Crisis today, anecdote tomorrow

I still remember the consternation my wife and I felt when her maternity leave was coming to an end and our firstborn still wouldn’t take a bottle. She shared her worries with her own mother about how we’d tried every bottle size and shape, but he wouldn’t take any of them.

I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. What if this doesn’t change? What are we going to do? What if he won’t eat and I have to quit my job and I’m chained to this kid forever just to make sure he doesn’t starve?

As only a wise grandmother who’s successfully raised two kids of her own could do, my mother-in-law just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Someday, this will just be an anecdote.”

It didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time. But she was exactly right. As my wife describes it, what two new parents saw as a crisis situation is now a story that goes like this when we talk about it:

Remember how he wouldn’t take the bottle, and then he did?

Not dramatic at all in hindsight.

Grandma knew that this is pretty much what happens with kids. You love them, you do your best, and things eventually work out. Everything in between is just a future anecdote that appears when you’re looking back and no longer in the middle of it.

Parenting a teen through the college admissions process can feel like parenting a fragile newborn all over again. Every decision, every outcome, feels so magnified, like it’s charting an irreversible course. No mistakes allowed. Better get everything perfect the first time or he’ll never recover!

But those experiences that feel like crises today will be just another anecdote tomorrow.

Remember when you didn’t make the football team and then found wrestling?

Remember when you didn’t do well on the SAT and still got into lots of colleges?

Remember how you were sure you could never be as happy as you would have been at Stanford, and today you can’t stop talking about how much you love Colorado College?

When you feel the anxiety and pressure and complexity getting to you, try to remember that there are almost no college admissions-related crises today that won’t transform into anecdotes tomorrow.

Golden children vs. comeback kids

I hadn’t previously read any of KJ Dell’Antonia’s work, but her recent blog post, It is harder to raise the comeback kid than the golden child. And better, resonated with me. She shares specific advice without seeming (to me) too pedantic. And as a parent herself, she manages to speak from the parents’ side, acknowledging that it’s not always easy to embrace a child’s failure as a valuable opportunity to learn.

As she puts it:

“When failure turns into ‘not yet’ or ‘what’s next,’ you can help your child to start making her own magic. Will she get up the morning after her name isn’t on the roster for the basketball team, congratulate her friends, then go out and shoot hoops, and beg for the ride to the Y, and take every opportunity to show the coaches that next year, she’ll be ready? Or will he persuade the drama teacher to teach him how to run the light board in the school auditorium because he’s realized it’s the illusion, even more than the performances, that captivates him? Can she own her disappointment and make a plan, or turn her anger into determination? Can he try again, or set his sights—with excitement—on something else? The kid who can start again is the kid who is ready for the long game.”

I’ll just add one thing. Her article is pitched towards the majority of parents—those who don’t have what Dell’Antonia calls a “golden child,” the one “with all the gifts, who seems to sail through life so effortlessly, always in the front of the pack.” But some parents, including many who read this blog, are proud to have a golden child. And they should be. There’s nothing wrong with being a hard-working, high-achieving student who sets lofty goals and manages to achieve them.

But if you’ve got a golden child in the house, my recommendation is to praise the efforts rather than the achievements. Kids want to please their parents. And while it might be clear to you that your love and support is not dependent on straight A’s or other accolades, the message may be received very differently by the 16-year-old achiever.

The older these golden children get, the more challenges they take on, and the higher they reach, the more likely they’ll be to occasionally fall short. And I think Dell’Antonia’s message, which I agree with, is that, golden child or not, it’s the kids who learn how to come back from those setbacks who are most likely to consistently get what they want out of life.

Rational explanations for irrational behavior

Some kids handle the college admissions process a lot better than their parents do.

The journey through college applications has morphed into one that can cause even the steadiest parents to feel some occasional anxiety. Unfortunately, it can also cause some otherwise perfectly reasonable adults to come completely unhinged.

Parents forging their kids’ college essays. Calling and emailing an admissions office repeatedly to ask the same question about test scores (some parents even do so from their kids’ email accounts). Involving lawyers to force schools to change policies about class rank. Acting as if the college admissions process is happening to them and not to their kids. Turning the process into a status competition. Referring to a denial of admission as a tragedy. Losing all perspective.

None of this is healthy or rational. And while some parents might excuse their own behavior as simply effort on behalf of their children, the truth is that none of this helps their kids. And in fact, by spiraling out of control on their kids’ behalf, these parents are actually abandoning their most important job—to be the parent of a college applicant.

As challenging as this kind of behavior can be for a counselor to work with, when we train new counselors at Collegewise, we remind them that these parents aren’t bad people or even bad parents. The behavior likely comes from places these families don’t fully recognize or understand themselves. And for many, it comes from the fear of losing their child. Deep down, these parents know that their kids are leaving home soon. And there’s a finality to that transition that some parents really struggle to come to terms with. While I can’t necessarily imagine myself behaving like that (I won’t be allowed to after preaching so consistently against it here on my blog for years), I can come a lot closer to understanding it since I became a parent myself in 2014.

If you’re a parent going through the process who’s struggling with emotions or behavior that you don’t consider normal for you, or if you’re a counselor who works with parents who are struggling, give this piece, Pulling Anchor, Setting Sail, a read. The author is a psychologist specializing in clinical work with children, adolescents, couples, and families. And while naysayers may write his ideas off as simply yet another attempt to inject psychoanalysis into daily life, I thought he offered some rational explanations for otherwise irrational admissions-related behavior.

For parents: let kids prepare for life

A friend asked me this week to help him revise his resume. Anyone who’s made a resume has grappled with similar questions. How do you describe your experience and accomplishments in such a limited space? How can you stand out when you’re reduced to paper? How do you reconcile the fact that you’re sending this short document to people who don’t know you but ultimately get to judge and select—or not select—you? It can be challenging, humbling, and frustrating all at the same time. The good news is that (1) you get better at it over time, and (2) you can start learning how to do it in high school.

A college application might be the first time that a student completes an application for something this important, but it certainly won’t be the last. Presenting yourself in writing, doing an interview, asking for letters of reference—all of these are introductions to things that you will need to do again during and after college.

In fact, the same can be said for many high school experiences. Facing a challenge. Asking for help. Advocating for themselves. Managing conflict. Overcoming disappointment. Learning from failure. Making an impact. Leaving a legacy. Once kids leave high school, they’ll never need to learn to drive, take the SAT, or find a date for the prom again. But just about everything else will be repeated in some way at a later point. And some of those experiences will never stop appearing.

That’s yet another reason why it’s so important for parents not to do everything for their kids. When you take on every task, challenge, or opportunity for them, you take away their opportunities to learn.

Let your kids approach the teacher or counselor on their own to ask for help. Let them search, apply, and interview for the part-time job instead of securing something for them. Don’t protect them from every disappointment, sweep away all the obstacles, or create a world that won’t resemble the one they’ll live in once they leave college.

Instead, allow them to learn their own lessons. Sure, a parent can answer questions. Guide, support, and cheer them on. But high school, activities, and the college application process are great training grounds if you’ll allow them to be. Students aren’t just trying to get into college. They’re trying to prepare for life, too.

How to praise with purpose

Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation. Specifically, she studies why people succeed and how to foster success, especially in kids.

This article gives a nice summary of the findings from two of Dweck’s recent studies. The two that jumped out at me for parents:

  1. Praising kids merely for their innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
  2. Praising kids instead for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems—even when they don’t fully succeed—makes them more likely to try harder and ultimately achieve.

I don’t think Dweck is advocating that parents should use praise exclusively as a strategy to turn their kids into indomitable achievers. I can’t see how Mom or Dad just gushing unbridled praise occasionally can possibly put them on the bad parent list.

But the findings are a good reminder that a parent’s words carry more weight with their own kids. And even when praising, sometimes, we’ve got to choose those words carefully.

Redefining success for kids

How we define success for our kids can actually end up harming them. Madeline Levine is a founder at Challenge Success and the author of Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes.”

She’s also an advocate of redefining success for kids and not making everything about grades, test scores, and getting into a “good” college. But what I particularly appreciate about her advice is that, as a parent herself, she understands why redefining success feels so risky for so many families.

This 15-minute podcast interview with Levine is worth a listen for parents, and there were plenty of snippets I wanted to share. But I’ll limit it to this one, which was her response to a query about why it is so difficult for parents to adjust their vision of success for their kids.

“As kids get older, we become increasingly fearful of letting them make choices. ‘What if they make the wrong choice? It’ll keep them out of this school. It’ll keep them off that team.’ Not understanding that the experience of recovering from a mistake or a failure or a challenge is exactly where most of us grow. The capacity to tolerate failure, to learn from it, cultivates resilience.”

Savor this time

Parents with high school age kids probably have one or more Thanksgiving routines. You know which family members visit whom, who travels where, and who cooks what dishes. And most importantly, you know that wherever you are, your high school student will probably be right there at the table with you.

But as kids grow up, Thanksgiving (like just about everything else) gets more complicated.

Not every college kid comes home for Thanksgiving. Depending on where they go, travel can be expensive and just too difficult to execute for such a short stay.

Someday, those kids might get married and have families of their own. Life gets busier. More moving parts, more commitments, more extended family. Yes, that can make for a bigger and better celebration. But depending on where those former kids settle down, it might also mean that everyone can’t necessarily be together over turkey.

I don’t mention any of this to add sadness to your stuffing. I bring it up to remind families to be thankful for this time you have together. Don’t let college admissions anxiety rob you of that opportunity. Whether or not Cornell says yes might seem like the most important thing in the world right now. It might be difficult to wean yourself off the talk about applications and test scores and essay topics. But trust me, 2 or 12 or 20 years from now, those things won’t seem as important to focus on today as just relishing your family time is.

Savor your Thanksgiving meal, and savor this opportunity to be together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Process over product

Parents often give kids plenty of encouragement to strive.

Set high goals.
Work hard.
You can do it.
Believe in yourself.
Dream big dreams.

But it’s important that kids don’t get unintentionally punished for doing just that.

The more challenges students take on, the more likely they are to come up short. If your student takes that harder math class and brings home a low grade, or tries out for the varsity team and gets cut, or applies for that part-time job and doesn’t get hired, it’s important not to be unduly focused on the end result. Instead, use it as an opportunity to talk about the process.

Ask what he did to prepare for the test. Ask how she thought the tryouts went. Ask if he would do anything differently in his next interview.

This is different than just cheerleading at any cost. Yes, if you noticed how hard your student worked in pursuit of the goal, if you were proud of her effort, by all means, say so. But praise works best when it’s sincere. And if you can discuss the process—not the product—without judgment, you’ll be demonstrating through actions that you care more about how your student pursues a goal than whether or not he or she achieves it every time.

Some parents might worry that this approach will just encourage underachieving. But kids who develop the skills to go after what they want, to be resilient in the face of failure, and to use the results to teach them how to refine the process—that’s a surefire recipe for success. They’ll set higher goals, and achieve them more often, by focusing on the process over the product.

How to talk to kids about school

Parents, if you were asked every day, “How was work?” would you give thoughtful, detailed answers every time? Chances are that as the question becomes more routine, so do your answers. Without something noteworthy to report, we’re likely to come back with a short, unrevealing response.

But what if someone routinely asked you questions that built on what you’d discussed before, like:

“How’d your meeting with the new supplier go?”
“Did you have a nice lunch with your team today?”
“I know you were worried about filling that position. Has anyone promising applied yet?”

You’d probably be a lot less likely to brush it off with a one-word answer.

Thoughtful questions get more thoughtful answers. They show that the asker has been paying attention and is genuinely interested. And they open up the chance to actually discuss something substantive.

So if your kids regularly respond to the question, “How was school today?” with the seemingly teenage mandated response of “fine” or “good,” try asking better questions, like:

“Do you like having a class with that much discussion?”
“That’s great that you have a favorite teacher. What makes her better for you than the others?”
“Which classes have more of your favorite students in them?
“If you could pick one class to attend every day, which one would you pick?”
“What would you change about your school if you were in charge?”

Notice that none of the questions have to do with grades or performance. That’s intentional. Most teenagers—even those who don’t do well academically—know that grades are important. Kids are graded, measured, evaluated, and compared enough as it is without asking them to recount all of it once they get home.

I’m not suggesting that you can’t or shouldn’t ever talk about grades. But the more you talk about performance, the less likely your student will be to cultivate that curiosity and love of learning that colleges find so appealing. As Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California and author of Emotions, Learning, and the Brain says in this article, “Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades.”

Let your brain take over

I’ve seen many previously calm and resilient parents spiral out of control during college application season. They add 10 colleges to the list at the last minute, rewrite their kid’s essays, repeatedly call admissions offices on behalf of their kids, etc. This almost always does more harm than good, but it might help parents to recognize that their bodies are often doing what they’re trained to do, but at the wrong time.

As Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine, explains in his book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, the stressors that faced human beings as we evolved were real threats like predators. The only way we were able to survive was through our involuntary responses—our muscles would tense, our hearts would beat faster, and the blood would flow away from any system that wasn’t absolutely vital.

It turns out that today, our bodies sometimes misinterpret a stressful situation as an actual threat. That’s why your blood pressure can go through the roof when you learn that you have to throw a dinner party at the last minute, or that your seventeen-year-old just wrote a college essay about something that you’re sure won’t get him into Princeton.

I’m not qualified to tell anyone how to manage their stress (Dr. Sood is, and his book is excellent). But I can tell you that fight or flight responses to college application stress are almost never helpful. Yes, this process deserves to be taken seriously. And there are some mistakes, like forgetting to file an application on time, that really could cause some long-term regret.

But there is no such thing as a life-threatening college admissions situation, and no outcome that will remotely resemble a real tragedy. When you feel the stress start to make you do things that just don’t resemble your rational self, take some deep breaths, remind yourself that your body is just overreacting, and let your rational, developed, and threat-free brain take over.