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.

The summer enrichment craze?

The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 15-minute podcast episode entitled “Managing the Summer Enrichment Craze” features Denise Pope from Challenge Success and is worth the listen for parents grappling with questions about what their kids should do this summer. I particularly appreciated her reminders that a student’s interest should be the driving force for any enrichment program, that downtime is an imperative part of development, and that there is plenty of enrichment to be found without paying money for it.

The best route?

Six months after moving to Seattle in 2012, I still didn’t know how to get anywhere. Other than the grocery store and a few places right in my neighborhood, I had almost no geographical awareness. And the reason was obvious to me. Before any departure in my car, I plugged the destination into my phone and let GPS do the rest. No thinking. No choosing between available routes. I was following instructions, but I wasn’t learning. Nothing became more familiar, even after repeatedly taking the same route. So I literally and figuratively unplugged. I’d look at the map once to figure out how to get to my destination, then let my own brain do the work to remember and adjust when necessary. In just six weeks, I knew my way around far better than I had at any point in the previous six months.

It’s not particularly surprising science, but there’s evidence that consistently relying on GPS dulls the brain’s ability to navigate. Yes, it’s helpful technology and I’ll admit that I still use it frequently. But it’s also emblematic of an important, larger reminder: learning requires thinking.

And this is why it’s important for parents not to step in and run our kids’ lives as they get older. When a parent makes every decision, when a parent makes the choice between available options, or when a parent just does the task for the student, we become the GPS. And our students become dependent drivers who can’t find their own way anywhere without step-by-step instructions.

Everyone gets lost occasionally. But the more thinking and learning we let our kids do for themselves, the more likely they are to choose the best route.

Constants emerge over time

David Epstein, author of the forthcoming Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times  last week entitled, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy.” Epstein argues that the most elite performers, from athletes to musicians, didn’t specialize early. In their younger years, these elite adults sampled different activities, developing a range of skills and experiences before finding the field where they’d one day reach the very highest levels. Statistics, experience, and just plain common sense tell us that most of us—and our children—aren’t likely to reach the elite levels of the Roger Federers and Antonio Vivaldis (both of whom are mentioned in the article) during our lifetimes. They’re called “elite” for a reason. But there’s still a great deal of application for high school students here, regardless of their performance levels inside or outside the classroom.

A shift took place in admissions in the late 90’s when colleges and counselors began advising students that the term “well-rounded” wasn’t necessarily an admissions strength. In the growing drive to get accepted to famous colleges, many students had progressed through high school amassing long lists of varied interests—leadership, community service, sports, etc. The logic of the new approach was that those students who’d achieved a higher level of impact within a chosen interest were more likely to stand out in a pile of high-achieving applicants. And that advice, combined with an obsession with prestigious colleges, drove many families to push their students to find a passion early in high school and then stick with it.

The advice wasn’t and still isn’t necessarily misguided.

While there’s nothing wrong with a student who spends four years of high school picking things up and putting them right back down (they’re kids, after all), the resulting college admissions challenge is that an application full of activities that only lasted a short time makes it difficult for a college to ascertain what kind of impact this student could make when interest and energy are applied consistently.

The antipode for that circumstance, however, is not to force kids to pick one interest early and stick with it. In fact, that’s almost always a recipe for burnout and resentment. Most kids are likely to shop around a bit before they land on those things that both draw and sustain their interest. They’ll have some starts and stops. Those choices aren’t necessarily a sign of a lack of fortitude or commitment. They can also be a sign of curiosity, growth, and learning. Most adults have experienced fits where a new hobby or interest they were excited about lost its luster. Constants need time to emerge.

For the rare student who legitimately discovers a sustained passion early in life and finds joy in it, great. Dive in and stay in as long as it’s both enjoyable and rewarding.

But for those teens who resist pledging their undying devotion to one area, don’t worry that they’re somehow lacking forward college admissions progress. Encourage them to honor their commitments. But let them find those things that light them up, whenever those lights happen to start shining. Those are the areas where they’re most likely to thrive, to make an impact, and to show colleges just how much they’re capable of in whatever interest they pursue on campus.

Protecting downtime

Julie Lythcott-Haims added her post, “Making Childhood Healthy Again,” to the website of the School Superintendents Association. There are a number of important insights here for parents and students, but this particular one struck me, especially in the age of overscheduled kids whose lives have become a constant state a busyness.

“Downtime can exist only in the absence of constant busyness. It allows kids to process and reflect upon what they’ve experienced and to decide for themselves what to do next. This builds resilience, imagination and critical thinking. We have to prioritize downtime and reduce the number of activities accordingly.”