A different approach to teen motivation?

When a prospective Collegewise parent tells one of our counselors that they just need someone to “motivate” their student, we ask a lot of follow-up questions to learn more about exactly what that outcome would look like in the parent’s mind. The truth is that motivation and engagement are often happy byproducts of our work together, but motivating unmotivated kids isn’t an outcome we can sell or promise to deliver.

So, as a parent, is there anything you can do to motivate your student to take school and college admissions as seriously as you’d like them to?

School consultant and author Ana Homayoun shares some good advice in this Washington Post piece, “How to motivate older kids without using rewards, punishment or fear. (No, really.)

It might be tempting to dismiss her recommendations as being idealistic. Tactics like giving kids more autonomy or allowing them to set their own goals might actually seem detrimental if your student has consistently shown that school naturally falls towards the bottom of their priority list.

But science and some prominent authors like Dan Pink have shown that autonomy is more effective than control, that people who set their own goals outperform those who have goals foisted on them, and that knowing why you’re doing something helps you do it better.

If continuous pushing or prodding or outright nagging are frustrating both you and your student, maybe it’s worth taking a different approach to finding their motivation?

Here are a few past posts with Dan Pink’s advice, one on ditching the carrot-stick approach and another on how to praise kids effectively.

If every day were the first day of school

My social media feed is starting to fill up with “first day of school” photos from fellow parents, along with the appropriate sentiments. Kids posed—some more enthusiastically than others–on the doorstep or outside the car or even on the school grounds, sometimes with a sibling or two. They all had their first day of school documented proudly and a touch wistfully by Mom or Dad.

“It’s official! My two babies are now both high schoolers.”

“Last day of elementary school. Where did the time go?”

“For the first time, he’s driving himself to the first day of school.”

Whether a parent decides to share these moments with their internet circle or to keep them as personal mementos, the sentiment is spot-on. Watching our kids grow up is the pleasure and occasional pain of parenting. These are the moments we remember, not because we document them, but because we’re moved by the progression and the change. It’s hard to forget the day your kindergartner wouldn’t leave your side to walk into that new classroom. Or when you practically had to restrain your fifth or seventh or eleventh grader for a quick photo before they fled from your side.

But for many parents, the enjoyment we feel around marking the milestone on day #1 is soon replaced by the stress of outside measurement of our student’s performance.

The first day of school is a blank slate. There are no grades or test scores or other measures to worry about yet. But then the first exam comes home, the first grade, the first test score–some performance-related measurement that doesn’t have anything to do with their character or growth or value as a human being. Anxiety creeps in. Is this good enough? If it’s not, how do we fix it? What action can we take?

That’s when their journey of growth transforms (back) into a race with the competition, one that, for many families, won’t stop until the student is admitted to a prestigious college.

Parents, I think we can do better than that.

What would it take to treat every day of school like the first day of school, a day when you just sit back and marvel at the kid you’ve raised? What if instead of worrying about the C+ in chemistry, you could just appreciate how wonderful it is that your former baby now gets himself to school and tries his best and is nice to his sister? What if instead of worrying about yet another round of test prep you could just stop and be proud of how much she loves playing the French horn or leading in the math club or running on the track team?

What if you paid more attention to the lasting milestones of their journey to adulthood and less attention to the fleeting academic, testing, and admissions measurements that come along with it?

I’m not implying that these measurements don’t matter at all. They carry temporary significance that becomes less impactful as each assumes a place in the past. But you can hold onto those milestones—and their associated photos—for years to come.

The journey gets better for both kids and parents if you treat every day like the first day of school.

The case for self-driven kids

There’s a lot that resonates with me in The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, but nothing more so than these three false assumptions they invite parents to confront.

False assumption #1 is that there is one narrow pathway to success in life and that kids need to be competitive at all times or be left behind. This assumption places the responsibility on parents to push, control, and manage their kids’ journey along that one defined path.

False assumption #2 is that it is critical to do well in school if you want to do well in life. There are “some winners and many losers,” and parents better make sure their kids fall into the winning segment.

False assumption #3 is that the more parents push, the more likely their kids will become accomplished and successful adults.

For parents who read those false assumptions and find them anything but false, the book probably isn’t for you. But if you’re a parent who’s tired of being made to feel that your kids need to be top-of-the-class, curve-busting, standardized-test-taking, gold-medal-winning leaders and inventors and rocket scientists just to have any chance of making it in the world today, I think you’ll find the book both refreshing and reassuring.

And here’s an NPR interview with the authors that includes the transcript so you can either listen or read.

Good intentions + earnest effort

I love the juxtaposition of mistakes and reassurance in Brennan Barnard’s latest piece, “Parenting The College Applicant As An Admission Dean.” First, we learn the variety of mistakes that even deans of admission have made with their own children during their families’ college processes. Had the article stopped there (and I’ve seen others like this in the past that did just that), I could see this being a demoralizing message for parents. If the deans of admission can’t even get it right when their own kids are applying to college, how the heck are the rest of us supposed to have any shot at emerging unscathed?

But then the article shifts to the advice portion, which includes such reassuring messages as:

“Chill, it’s going to be fine.”

“It can be a wonderful experience and some of my best conversations with my boys were on road trips to colleges.”

“Let your child pick for themselves and make them do the process on their own.”

“You will survive, your child will be admitted to a fine institution, and if you and your kids keep the appropriate mindset throughout the year, you all will come away from this experience a little wiser, with a few more miles on your odometer, a few more grey hairs, but also with new found respect for your sons’ and daughters’ skills for navigating these waters—with maturity, with sensibility, with thoughtfulness, with perspective and hopefully a wee bit of laughter.”

The overarching message? The college admissions process is like so many other elements of parenting—there is no manual, no single prescribed method that works for every family. But we’d all do well to balance appropriate engagement with enough perspective to remember that life is about more than grades, test scores, and which colleges say yes.

As all parents learn watching their kids growing up, good intentions and earnest effort are everything, for them and for us.

Let them do and decide

In business, when the people doing the work are also making the decisions, good things happen. And the same is true for college admissions.

Parents, the more you can let your kids make the decisions and do the work in their own college process, the better the results will be.

Just have dinner

Teen psychologist and Challenge Success founder Madeline Levine needs just one-minute video to remind parents that regular, uninterrupted time with family is more important than just about anything kids could be doing to prepare for college.

Is “Find your passion” bad advice?

“Passion” has become something of a buzzword in college admissions. It’s what colleges say they appreciate. It’s what counselors advise kids to bring to the forefront in their applications. And I’ve certainly preached passion here. When a student finds, commits to, and then relates an interest that genuinely excites them, it leads to happier kids and more successful college applications.

But do we do kids a disservice if we lead them to believe that a fully formed passion is out there just waiting to be discovered?

Some people may pick up an instrument or a golf club or a paintbrush and immediately know that they’ve found a calling worth committing to. But that’s not how passion and people usually find each other.

What’s far more common is for a student (or an adult) to explore a variety of interests and eventually find something they initially enjoy. They spend some time learning the craft and find they have a knack for it. They get hooked on that feeling of continuously getting better at something that matters to them. Taken to a logical extreme, that commitment can eventually be defined as a passion. But it doesn’t happen overnight. And it often was an unpredictable discovery in retrospect.

When applied to college admissions, passion is best defined as an interest that lights a teenager up today. Teenagers are not fully formed, and the interest needn’t be connected to a future major or career path. While a college would hope that the student applying as an engineering major has more than a casual interest in mathematics, there is no shame in that applicant relating that their performances with their improv comedy troupe are the highlight of their high school week. From the college’s perspective, an applicant with passion has demonstrated the ability to seek, discover, and commit to something where they make an impact. That’s exactly the kind of student who will repeat that process within the boundless opportunities available at college.

Kids entering high school should explore different activities. If they have existing interests they want to follow, great. But if the unexplored seems appealing, we should let them go explore. There’s no formula to find passion, and the spark that could one day lead to it may be in something a student has never before thought to try.

As students progress through high school, encourage them to evaluate how they’re spending their time. What activities and interests do they seem to enjoy most? How might they become even more involved (if they feel the calling to do so), even if doing so required that they leave another activity they’re less attached to behind? That process of seeking and committing is where passion is most likely to present itself.

Passion, at least in its fully formed state, is rarely found and can’t be forced. It’s created when opportunity, interest, and commitment come together.

Here’s some scientific evidence out of Stanford University that “Find your passion” is bad advice. As the study points out, passion isn’t a fixed interest waiting to be discovered—it’s something to develop and cultivate.

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.