It’s all going to be OK

Parents watching kids go through the college admissions process already know how the story ends.

You don’t know the specifics yet. You don’t know which colleges will say yes or if your kid will hit it off with their future roommate. You don’t know what job your student will hold after college, where they’ll live, or who they’ll marry. Those are the unknowns.

We know that no teen has ever suffered as an adult because of one low grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. We know that no adult is still smarting over not getting into a dream college when they were 18. We know this. The ride to college may include some bumps, but it’s temporary turbulence on a much longer flight of life. Transcripts, test scores, and college applications eventually recede into high school memories of our much younger selves, often in ways that aren’t reflective of the adults we become.

So please consider this: how would you behave if you knew everything was going to be OK?

Would you wring your hands over 50 points on an SAT exam?

Would you wage academic war with a teacher over a B+ you wished were an A?

Would devastation be an appropriate reaction to a denial from a dream college?

I understand that rationality often goes out the window when it comes to our own kids. The specifics may be uncertain, but deep down, you know it’s all going to be OK when it comes to all-things-college-admissions. And it’s worth reminding yourself of that every now and then.

It’s easier to manage, to accept, and yes, to enjoy when you know it’s all going to be OK.

Misplaced pronoun

One pronoun often gets in the way of a healthy college admissions process—“we.” Parents who say, “We’re applying to…” or “We are still waiting for a decision from…” are forgetting that all of this college admissions activity and anxiety isn’t happening to them. It’s happening to their kids. And too much “we” just puts more pressure on them.

But “WE” still has its place, especially when reinforcing how much of your life as a family has absolutely nothing to do with college admissions.

WE are a family, one with history and principles and traditions.

WE have “Family Sunday” dinners in which WE will endure Uncle Frank’s interminable stories.

WE cheer for the Yankees/Lakers/Patriots, etc. because WE stick together in our fandom.

WE celebrate Christmas/Ramadan/Yom Kippur, etc.

WE support each other.

WE want each other to be happy.

WE will always be WE, no matter what happens with college admissions.

Don’t abandon your WE. Just don’t misplace your pronoun.

 

Healthy tension

Parents, the next time you’re tempted to ask your teen, “How are your college applications going?” Consider replacing it with this exercise:

1. Ask, “How are you doing?”
2. After the likely reply of “Fine,” ask, “How are you really doing?”
3. Simultaneously with #2, radiate a sense of safety and concern rather than panic and judgment.
4. Be quiet longer than it’s comfortable to do so.

Number 4 is the most important because it creates tension. Embracing the tension of quiet leaves space for your teen to answer. Replacing the tension of quiet with more words removes that space.

Don’t fill the space. Let the space work for you and for your teen. And a revealing conversation may ensue.

Some tension is healthy tension.

More downtime, and more sleep

Here’s Challenge Success’s Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time: PDF for Teens; Common-sense strategies for promoting teen health and well-being.

And for teens (or parents!) who are convinced that you can get by with less than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is a worthwhile and potentially alarming read.

Let’s get some more downtime—and some more sleep—into all our lives.

Learning door-to-door

An 8th grader from a local middle school knocked on my door over the weekend selling holiday wreaths as part of a school fundraiser. She probably had no idea that the simple act of attempting a task so many of today’s kids outsource to their parents was about to make me the easiest sale of her day.

I try to resist the tired middle-age proclamations about how things were done “back in my day.” In fact, I think that modern advances, especially around technology, are often making today’s kids’ lives harder, not easier.

But whether the kids of my generation were selling Girl Scout cookies or collecting our neighbors’ payments for the newspapers we’d delivered dutifully, I think our parents did us a favor by sending us out with nothing more than encouragement. It takes guts to knock on a door of someone who’s unlikely to be happy to see you. It takes guts to deliver a sales pitch to a stranger, to deal with rejection, and to keep coming back for more. And it takes guts for parents to let their kids develop their own guts.

When a school has a fundraiser based entirely around selling holiday wreaths, what’s the point of the entire exercise? Is it for a parent to sell the wreaths at work or even just to write the check, to take the work and experience and learning away? Or is it to send kids outside of our watchful gaze and let them learn to navigate their way in a world that doesn’t come with instructions or with a parent clearing away all the obstacles?

Some parents may push back and say that they’re just protecting their kids. I understand that inclination now that I’m a parent far more so than I ever did before. But not only does the data suggest that the world is safer for kids today than it ever has been—it also shows the alternative of keeping our kids on lock-down until they’re 18 or 21 or 37 puts them in a different kind of harm’s way.

Parents spend a lot of time swallowing their fear. It starts in the delivery room, and continues when watching kids toddle off to kindergarten and when they ride away on their bike for the first time. Parents who’ve already dropped an older child off at a college dormitory can attest to the lump-in-the-throat moment of watching them walk away to begin their lives as college freshmen (I get misty just thinking about it, and my oldest hasn’t even turned four yet).

This 14-year-old wreath-seller stood on my doorstep and delivered her pitch. She was nervous, but she did it. I asked her how things had gone that day—she sighed, but without an ounce of resignation answered, “I’ve gotten rejected nine times in a row.” She’d heard a range of reasons for the no’s—a few said they weren’t in the mood, a few others said they’d think about it, and one told her they didn’t believe that hers was in fact a real school and that the entire pitch was a scam.

But I think she’ll be even more likely to stand in the face of a future project where success isn’t guaranteed. I think she’ll be a little braver when she heads in to speak to her counselor or asks a teacher for help or sits for her college interviews. I think she’ll be more resilient if a part-time job or a prom invitation or a college says no. And I think those lessons will improve her odds in those and any other setting she faces where there aren’t any directions to follow, where her skills with human interaction and persuasion are a lot more important than her ability to select the right multiple-choice answer on a test.

And she’ll be back to deliver my wreath on Monday, December 10.

More helping, less hurting

It’s not easy for parents to offer helpful support to kids while simultaneously stepping back to allow them to drive their own lives. If you’d like some advice from experts on how to achieve that delicate balance, Join Collegewise counselors and fellow parents Kirsten Hanson-Press and Julie Simon at the following free webinar:

How Parents Can Help Without Hurting
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. (PST)
Click here for more information or to register.

I hope you’ll join us.

 

A comparison-free space

Most parents receive the message early in our parenting careers that it’s generally not a good idea to compare siblings. “Why can’t you be more responsible like your sister?” might be exactly what we’re thinking and feeling in the moment, but the sentiment is just going to make the unfavorably compared sibling feel bad about themselves.

The high school experience is rooted in comparisons. Kids are constantly compared to every other student in class, every other student who took the standardized test, every other student who’s applying to the dream schools, etc. And for many families, those comparisons seep into the home.

The calculus exam, the student body election, the tryouts for the team or the audition for the play or the big debate tournament–if parents focus all of their conversations with their kids on these outcomes, the feeling of being compared to their peers is inescapable for most kids, even when that’s not our intention. The message is that whoever scored the highest, ran the fastest, or sang the best is more deserving of praise and pride than the kids who worked just as hard and risked just as much.

Some tough-loving parents may point out that this is how the world works and that they’re just preparing their kids for it, but that’s just not true. You have no idea where your family doctor finished in her med school graduating class, and you probably don’t care (you probably care even less about what she scored on her SATs).

Comparisons may be part of the college admissions process, but they don’t need a place in your home. Appreciate your student for who they are, not how they stack up. Praise them for their efforts, not the comparison-driven outcomes.

And if you worry that you’re shielding them from the harsh realities of the world, remember that they’re immersed in comparisons all day, every day, arguably more so than any of us parents are in our jobs or our social circles. Their current high school universe will offer plenty of comparisons for them to feel measured against. Let’s make home their one comparison-free space.

The spirit of the message

I occasionally come across an article where I agree with the spirit—but not the letter—of the advice, and that’s the case with “10 Messages That Matter More Than a Report Card.” I simply cannot imagine ever saying to a child or teenager, “Your flexibility and grit certainly helped you grow from this adversity.” But while the letter of the advice recommends particular phrasing, the spirit—which is spot on—is that our kids’ happiness and success, both now and in the future, is dependent on so much more than just the grade they get in geometry. And we should be focusing our messaging on what’s really important.

It doesn’t matter how you say it as long as you get the spirit of the message across.

Parents and college essays: be afraid

Fear almost never belongs in the college admissions process. Collegewise counselors work hard to remove it. We commit to never injecting it. We want to help families embrace the journey to college as an exciting time where fear has no place.

But there is one instance where I intentionally instill fear because it’s both legitimate and necessary—when parents over-involve themselves in their student’s college essays.

What does “over-involvement” look like? Insisting (over the student’s objections) that they write what you want them to write. Rewriting portions in the way you think they should be written. Flat out writing the essay for your student. They’re all different versions of the same behavior—taking away the thoughts, words, and ensuing stories of a 17-year-old and replacing them with your own.

So, why should you be afraid to do it? Because when you over-involve yourself, admissions officers know it.

Admissions officers have read enough essays to know how students (and unfortunately, how over-involved parents) think and write. That sixth essay sense comes with experience. If you put 20 essays in front of me and asked me to pick out the one that was the product of an over-involved parent, I’ll bat 1000 on that exercise, every time. And I’ve read a fraction of the essays most admissions officers read.

Once the reader recognizes that an essay is not entirely the student’s, it triggers a cascade of negative application effects.

Now the reader is forced to question the integrity of the rest of the application. How much did Mom or Dad do? How much of what’s presented is unvarnished truth from a teen, and how much is over-polished (at best) or fiction (at worst) from the parent?

How often does this behavior repeat itself in the student’s academic work?

Will this parent take over the work once the student is admitted to college (no college professor wants to teach a student whose parents do some or all the work for them)?

Some parents might cry foul and claim this treatment isn’t fair. But the question of fairness isn’t the issue. It’s reality, and an entirely avoidable one.

And consider the effect this over-involvement has on your student. When you take over their essay, you’re telling them their stories aren’t good enough, that their writing isn’t good enough, and that they aren’t good enough. You’re telling them that they can’t get into college without you doing the work for them. And worst of all, you’re telling them that it’s OK to misrepresent themselves in the hopes that the end will justify the means.

Parents can absolutely suggest stories and approaches. You can correct grammar and spelling if you have that skill set. And you certainly know your student well enough to share feedback around questions like these.

But there’s just no nice way to say this. Parents, if you think your essay over-involvement is the exception, if you think you’re improving their essay and improving their chances of admission, you are kidding yourself. You’re making the essay worse. You’re making your student’s chances of admission worse. I know your intentions are good, but you’re making things worse.

If this sounds surprisingly critical or alarmist, that’s intentional. These risks are real. And if parents are going to take them, you deserve to know what you’re risking.

So if you’re afraid, listen to those fears. Step back and let your student get back to writing their own essays.

And if you’re looking for another voice to add to this chorus, please see this recent NY Times piece, “How I Know you Wrote your Kid’s College Essay.”

The earlier we start

My three-year-old preschooler recently arrived home with an assignment—create a project on a paper bag depicting “what home means to me.” The students could draw, attach photos, or use any other creative impulse to express their version of home. But whatever that version was, it would be displayed in the school hallways with the rest of the class’s finished work.

I understand that this is meant to encourage a shared discussion and experience for parent and student. But the idea that the work would be displayed made it difficult to follow the advice I always share with parents here—step back, don’t do things for your student that they can do themselves, and allow them to make their own mistakes. Still, we were resolute not to over-involve ourselves.

The discussion portion of the project lasted all of ten seconds before he scribbled wildly with a blue pen and proudly announced that it was an apartment downtown where he lived with all his friends. Apparently, his vision of home in that moment was not our home at all, but a different dwelling in a different location where he lived with friends but not his parents or sibling. It felt like a foreshadowing of the weeks before he leaves for college.

As of this week, Classroom A’s projects began popping up on the school hallways, most of which are elaborate parent-driven depictions involving photos of family gatherings, images of pets and siblings, and artistic renderings of various activities taking place in the home. And perched up there next to all of them is my boy’s indecipherable scribbling.

Did we do the right thing? Could we have coaxed him to watch us create something more meaningful that would have left us proud to see it depicted on the hall’s walls? As is so often the case for parents, I have no idea. I’m not a child rearing expert. I don’t know if we should feel proud or humiliated. That’s the parenting challenge. There’s no manual, no well-defined best practices or step-by-step procedure. You do what feels right.

But I do know that if we can’t step back now, how could we possibly expect to do so later when the stakes feel even higher? The future for every family is clear. Kids grow up, they move out, and they must find their way in the world. At some point, hopefully in the much distant future, parents won’t be around any longer to manage their lives even if they wanted to. We don’t get to control that eventuality. But we do get to control how we prepare ourselves and our kids.

And the earlier we start, the earlier we’ll all be prepared.