“Helicopter parent” is not a positive term

I had an interesting experience with "helicopter parents" last week.  I'd just finished doing a seminar at a high school and three mothers approached me with a question. The elected spokeswoman of the group proudly announced, "We're helicopter parents–and we have some questions about helping our kids find activities this summer." 

Parents who support your kids and want the best for them have every reason to be proud of their efforts.  Parenting isn't easy, especially during the teenage years. 

But if you identify yourself as a helicopter parent, you should know that the term is pejorative for a reason.  A helicopter parent hovers over your kid so closely that he doesn't learn to think and live on his own.  College administrators talk about helicopter parents who call professors and argue for grades to be changed, or who intervene in roommate squabbles.  Even employers are talking about parents who call on behalf of their (college graduate!) children to investigate job openings or to make sure their kids' resumes were received.  

There are times when we sit with a student at Collegewise and just know that she's going to be successful.  That feeling has a lot more to do with how she carries herself, her maturity, her self confidence and her work ethic than it does her grades or test scores.  But one thing this kids all have in common are parents who are supportive but know when to step back.

If you're a helicopter parent, you can be proud of your instincts to want everything for your kids, but you should consider different methods.  Become a proud former helicopter parent and then teach other hovering moms and dads how to follow your lead.

The importance of asking kids, “How are you doing?”

About this time every year, we start to see it on our students' faces.  They're tired, especially the juniors.  The classes, activities, AP tests and SAT prep start to take their toll on even the hardest of workers. 

So when our students come in for their meetings in May and June, the first thing we ask almost all of them is, "How are you doin'?"  And we ask in a way that shows we really want to know how they're holding up, how they're feeling and whether or not things like soccer and drama and jazz band are still fun.  We still get to all the college planning stuff.  But first we want to check in. 

I don't want to be an alarmist here, but kids today are the most overworked, over scheduled and stressed out of any generation before them.  Hard work and high goals are good things.  And part of being successful means handling a reasonable degree of stress.  But nothing is worth sacrificing sleep, sanity or happiness, especially when you're seventeen. 

If you're a parent or a counselor, don't make your next question to your student about the SAT or college or whether or not they're ready for finals.  Instead, asking them how they're doing.  Really listen to their answer.  And remind them that their best effort is good enough regardless of what the outcome is. 

Don’t let your parents do it all for you

(Paraphrased) question I got from a parent on the phone yesterday:

"My
son has an interest in medicine.  So I was thinking of sending him to
stay with family in India this summer, and he could do some volunteer
work there at a local medical clinic where our family has connections.  I
think there would be real value for him to experience a place where not
everyone has the advantages that he has, where he has to take the bus to
work and spend his days with people who don't have access to good
medical care.  How would the colleges view that?"

My (paraphrased)
answer:

"Anything your son does where he's helping other people is
a good thing.  And having his eyes opened to less fortunate populations is something I would never tell you not to encourage.  But if
he's really interested in being a doctor and making a difference, why
not let him seek out and secure those kinds of opportunities himself? 
Why are you doing it all for him?" 

Part of the value of taking on
anything in high school is the initiative you have to show to get
involved.  If your parents set everything up for you and all you have to do is show
up and do what's ask of you, you'll miss out on a lot of the learning you could have done.

This is not a parent’s job

I did a seminar for our Collegewise parents on Saturday called "College Admissions Support for Parents."  And I knew that one of the recommendations I was going to make might surprise them.

Accept that it is not your job to make all your student's college dreams come true. 

I know that might sound harsh, but fast forward in time for a second.  Imagine that five years from now, your daughter has a job interview after college and doesn't get hired.  It's a job she really wanted, too, and she's disappointed.  Sure, you'd likely be disappointed for her.  But would it be your job to march down to the office and complain to the boss that she should change her mind and hire your kid?

Ten years from now, if your son and his (now future) wife put an offer in for a house from they are outbid by another couple, will you make it your job to intercede and demand that his offer be accepted because he's such a good son?

Fifteen years from now, if your daughter were vying for a promotion at work, will you make it your job to swoop in, talk to her boss, ask what would improve her candidacy, and coach her through the interview process?

No reasonable parent would expect to control those situations for your kids.  At some point, your kids are out of your nest and in the real world.  You'll always be able to support and encourage them, but you can't control every outcome in your kids' adult lives. 

So why should a parent be expected to control the outcomes of the college admissions process?

Applying to college is a student's transition into life as an adult.  This is hard for a lot of good parents to face, but you will make it easier on yourself and your kids if you recognize what your job is not.

It is not your job to get your kid into the school he wants to attend; you can't make Yale say, "Yes."  It is not your job to protect your kids from the disappointment of college rejection.  You don't get to make admissions decisions any more than you will get to decide whether or not your kids get promoted at work when they're older.  No amount of parental love can control the outcomes of college admissions.  And the more you try to control it, the more likely you are to experience stress, frustration and even alienation from your kids who may feel like you don't trust them to do this themselves. 

So what is a parent's job during the college admissions process?

Cheer your kids on.  Encourage them.  Support their efforts.  Let them know that you'll be proud of them no matter which college they attend as long as they try and give it their best.  Be a sounding board.  Help them seek out good information and advice.  Celebrate their efforts independent of their achievements. 

Those are all things you can and should do.  They'll help your kids have more enjoyable and successful college application processes.  And they'll help you worry a little less knowing that you're doing your job well.

 

“I heard that…” = unsubstantiated rumor

Most statements that begin with "I heard that…" are suspect.

When I was in 7th grade, Jano Lobos wasn't at school one morning.  First people started saying, "I heard that Jano got hit by a car on his bike this morning."  By lunch, it was, "I heard that after Jano got hit, he was gushing blood from his head while lying in the street."  By the time I got to 7th period PE, it was, "I heard that Jano died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The next day, Jano was back at school.  Not dead.  Not bleeding.  Not even hurt.  I'm not even sure that he owned a bike.

When you know your source is credible, you automatically cite it because you want your audience to believe you.  So you lead with, "My stockbroker told me…" or, "My personal trainer showed me…" or, "I spoke with the head chef and she recommended…"

But "I heard that…" always means that you either don't have a source, or you have an unproven source and don't want to look stupid by citing him or her.

That's why most college admissions questions I get from audiences at seminars that begin with "I heard that…" are usually followed by something ranging from partially inaccurate to absolutely ridiculous.

The "I heard that-s…" are usually citing a neighbor, or a fellow
parent, or an uncle.  They're almost never getting their information
from a college admissions expert of any kind. 

Nobody who got their information from a high school counselor or an admissions officer or a knowledgeable private counselor starts a question with, "I heard that…"  They cite the source.

I'm not saying that the college admissions process is so complicated and steeped in secrecy that it's understood by only a select few; anyone can learn more about it if you take the time. 

But you still shouldn't take advice from, or make decisions based on the stories of, other people who are just sharing unsubstantiated rumors rather than real knowledge. 

Seek out good sources of advice and information.  Read college guidebooks.  Visit colleges' websites.  Go to college fairs.  Talk with admissions officers.  Meet with your high school counselor.  Read this blog and others you find helpful.  Talk to people you trust who really know what they're doing. 

But whenever someone gives you college admissions information that starts with, "I heard…," ask them to cite the source before you make any changes to your college planning. 

More on parents (not) helping with college essays

I got a few emails from parents in response to my post where I advised that they not get involved helping their kids with college essays.  Most completely agreed with me, but there were a few who swore that they helped their kids successfully (and that the acceptance letters from Princeton and Yale were proof that it worked). 

I wasn't suggesting that no parent has the knowledge or ability to help your own kid with college essays.  I was saying that it's impossible for a parent to be a completely objective reader when the subject matter is your own son or daughter.  I was saying kids are inclined to resent their parents' involvement much like they resent you telling them what not to wear or whom to date.  I was saying that it's too much pressure, for you and for your student.

The American Medical Association's Code of Medical ethics advises against doctors treating their own children for similar reasons.

"Professional objectivity may be compromised when an immediate family member or the physician is the patient; the physician’s personal feelings may unduly influence his or her professional medical judgment, thereby interfering with the care being delivered…If tensions develop in a physician’s professional relationship with a family member, perhaps as a result of a negative medical outcome, such difficulties may be carried over into the family member’s personal relationship with the physician."

I think kids should get help with their college essays.  All good writers get feedback, and re-writing is part of good writing.  Kids can ask their English teacher, counselor, or even a good friend who knows them well and will call them out for saying things like, "My trip to Europe afforded me a plethora of opportunities to broaden my cultural horizons."

But it when it comes to parents helping, it really will take pressure off if you follow my (and the AMA's) lead here.

How parents can help kids with college essays

I did a seminar about college essays at an admissions event today.  And I gave parents the advice I've given for my entire career as a college counselor about how parents can best help their kids with college essays. 

Don't get involved.  Stay away.  In fact, run the other direction. 

Parents are the worst judges of their own kids' college essays.  You are not impartial observers.  You love your kids too much, and you are way too close to the subject matter to advise your son or daughter what and how to write in their college essays.

Most kids resent their parents' involvement in the college essay anyway.  And the colleges can always tell when you got too involved.  Kids think and write differently than parents do, and you'd be surprised how obvious is it to the trained reader when too many of the ideas or the words came from Mom or Dad. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  Some of you are thinking I'm wrong.  Every time I give this advice to a crowd, there's one parent who scowls at me.  It's inevitably a parent who inserts herself into everything her kid is doing.  It's the parent who's sure that she's the exception to the rule. 

She's not.  And neither are you. 

So preserve your family relationship and the purity of the essays. 
Stay out of them.  Help with other things like planning college visits,
and filling out financial aid forms and cheering your kids on
throughout the process.  But when it comes to college essays, remove
yourself from the process.  Your kids and the colleges will thank you for it.

Savoring moments of laughter in the college search

From yesterday's "The Choice" blog:

"As a parent, it’s so easy to get sucked into what has been described
as a gut-wrenching, grueling, ridiculous, harrowing (I could go on and
on) process. When I bumped into a friend at the bagel store last week
whose son had just decided where he’ll be going to college next year,
she looked at me and said, 'You are in for the worst time between now
and next year.'”

I grabbed my bagels, got in my car and thought about what she said.
What could be so bad? Is anyone sick? Going to jail? Nope. I continued
on with my day."


Music to my ears

I met with a student last week who's trying to decide which college he should attend.  He's a smart kid who's worked hard in high school and was torn between two good options.  His parents sat there quietly, listening, not even interjecting while we chatted.  So towards the end of the meeting, I asked them where they thought he should go.  And his reserved mother who hadn't yet said a word just said,

"This is his decision, and we support him.  He can go wherever he wants as long as it makes him happy.  That's all we care about." 

You should have seen how happy that kid looked knowing that he'd already made his parents proud no matter what college he was about to choose. 

I think she should teach classes on parenting during the college process.    

P.S.: He chose UC Davis, by the way.  Go Aggies.