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.”]

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.’”