A short shelf life

My wife and I are completing an application for our son’s admission to preschool. That is a sentence I never imagined I would write, but I’m following my own advice about matchmaking. It’s not a prestigious preschool (if there is such a thing), and they don’t make ridiculous claims about preparing toddlers for future Ivy League admission. We’re applying because it aligns with our educational and social values like curiosity, equity, and diversity in a way that we haven’t found in other local schools.

But as I’m completing the required parental essay questions and securing the necessary letter of recommendation (again, things I never imagined doing for a preschool), I’m reminded of just how personal admissions decisions can feel.

If the answer comes back yes, we’ll be excited. But we’ll also treat it as just one day in a long string of days to come. No single arrival of admissions news represents a guarantee of future success or happiness. He and his parents will have a lot of learning and work left to do to extract the value of whatever opportunities—educational or otherwise—present themselves.

But if he’s not granted admission, I know that my natural parental instinct will be some combination of dejection and defensiveness.

What did we do wrong?

How could they not admit him? He’s so wonderful! 

What did other kids or parents have that our family didn’t have?

It won’t be easy to do, but I’ll still follow my own advice and reign in these emotional reactions. I’ll remind myself that admissions decisions don’t measure the worth of a student or a parent. They don’t validate or invalidate what’s taken place to date. And most importantly, I’ll remember that no reasonable adult can claim to have suffered long-term damage from one GPA, test score, or admissions decision.

I acknowledge that it should be easier to embrace these lessons when our son is in preschool, and that it will be a lot more difficult when the news arrives from colleges.

But whatever happens, he and his parents will be just fine. So will you and your kids.

Education has a lifetime value. But admissions decisions—good or bad—have a short shelf life.

Do your kids know what’s expected of them?

I may preach that kids need to take charge of their college admissions process. But parents, especially those paying the bill, have every right to voice their opinions, including what you expect from your kids when it comes to their education. But are those expectations clear to your kids? That’s a different question than, “Have you made your expectations clear?” You might think that your words and actions communicate clearly to your teen. But what’s clear to you may not be clear to them. And given how much stress can surround the process for the entire family, it’s worth taking the time to make sure you’re on the same page.

For example, you might expect nothing more than their best effort. You might expect that they choose whatever path makes them happy. You might expect that they get admitted to the most competitive college possible, that they take over the family business, or that they make the family proud by becoming the first member to graduate from a four-year college.

But whatever the expectations, the first step to your kids potentially embracing them is to make sure they really understand just what those expectations are.

Here are two past posts, one with my recommended parents’ pledge to high school kids, and a second about the potential value of high expectations when combined with unconditional love.

Strengths-based parenting

I write often here about the value of kids maximizing their strengths rather than fixing perceived weaknesses. Doing more of what you enjoy and are naturally good at will always take you further—and make you happier—than constantly trying to fix yourself in the elusive (and unattainable) goal of perfection.

The Gallup Organization has long led a strengths-based movement, and in 2016, they released Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Children’s Innate Talents. The book doesn’t just share how to help your student become even more of who they already are; it also helps parents identify their own strengths so they can be even more effective and supportive parents.

The author, Mary Reckmeyer, argues that helping kids identify and embrace their natural strengths is the best way to set them up for future success. But don’t buy the book with the hopes of finding a magic formula for higher grades or test scores, the secret to Ivy League admissions, or a placement test to identify your student’s future career. Here’s how Reckmeyer defines the success that strengths-based parenting can foster.

“By success, I don’t mean wealth or status. By success, I mean happiness, fulfillment and a life well-lived—a life with everything your child needs and most of what he wants. And, crucially, a life in which he has the ability to use his talents to create an environment that sustains and motivates him with the people he cares about and who care about him. That’s success. Fortunately, those elements of success are things parents can directly influence.”

That’s an outcome that most parents I’ve met would embrace, no matter where their kids end up going to college.

Getting in, and getting by

The Washington Post’s The key life skills parents should be teaching their children highlights that the emphasis on getting into college has left many of today’s students arriving as college freshmen unable to do their own laundry, cook a meal, manage their finances, or perform many of the other basic tasks they’ll need to do on their own. Thankfully, the piece also features some great suggestions for life skills that parents should be developing with their elementary, middle school, and high school kids.

Remember that once they get in, they’ll also need to get by.

On high-pressure parenting

Loyal reader George sent me this recent Economist piece, “High-Pressure Parenting,” which poses the following: “We invest far more time and money in raising our children than our parents did. [Writer] Ryan Avent wonders whether we’re doing it in their best interests – or in ours.”

As often as I share advice on this blog about resisting over-parenting, what resonated with me is that Avent, a parent himself, seemed to genuinely consider the quandary that many parents face. Are we putting our kids at a disadvantage if we don’t jump in and over-parent like seemingly so many other families are doing? He acknowledges that it’s difficult. He sees it firsthand with his own kids. And he ultimately arrives at this realization:

“But in life, unlike in education, there are no winners. University is full of binaries. You get into Harvard or you don’t. You graduate or you don’t. You finish top of the class or you don’t. Life is not like that. There is no finish line after which results are compared and winners and losers determined. Parents are investing massive amounts of time preparing their children to win a race that cannot be won. Those children learn to run like mad in pursuit of some elusive end result, until they give up or expire from exhaustion.”

Good drivers help others drive (better)

Willard Dix is a former admissions officer at Amherst College, a former high school counselor, and an outspoken advocate for more sanity and common sense in the college admissions process. His most recent Forbes piece, 10 Ways To Bond With Your Child’s College Counselor, offers some great advice for parents to help you forge a productive, collaborative relationship with your student’s counselor.

I was surprised that he didn’t encourage parents to help their kids take responsibility to bond with their counselors. After all, it’s the students, not the parents, who are going to college. And those same students may need counselor recommendation letters to get there.

But I suspect Dix based his advice on the realities for many high school counselors—all too often, it’s the parent, not the student, who ends up driving the interactions with the counselor. If parents can become better drivers themselves, they’ll be in a position to help their kids do the same.

You didn’t have to be there

Unless you’re a parent or student at Colorado Academy, you didn’t have the opportunity to hear their recent guest speaker, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a 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. But thankfully, their generous counseling department not only wrote a summary of the talk, but also posted an announcement to social media inviting anyone interested to read—and benefit from—gems like this one:

“As dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims was in an ideal position to see the harm that over-helping does to our children. Particularly in the age of the smartphone, when parents are just a text away, kids become dependent on this lifeline and rely on it because they’ve never had to figure out life’s little details on their own. She met a student who texted her mom several time zones away to figure out where one of her college classes was held. The student had many more resources to figure it out being the one physically on campus, yet she had her mom ‘Google it’ for her. Parents are reaching out to college professors, residence hall directors, and deans to manage details and disagreements that students can and should be navigating on their own. If this is the culture we create with our children, when and how does it change?”

You can read the entire summary here. Thanks, CA counselors, for sharing the lessons with those who couldn’t be there.

For parents: on setting good examples

Every good parent feels a responsibility to set a good example for their kids. Depending on your values and your worldview, those examples might include:

Hard work
Fulfilling your responsibilities
Treating people right
Commitment to your school or church or community
Prioritizing family

All of those can be effective and laudable examples. But remember that kids also need to learn how to respond to the world when it doesn’t go as they planned.

What about the last time you failed, or were disappointed, or missed out on something you really believed you deserved?

Did you talk with your kids about it? Did they see for themselves how Mom or Dad felt—and what you did—when you didn’t get the promotion, or were turned down for the loan, or felt embarrassed at work or in a social setting?

You might be tempted to hide these moments from your kids. But as much as they may behave otherwise, teens learn from their parents. They observe what you do and how you do it. And they particularly appreciate when the values you espouse are matched by your actions.

The parent who doesn’t get the promotion and then uses it as an opportunity to evaluate their work or their job is setting a good example.

The parent who was turned down for the loan, acknowledges the disappointment, and then sets out to find the most productive way forward, even if it’s not the path they’d envisioned, is setting a good example.

The parent who was embarrassed by someone else’s judgmental comment, who acknowledges how it made them feel but then resolves not to be anyone other than themselves, is setting a good example.

Your teens will notice even if they seem to not pay attention. They’ll learn by your doing even if they can’t do it themselves right away. They’ll appreciate it even if they don’t say so.

And your examples will help them be more successful before, during, and after college.

Sometimes the worst experiences let you set the best examples.

Natural parental leadership

The former quarterback of my high school’s football team is having a good week. His son, also a quarterback, is starting college as a spring admit. And Dad has been spilling pride all over social media.

He posted updates as the family prepared for his son’s departure. He posted videos of the family enjoying the new student orientation on campus. He posted pics of the dorm room with the headline, “All moved in!” Every one of these posts brims with Dad’s excitement and pride.

And while his post reminding fellow parents that dropping your child off at college is a bittersweet moment that doesn’t get any easier (this is his second time going through this), he closed by expressing that he was feeling proud, blessed, and happy for his son.

The college? Northern Arizona University.

This is a dad who’s embracing this experience as one to enjoy as a family. He’s injecting fun, pride, and excitement into the process, which only makes his son feel (even more) loved and supported. And he’s behaving as if he’s only going to get to do this once with each of his kids, because that is exactly what will happen.

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why his son is beaming in all these posts (not a single teenage eye roll in sight). But Dad has done his part to instill that feeling in his son.

He was a natural leader on the football field nearly 30 years ago. He’s a natural leader as a parent in the college admissions process. And I can’t imagine a better example for parents to follow as their kids find their way to the right colleges.