Potential today, and tomorrow

A parent recently posted a question in an online discussion forum about how to help her teen “fulfill his potential.” As is often the case, it comes from a good place, rooted in that universal parental goal to ensure that your kids have more than you did. She sees a smart, capable young man who gets mostly B’s with a smattering of C’s and doesn’t seem motivated to change those outcomes. She’s likely worried that he’ll one day regret this lack of effort–that he’ll realize that he’s got big aspirations for his life and be hindered from reaching them because of choices he made as a teen.

Most fellow parents can likely empathize. But it’s also important to remember exactly what potential is—the capacity to do or become something in the future. Having potential is about today. Fulfilling potential is about tomorrow.

Potential is realized at different points in different people. I’m sure there are 17-year-olds who have blossomed and are already pairing dreams with strengths and direction to fully realize them. But it’s far more common for people to discover their long-term talents, interests, and, yes, full potential during or even after college.

You can identify, nurture, and have faith in your teen’s potential. But you can’t fill it for them. Instead, pair high expectations with unconditional love. Encourage them to explore and even to make mistakes along the way. And appreciate the existence of potential today while awaiting the fulfillment of it tomorrow.

Greeting vs. status reporting

Parents, imagine you’ve just gotten home after a long, trying day of work. You can’t wait to shed the stress of the day and enjoy the comparative relaxation of your home and family.

Now your son or daughter walks into the room and starts hitting you with questions, like:

Did you hear back from your boss about whether you’re getting that promotion?

I heard Suzanne made partner. Does she have a better track record than you do?

Did anyone else get bonuses? If so, why haven’t you gotten one?

When will you know the results of that certification test? If you didn’t do well, how soon can you retake it?

Will the remodel be coming in under budget? If not, I’ll schedule a meeting with the builders and try to get things back on track for you.

Are you on schedule to present that report this week?

Would you feel like your son or daughter was taking an active interest in your work? Would you find their questions supportive and encouraging?

Or would you feel like they were exacerbating existing stress, that they were asking you to replay a day that had already played out, that the entire line of questioning was simply inviting into your home the very parts of work that you most want to leave back at work until tomorrow?

And even more importantly, would you prefer they instead just expressed how genuinely happy they were to see you?

If your end-of-the-day conversations with your teen tend to go poorly (or go nowhere), try offering a greeting instead of requesting a status report.

[Not one hour after posting this, someone sent me this article advocating the following for parents upon seeing their kids after school: “When you’re reunited at the end of the day, look at them and say the following: ‘Hey, I’m so happy to see you.’ Then shut up.”]

Celebrate who they are today

When a student shows a passion for the arts—acting, photography, painting, etc.—it’s natural for some parents to worry about that interest’s future practicality. Should you encourage their pottery or painting or songwriting? Or should you push them towards interests where the path to gainful employment is both more certain and more direct?

It’s not an unreasonable concern (as my dad says, “There’s a difference between having a hobby and having a job”), or one with an obvious answer.

I liked Madeline Levine’s advice shared in this 90-second video about how to parent artistic kids. She uses the analogy of a river and a rock. A kid who is truly creative is like a river. You can be a rock who tries to halt that flow if you want to be, but they can’t shut off who they are—they’ll just go around you. So the only thing you stand to accomplish by trying to stop that flow is damaging your own relationship with your child.

But there’s an important distinction, one that I’m guessing Levine herself would have made had the video been longer. Just because a high school student shows a creative passion doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll one day commit to making a career out of it. Very few kids—creative or not—seek careers at 26 in the exact areas that made them tick when they were 16. That creativity may be there to stay, but creativity can be expressed in as many avenues as it can mediums.

Maybe your student will grow up and use those acting chops to deliver polished sales presentations? Maybe they’ll use those photography skills to capture the best shots of your family holidays together? Maybe the art class they teach one day will be the most popular course on campus?

So parents, if your student expresses a creative passion, celebrate it. Be happy for them that they’ve found something they enjoy, something safe and productive that lights them up. Don’t rush ten steps (and ten years) ahead and evaluate their creative career potential.

Yes, you might have to have some of those conversations if that creative interest starts to drive their college selection. But even those choices don’t necessarily bind them to a future career choice.

Wait and see who they become tomorrow, and just celebrate who they are today.

Is overparenting prevalent?

If you believe the press and admittedly this blog, there’s an epidemic of overparenting among the moms and dads of college-bound kids. Parents have gone off the deep end and made it their full-time jobs to run their kids’ lives and get them admitted to the most famous colleges. And all this overparenting or helicopter parenting or whatever pejorative term that’s applied is producing a generation of kids who are helpless, depressed, and anxious. And it’s all the parents’ fault.

But does that description mesh with reality?

In a word, no. I don’t think it does.

First, most stories of harmful overparenting are speaking to a comparatively small segment of the parenting population that even has the time, resources, and inclination to be managers and agents for their children. Overparenting is largely a problem of the privileged, and even there, it’s not like the tendency is universally part of their DNA.

Second, there’s no universal definition of exactly what overparenting is. I like Alfie Kohn’s distinction he lays out in The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises. Kohn argues that helicopter parenting is only harmful when it is controlling. And while control over kids can take many forms, like punishment, guilt, disappointment, and even praise, they all share the common goal of getting a child to do exactly what will please their parents. There’s nothing inherently wrong with kids doing things that please their parents—I’ll go on record as a parent who will welcome that whenever my kids want to give it. But if the student’s choices, motivation, and direction are all predicated on pleasing parents, kids aren’t learning or doing enough on their own to become capable adults. They need to make decisions to learn how to make good decisions. More control may lead to more pleasing, but it doesn’t lead to more decisions.

And finally, let’s consider the alternative. No matter what the studies say about the reported consequences of hyper-involved parents, they can’t possibly do the same damage that underparenting does. Kids who lack a parent’s unconditional love, modeling of healthy behavior, or a sense of parental interest and investment have it a lot worse than those whose mothers choose their community service projects or line up armies of after-school tutors for every subject. Neither are good, but it’s hard to dispute the inherent advantages those coddled kids are receiving as they move towards adulthood.

Kids need their parents. They need you to pay attention to them and to accept them and to show them that you care about their happiness and their future. So please don’t let what’s becoming the hysteria of overparenting deter you from following your instincts. If your biggest crime is that you love your kids too much and sometimes allow yourself to be more involved than you should be, give yourself a break. Add it to your own “not quite perfect parenting” list that we all have.

But if you find yourself feeling like you’re the one driving your student’s bus, that you’re not only setting their course but also navigating and making every correction along the way, all while your student is a passive passenger whose sole job is to go along for the ride, that’s an unreasonable amount of pressure on you and a problematic lack of learning and doing for them.

You don’t have to hand them the keys, car, and map entirely. But let them take a shift every now and then. It might be a more enjoyable ride for both of you if you just switch seats.

Let them be kids

Two of the most prominent leaders of the charge against the arms race that has become college admissions are Julie Lythcott-Haims (author, parent, and former dean of freshmen at Stanford) and Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy. They are both featured in this article, Reducing Student Stress: 6 Ways Parents Can Help High School Students, offering these tips that can be so easy to forget under the pressure of the college admissions process:

“Spend time together where no one is focusing on grades or their college application essays. ‘Kids in this demographic feel that their worth as a human is based on how well they do in school,’ says Lythcott-Haims. ‘I try to let my kids know that I love them when they get A’s. And I love them when they don’t.’ Thacker adds that it is vital to allow high school kids to live a life where the stakes are not always high. ‘Allow them to make mistakes, allow them to play,’ he says. ‘Love your kids enough to let them to be kids.’”

Look ahead to look back

Last week, my wife and I had to put our dog, Lola, down, the first pet I’d ever owned. And like fellow and past dog owners can attest to their dogs doing, she’d become a part of our family.

This won’t be a post about my dog, or death. In fact, in college admissions circles, “pet death” is one of those essays that’s so common it’s become an ineffective cliché.

But one part of dog ownership that I got right was that every night before I’d head upstairs to bed, I’d give Lola a quick scratch behind the ears and say, “Goodnight, sweet puppy.” Maybe it was maudlin to think this way, but no matter how tired I was or how strong the call of the comfy bed was proving to be, I’d remind myself that Lola wasn’t going to live in our house forever. I didn’t want to look back on her time here wishing I’d focused a little more on just how great it was to have her around. I made the decision once that I was going to end each night on a good Lola note. And I’m glad I did.

Parents of high school kids have so many wonderful things to look forward to as their kids move on from the teenage years. Watching them grow into adults, forge their lives, start their own families–that’s the good stuff. The relationship you’ll enjoy, the joy you’ll find in watching all of it happen, unlike Lola ending her run in our house last week, even when they’re no longer in the house to say goodnight to–all the best parts are still to come for you.

But there are still a limited number of days that your kid will be a full-time resident in your house. No matter how far in the future it may be, their departure date will eventually arrive.

How do you want to say you spent that limited time until then?

My guess is that when you look back, you won’t wish you’d spent more time talking about SAT scores, or arguing about homework, or fixating on perceived weaknesses to be fixed before it’s time for college applications.

I always try to remind Collegewise families that they’re only going to get to do this (watch their kid apply to college) once. Don’t ruin it by injecting all kinds of unnecessary stress or attaching lifelong significance to temporary outcomes like grades, test scores, or an admissions decision from a dream college. Sure, treat their future education with the attention it deserves. But find a way to see it for the exciting time it is, and to appreciate the joy in watching your student find their place for the next four years.

Your perspective changes when you remember that what’s happening right now, both good and stressful, won’t be happening forever. Look ahead to how you want to look back. And make the decision to make the most of this time.

We miss you, Lo. Goodnight, sweet puppy.

Self-driven kids

A new book, The Self-Driven Child, argues that influences like screen time, along with well-meaning parents and schools, are denying children and teens a sense of control over their own lives. And when kids don’t have the chance or the choice to do what they find meaningful, or to succeed or fail on their own, it leads to a host of problems like anxiety, depression, and even a failure to launch (which explains why more adults in their 20s and 30s are living at home).

Here’s Ned Johnson, the book’s co-author, as interviewed in Scientific American. I’m sharing this passage because it’s the perfect example of a simple but powerful decision parents can make that improves everything from your teen’s mental health, to your family relationship, to—yes—even college admissions outcomes.

“They [teens] are facing stressors each day, from school demands to social dynamics. You want home to be the place they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out. But if home is a stressful environment—if parents are an anxious or controlling presence—kids will seek that respite somewhere—or somehow—else. And most of the time, it’s a place you don’t want them to go. Or, if nowhere can be that safe base, they are really in trouble, as being chronically stressed is about the worst thing imaginable for brains, especially developing ones. That’s why we tell parents that one of the most important things they can say to their kids is, ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework,’ and why we want them to move in the direction of being a non-anxious presence for their kids.”

Five steps to easing college stress in your house

The stress surrounding the college admissions process can worm its way into areas of your life where it has no business. That’s one reason I’ve heard so many families comment that college talk has ruined their dinner table conversations.

Parents, here are five deceptively simple things you can start doing this week that will ease the college stress in your house. None of these encourage families to disengage from their kids’ futures. They’re simply meant to put college stress in the proper perspective–and place.

1. Make a point of recognizing and verbally acknowledging something about them you’re proud of that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college.

2. Own up to at least one mistake or failure of your own.
It’s good for kids to know that Mom and Dad are human and that even you don’t get everything right all the time.

3. Move one conversation a day away from tests, grades, or other college admissions-related factors and talk about something else instead, like current events, family vacation plans, news from relatives, etc.

4. Replace the temptation to intervene, fix, or otherwise correct with the words, “I trust you, but let me know if I can help.”

5. Openly appreciate what’s really important.
Family, health, and happiness are all more important than any grade, test score, or admissions decision.

Friend, manager, or agent?

When someone shares a struggle, complaint, or frustration, we make the choice whether to respond like a friend, a manager, or an agent.

A good friend is there to listen without judgment. A friend says, “That sounds really frustrating. I’m so sorry.”

A good manager is there to help find, but not necessarily produce, an appropriate solution. A manager says, “I understand. Let’s talk about how I might be able to help you work through or around this.”

And a good agent is there to make the problem go away so her star can just be a star. An agent says, “Don’t worry about a thing—I’ll take care of it.”

So parents, which role are you supposed to play when your teen comes to you with something they’re facing?

I don’t actually have a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But I will say that both the friend and manager roles encourage progress. The friend lets the person get it all out and gives them a chance to look at their own situation with a calm perspective. A manager offers an opportunity to find a solution without actually serving up the solution itself. People come away from those interactions changed in some way. And they’ve added some learning or growth to their emotional and intellectual bank account they can use to inform them in the future.

But while an agent who makes the problem go away has certainly done her job, she’s also ensured that her star will come right back to her the next time a problem arises. No learning or growth, just increased dependence.

That’s great for the agent, but not so great for the parent. And it’s even worse for the teen.

Good parents inevitably end up playing all three roles at different stages and in different situations. But a good approach might be to do two things:

1. Acknowledge that there are three different roles to be played.
2. When in doubt, start as a friend, if for no other reason than to delay judgment and to invite further conversation.

If the conversation continues and your teen doesn’t make it clear what role they’re inviting you to play, don’t be afraid to just ask them if they’re looking for your help, the chance to just talk, or a little of both.

If nothing else, you’ll create a space where they’re more likely to come back to you the next time, no matter which role they’re seeking when it happens.

Progress reporting

I began writing today’s blog post about the article “When did being an average student become a bad thing?” “Average” is often a pejorative term in our culture, nowhere more so than for college-bound high school students. It was shaping up to be a reassuring reminder that we don’t need our kids relentlessly achieving in all areas, all the time. Plenty of successful people in a variety of disciplines report being “average” students in high school. Who they are at 16 isn’t who they’ll be for life. Grades and test scores don’t mean that much in the long run. Let’s all try to relax a little bit.

And then the email from my son’s school arrived with the subject line, “Winter Progress Report.”

I don’t usually keep email open while I write (this was a good reminder why). But as soon as I saw those words, “progress report,” I abandoned the blog writing and anxiously opened the email. There’s a strange sense of foreboding around a formal document describing your child’s “progress.” What if he isn’t progressing like he should be? What if he’s behind? How will we get him caught up?

My son is three. He’s in preschool.

That preemptive worry didn’t last long. Of course, the progress report contained lots of descriptions like, “He enjoys working with glue, tape, and rubber stamps as he plays at the art table,” and “He is proud of his physical accomplishments, such as sliding down the pole.” That’s appropriate for a preschooler. We don’t need him doing long division or preparing for the SAT (oh, the horror). But that fleeting moment of anxiety that came when opening a progress report, especially while encouraging other parents to resist over-focusing on their kids’ achievements relative to other kids, reminded me what this must be like as our kids get older.

Sure, there are some very real indicators a teacher or school could share with a parent that would in fact be cause for concern. Difficulties learning or socializing, emotional troubles, any real challenge for which the kid—not the parent or the report card—would benefit from addressing are worth taking seriously.

But most grades, test scores, and other metrics so common in school are imperfect, incomplete snapshots of our kids. Yes, as parents, we should pay attention to them. We should talk with our kids about them, especially as a way to celebrate and encourage strengths rather than polishing perceived weaknesses. But we must remember that most of those measurements, who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who’s average, are arbitrary in retrospect and carry little to no weight in the future.

I acknowledged the irony of my progress report email. Then I smiled, imagined my kid “playing fire fighters and construction” (yep—that’s in the progress report), and got back to work. I hope we can all do something similar the next time a progress report arrives.