When kids tell the best stories

Today I’m doing my annual essay workshop for the Collegewise families in our Bellevue, Washington, office. In the early years of Collegewise, I was in front of families 2-3 times a week to discuss some element of college planning. And while those opportunities are a lot more infrequent now that Collegewise has grown and my responsibilities have changed so much, the essay session is always my favorite because I’m trying to change the parents’ behaviors even more than I am the kids’.

Parents and college essays tend to be a bad mix. That might not be true if you’re a parent who really knows how to write and you’re helping someone you’re not related to. But when it’s your own child, it’s just impossible to be an objective, non-biased voice. You’re too close to the subject matter to be an impartial observer.

Adults also see the world differently than kids do. You’ve lived long enough to add learning and experiences and perspective to your worldview. But a college admissions officer wants to better understand the applicant and what makes them tick. They want to learn more about what it was like to be the worst swimmer on the swim team and why that kid slogged through it anyway. They want to learn more about why there’s so much pressure on the kid who ran the lights for the school play, or what it felt like to step in for the first chair oboist, or how life changed when the teenager gave up after-school sports to help care for the new baby brother in the house.

Colleges aren’t interested in the adult’s version of those events. They want the 17-year-old’s take, the story as told by the kid who lived it.

Those stories won’t have the same perspective and wisdom that an adult would have brought to it, but that’s what makes college essays so fascinating. A not-yet-fully-grown adult with their whole life in front of them shares a snapshot of what their life is like today. The more it sounds like an idea that was conceived, over-edited, or worse, written by the parent, the less compelling that story will be.

So parents, as your students move into college application season over the next several months, as much as possible, step back during the college essay process. Encourage your kids to get advice from someone they like and respect, like an English teacher or a counselor, and let that person do their job. Then get back to doing yours—cheerleading, supporting from the sidelines, and most importantly, being the parent of a college applicant.

For this particular audience, kids tell their stories better than their parents can.

We’re all average

Somewhere along the American college planning and career line, “average” got a bad rap. Unexceptional, unremarkable, wallowing in perpetual mediocrity. Nobody aspires to be average. And for many parents, we couldn’t bear to hear that word applied to our kids.

But here’s the thing. With the rare exception of the truly exceptional, we’re all average—you, me, and yes, our kids.

We have things that we’re good at. We have things that we can’t do and probably never will. Everything else falls somewhere into the middle—and that’s the average.

But accepting average doesn’t mean expecting less. For parents, I think there are a few healthy ways to strike a good balance with your kids.

  1. Don’t expect them to be great at everything they try. You wouldn’t expect a professional chef to also be able to remodel your house, do your taxes, and realign your spine. And it’s not reasonable to expect our kids to set the curve at everything they touch inside and outside of the classroom.
  2. Embrace strengths over fixating on perceived weaknesses. Strengths improve more than weaknesses do. The way for a student to stand out is not to polish every perceived flaw, but to flourish in areas where they naturally thrive. The more kids can do those things that they’re predisposed to do well—which not coincidentally also tend to be those things they like—the happier and more successful they’re going to be.
  3. Don’t overpraise. Kids should feel unconditionally loved by their parents. But they shouldn’t be told that everything they touch is award-worthy. The world isn’t going to praise everything they do, and it’s not helpful to set them up with that expectation. Praise has its place, but that place isn’t all day, about everything, every day. Here are three past posts, here, here, and here, from experts to help you praise in a way that leaves kids feeling appreciated by the parents they love, but also prepared for a world that won’t necessarily love them no matter what they do.

When admissions obsession mirrors addiction

At first glance, some might say that comparing an obsession with an Ivy League education to an addiction to a prescription pain killer is a tad alarmist. But a full read of Brennan Barnard’s latest piece, “Education’s Opiates: Prescribing Selective Colleges,” reveals that in many communities, the anxiety around college admissions is becoming a very real physical and mental health hazard. And I particularly appreciated his recommendation that parents pledge to prohibit the following harmful teen behaviors in their house (the links are also from the article):

  • Unchecked perfectionism
  • Diminished sleep and reliance on energy drinks
  • Over-involvement and thoughtless resume building
  • Crushing course loads
  • The absence of purposeless play
  • A culture of admissions anxiety
  • Imposition of our own aspirations on our children’s futures

How to save if college is not a sure thing

Saving for college is usually one of those just-plain-good-sense things to do, not unlike exercising or reducing your midnight servings of Oreos. And the prevailing wisdom from every reputable college financial planner I’ve come across is to save that money in a 529 plan due to the favorable rate of return and the minimal impact on your financial aid eligibility.

But you’ll incur a tax penalty if you pull that money out of a 529 plan to pay for non-approved expenses. So what should you do if you’re not sure of your child’s college future? Should you continue to rely on the 529 plan and run the risk of penalties, or take a different savings route that would leave more cash on hand if college doesn’t pan out, but likely cost you in financial aid if college comes to fruition?

The short answer, according to this article, is to take the 529 plan off the table only if you are sure your child won’t attend college. Otherwise, keep saving in your 529 plan.

If you’re interested in the math behind the recommendation, the article lays it out nicely. But this question of the 529’s viability for kids who may or may not be college bound was a new one for me, and one that seemed worth sharing here.

Let them fly

Before he joined Collegewise, where he now spends his days guiding kids through the college application process, counselor Tom Barry worked in admissions at Colorado College and earned a master’s in education from Stanford. So he knows a lot about college admissions. But he’s also taken the usual crash course in parenting since becoming a father himself last year. And in his Collegewise bio video released yesterday, I thought Tom offered up some advice to parents that’s both sage and empathetic.

“In some ways the college admissions process feels like a referendum on whether or not that decision to play in the sandbox on a random Tuesday when they were three was the right choice or not. But one thing working with students year after year, and working on the admissions side, has taught me is that no one decision is going to make or break this process. And it should be an exciting process. It should be fun to watch your child grow and make these decisions on their own. And of course, [you will] be there to guide them and work with them along the way. But it’s not about the parent anymore. You’ve set them up to thrive. And this is where they just let their wings go and fly.”

Do the hard work to set them up. Then do the often harder work of stepping back and letting them fly.

The parenting report card

Julie Lythcott-Haims nails it again in this Q&A with Your Teen, particularly with this piece of advice:

“If there is a parenting report card, it should be ‘Does your child do the right thing in the world, even when no one is looking or grading them?’ Their good character is the highest possible grade we could receive. As parents, we should show an interest in them, not just their grades and scores. When you first see each other at the end of the day, looking them in the eye, smiling, letting them see that their presence brings you joy, and saying, ‘Hi. How was your day? What did you like about today?’ Take an interest in what actually interested them in the day, instead of bombarding them with, ‘How’d that math test go? How much homework do you have?’ The first questions we ask when we reunite with them at the end of each school or work day really is a very clear signal to them about what matters to us. Many of us are conveying the impression that our kids’ worth value comes from their test scores and GPA. We’ve got to take that broader view, and value the human behind those achievements.”

Grades and test scores may not measure those character traits. But just about everyone else does, including many colleges.

Innate strengths vs. perceived weaknesses

I’m not a fan of most personality tests. Even the people who rave to me about a particular one always seem to point to fairly obvious findings, like the wildly outgoing person whose test results reveal that they are outgoing.

But for me, the StrengthsFinder test by the Gallup Organization was different. It was the first test whose findings really helped me understand the five areas where I’m wired to flourish. And as more people at Collegewise took the same test and openly discussed their findings, it helped us understand each other and better answer questions like:

Why are some people energized by a day spent discussing big ideas while others get restless and just want to get started right now?

Why do some of us love going to conferences while others would much rather learn on their own back at the office?

Why do some of us love attacking a thorny problem that needs to be fixed while others are much happier making something already good even better?

What I appreciate most about Gallup’s teachings around this test is that they advocate leaning into your strengths rather than trying to fix your perceived weaknesses. I’ve seen that philosophy work for kids trying to get into college, for colleagues seeking to do their best work, and for managers trying to help their employees flourish.

If you’re a parent who would like to discover, understand, and nourish your kids’ strengths, you might consider this book from Gallup: Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Children’s Innate Talents. The book comes with access codes for both the parent and student to take the online assessment test. And it recommends some thoughtful questions parents can ask their kids around each of the particular strengths.

In a college admissions process where so much of the messaging, both deliberate and unintentional, tells kids and their parents that perfection is the desired outcome, it’s no wonder families end up spending so much time and often money trying to fix perceived weaknesses. Kids (and adults) are happier, more productive, and more successful when they’re maximizing innate strengths rather than fixing perceived weaknesses.

Silence = space for learning

One of Michael Bungay Stanier’s recommended strategies described in his book “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is so simple that anyone can do it. And it can lead to more enlightening conversations with those in your charge, whether you’re a parent, a counselor, or a manager.

Get comfortable with silence.

Stanier’s book recommends seven essential questions for those you are coaching or leading. But in order for the responses to lead to better coaching for you and better learning for them, you need to give them time to formulate their answers. If a question is followed by even 3-4 seconds of silence, many people—and I’m one of them—feel compelled to fill that void by rephrasing, clarifying, or outright starting over with a new question. Instead, just do this (Stanier describes this in the first person, as if you’re reminding yourself how to handle these scenarios):

“When I’ve asked a question and she doesn’t have an answer ready in the first two seconds, instead of filling up the space with another question or the same question just asked a new way or a suggestion or just pointless words, I will take a breath, stay open and keep quiet for another three seconds.”

Stanier argues that it’s during these silences, when people are considering their answers, that they are forming new neural pathways and increasing both their potential and capacity.

Sometimes the best way to create space for learning is to stop giving advice and start listening.

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.”]