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.”

Does constant oversight help or hurt?

Parents, imagine if the person your boss reported to could log into a system at any time, see the current status of your work, and then—without any necessary context—demand both explanations for and solutions to any perceived shortcomings of the work itself.

Would that create a supportive environment for you or your boss?

Would it help you do your best work?

Or would you come to dread and resent the constant over-your-shoulder presence?

If you regularly check your student’s grades online and then fire off emails to teachers with questions, suggestions, or requests, you’re likely behaving like the boss’s boss above.

Engagement and interest in your student’s education are hallmarks of good, responsible parenting. But constant oversight and communication with teachers just removes agency that students should be developing for themselves.

Yes, every student and situation is different. And there are likely scenarios where more frequent interaction is appropriate. When in doubt, ask the teacher if the interactions you’re driving are helpful, and if not, what interactions would be more constructive.

Here’s a past post with some guidelines for parents when emailing teachers.

Monday morning Q & A: How to address a lack of effort

I received multiple question submissions last week around one of the most popular topics for parents—how to help kids who seem to lack effort. Here are two examples:

How can I encourage a growth mindset in a student who considers the minimal work or effort acceptable and who overcomes a challenge by avoiding it completely?

How do I motivate super talented but less self-driven boys in high school studies?

It’s one of those topics where the best approach (if there even is one) really depends on the student. But here are a few things I’d advise any parent to consider if they’re worried about a lack of effort—especially academic related—on the part of their kids.

Be curious, not frustrated.
A lack of effort could stem from a number of things ranging from the routine to the concerning. It could be that a student just can’t get excited about biology. It could be a learning difference or depression. It could be that they’re much more interested in other things. But whatever the reason, resist the urge to write it off as a character flaw. “He’s just lazy” is easy to say but hard to substantiate (and even harder for kids to hear). As much as you can, try to replace your frustration with curiosity. Seek what’s behind what you believe is a lack of effort.

Rethink your expectations.
Are you really seeing a lack of effort in your student? Or are you seeing a lack of effort in the areas everyone says are so crucial to a kid’s future, like grades, test scores, and other academic measures? Kids are interested in different things. They often put more effort into some things than others. So while a teen may not naturally double down on their trigonometry efforts, they may be doing so in other areas that aren’t reflected on a transcript. I understand why that might still leave parents unnerved. But a teen who’s completely devoid of any effort at all is one who likely needs help for a larger problem. A teen who lacks the effort to prepare for the ACT might just be acting like a normal teen.

Duplicate the bright spots.
Where do you see your student investing effort without you having to push? What’s different about that interest or activity? And what could you do to praise, nurture, and support more of that? It’s hard to do this if the interest doesn’t seem traditionally productive. For example, a student who spends hours playing video games might be feeding a nascent interest in game design or programming. And at the very least, they’re getting a taste of what it feels like to invest time and energy into something that matters to them. Once they experience that feeling, they’re more likely to chase it in other areas.

Let them make their own choices.
Science has shown that autonomy—a sense of influence over what we do, as well as how, when, and with whom—is a crucial element of human motivation. As much as is reasonable, let kids make their own choices. This isn’t to suggest that we should let them do whatever they want, whenever they want. But most teens don’t have a sense of autonomy, as the structure and demands of high school and activities mean that anywhere from 6-18 hours a day are already decided for them. If your kid decides that what she really wants to do with a few hours of free time is watch YouTube videos or update his social media profiles, there are worse things a kid could be up to. And the more control they get to exercise over those areas of their lives, the less they’re likely to resent the lack of that control in other areas.

Praise effort independently of the outcome.
If more effort is what you want, then praise effort when you see it without—and this is crucial—tying it to the outcome at all. If your student works like crazy to prepare for an exam and still finds you’re disappointed with the B- or C or D+ that they earned, don’t be surprised if they don’t work quite so hard the next time.

Remember that this, too, shall pass.
Plenty of successful adults will happily tell you what screwups they were back in high school. These are kids. They’re not fully formed. They aren’t who they’re going to be yet. Let’s not treat the choices they make in high school as permanent molds for the lives they’ll lead decades from now. Yes, high school is a good training ground for life during and after college. But that training ground is like a rough draft, one that can be anything from moderately revised to completely rewritten later. When you release yourself from this notion that what you see now is who they’ll be forever, it might be a little easier to forgive the lapses in effort that seem to trouble you far more than they do your kids.

Thanks to those of you who submitted questions. If you’ve got one you’d like to toss in for consideration, you can submit yours here. I’ll answer another one next week.

Bragging backfires

Angela Duckworth is a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and the CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to character development. Her latest newsletter reminds parents that publicly bragging about your children’s college acceptances, test scores, and other achievements can actually have detrimental effects on your kids.

Does everyone in the universe really need to know where your kid is headed for college this fall? Even if your child is marching through the front door of a highly selective university, there isn’t much to be gained by announcing this news publicly. In fact, there’s a lot to be lost. I say this as a daughter who remembers cringing, literally, when my dad—upon meeting old friends, new acquaintances, or just innocent bystanders at the local hardware store—would somehow work into the conversation an update on one or another of his children’s accomplishments.

Expressing your pride to your kids makes it about them. But openly bragging about your kids makes it about you.

Watching and learning

As college admissions decisions roll in and students decide between their available choices, it’s more important than ever for parents to remember one of their most important jobs—to model adult behavior for their children.

Here are a few examples where parents forget the importance of this role:

  • Calling the admissions officer and yelling at a staff member
  • Treating a denial like a tragedy
  • Disparaging a classmate who was admitted
  • Double-depositing at two different schools
  • Acting as if the outcomes of the process are happening to you, not your student

The role might not always be an easy one to play. But your kids are watching…and learning.

A counselor practicing what he preaches

How would you expect one of the most widely respected, admired, trusted college counselors in the country to guide his own daughter through her college application process? Patrick O’Connor shares his approach in his recent post, “The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone,” the gist of which is best summed up in this line:

“Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly. Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive.”

Snowplowing parents

This recent New York Times piece, “How Parents are Robbing their Children of Adulthood,” introduces the term “snowplow parents,” those who relentlessly clear away any potential obstacles to their children’s paths to success in the hopes of preventing any failure, frustration, or missed opportunities.

And it includes this punchy quote from the inimitable Julie “Dean Julie” Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success:

“Snowplow parents have it backward…The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Teach our children well

College counselors often come across parents who couch their kids as victims in the college admissions process. They’re victims of a system that seems unfair or of purported preferential treatment toward other students. And in some of the more bizarre expressions, they’re victims of the lack of a life tragedy (which is now being labeled as a disadvantage).

I’ll admit that while I still don’t agree with those characterizations, since having children of my own, I have more empathy for the parental love that drives them. Wanting more for our kids is part of a parent’s job. That’s a big job, one over which we only have so much control. It’s only natural that the responsibility can lead to occasional irrationality.

A recent Atlantic piece, “Dear Therapist: I’m Worried the College-Admissions Process Is Rigged Against My Son,” doesn’t pull virtual punches in its tough love-infused response. But it also addresses some of the facts many parents who feel this way might be overlooking. And even more importantly, it offers some good reminders for parents to avoid injecting feelings of disappointment or failure where our kids may be naturally resilient enough to move on. This passage in particular captures that notion well:

“… how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your son will respond to it. It’s true that sometimes there isn’t enough to go around—there are only so many leads in the school production, so many spots at a given college, and so many openings for a job someone really wants. At the same time, parents have the potential to turn a situation that their kids would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s miserable. At that point, it’s the parent creating the child’s misery, not the situation. The messages parents send their kids have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would ever do. You have a great opportunity right now to teach your son well.”

Where accepted status won’t change

Brennan Bernard’s latest Forbes piece, “A Letter To College Applicants,” is written for students. But it really should be shared with their parents, too. Parents, your kids are going to need you to help them see the message conveyed within, that their life will be about many things bigger and more important than any decision from a college. Teens don’t have the life experience and perspective to zoom out like that, to see the bigger picture when the present reality looms so much larger than the unclear future. The college admissions process has a way of not only exacerbating the pain of that inexperience, but also of luring so many parents to lose the same perspective. Bernard’s piece just might help both parties regain their footing.

And while Bernard offers an invitation to students to express their love and appreciation for their parent or the caring adult in their life, the college admissions process is the perfect opportunity for parents to do exactly the same in reverse. Remind your son or daughter how much more they are to you than a grade, test score, or admissions decisions, and that their accepted status for your family will never change.