for now but thank you for later. Overparenting, on the other hand, leads to both short-term and lasting resentment.

Overparenting aims to secure outcomes like admissions to prestigious colleges that ultimately just aren’t in your control.

And most importantly, overparenting robs you of what should be one of the greatest parenting joys: watching your kids grow into mature, capable, responsible adults who can enjoy a new relationship with you based on mutual respect rather than mutual dependence.

Overparenting comes from a good place, but leads to a bad place.

Instead, step back. Resist the urge to do for your kids what they can do (or even can almost do) for themselves. Combine high expectations with unconditional love. Cheer from the sidelines without taking over. Embrace the difficult idea that challenges and even failure are what helps kids to grow.

It’s not easy. But every good parent wants the best for their kids. This will be better for your kids.

It’s better for parents, too.