When parents must get the job done right

One mark of a true professional in any field is the ability to temporarily set aside distractions from their personal lives and get the job done right. You expect that your surgeon won’t allow her frustration with her kitchen contractor to interfere with your procedure. You expect your accountant to be precise with your finances even when he’s anxious that his kid’s private school tuition was just raised yet again for the coming year. Mechanics, personal trainers, therapists, hair stylists—no matter how compassionate you may be, their problems ultimately should not be your problems. If they willingly take on the work, you expect them to be professional and get the job done right.

Parents, the same can be said of you during your student’s college admissions process.

Parents have an important job during this time—to be the parent of a college applicant. Your kids need you to model how a mature adult deals with a stressful time. They need you to be a supportive ear and a mature voice of reason. They need you to guide, encourage, and keep them calm when necessary. They need you to not melt down on their behalf.

And most importantly, they need you to remember that this is not about you. You are not applying to college. You are not about to be judged by people who have never met you. You are not about to take your first big step towards adulthood, to risk being told you just weren’t good enough, and to be subjected to comparisons with all of your peers.

Some parents will justifiably claim that all of those things are in fact happening to them. They do feel judged based on how their kids perform. They do feel compared to all of their peers. They do feel the pressure of the coming transition when their son or daughter will leave the nest and call someplace else home for the first time in 18 years. Depending on your community and your peers, those might be totally legitimate fears (albeit over factors that just don’t matter in the long run).

If you have to, commiserate with your partner or with a trusted friend. But don’t bring those issues to the work of being the parent of a college applicant. This job is important, and your kids need you to get it right.

If helping your student through the admissions process feels like a burden, see this past post to relieve some of the unreasonable and unnecessary parental responsibilities.

The original helicopter parent?

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis just might have been the original helicopter parent. As originally reported in Page Six and shared in this New York Post article, it turns out Jackie “…filled out son John F. Kennedy Jr.’s application to Brown University back in 1978 — and throughout his four years at the Ivy League school, she worked diligently to ensure he didn’t flunk any of his classes, going so far as to correspond with his professors.”

The article goes on to share examples of more current, less famous, and I believe just as inappropriate helicopter behavior of some of today’s parents of college kids, some of whom go as far as to impersonate their children when calling or emailing school officials.

I hope parents who read that article avoid the same kind of behavior rather than find comfort in a connection to the iconic first lady.

How to get quiet teens to open up

While Claire Lew’s “11 ways to get feedback from your most introverted employee” is a great read for managers, I think virtually every one of those tips could work well for counselors and parents looking to help more reserved teens open up about school, life, college, etc. For parents, though, I’d recommend ignoring #8: “Bring a notebook” (no need to formalize the talk quite so much when it’s in the family).

Straight talk about overparenting

When Julie Lythcott-Haims’s messages about (1) the dangers of overparenting and (2) how to raise mature, capable adults are no longer resonating or necessary, I’ll (happily) stop bringing them here. But until that day comes, I think it’s important that counselors, admissions officers, and other experts continue to speak frankly about what this group of admittedly well-meaning parents is doing to their kids. I never worry about those kids who happily seek their parents’ feedback and guidance while driving their own education and journey to college. But I worry a lot about those kids who sit passively waiting for Mom and Dad to talk to the counselor, choose the activities, research the colleges, complete the applications, etc. What’s going to happen to those students when they get to college?

Haims is featured here on a recent episode of Straight Talk MD, a podcast covering science, medicine, and healthcare, hosted by medical doctor Frank Sweeney. While the first 16 minutes focus more on Haims’s background and her preparation for her TED Talk that has since received over 2.6 million views, the remaining 45 minutes are spent not just defining overparenting, but also advising parents how to recognize and correct it.

Embracing “just fine”

I loved everything about Julie Surrat’s piece “In Praise of Mediocre Kids” except the title. “Mediocre” has such a pejorative connotation. But what she’s really preaching, and I agree with, is that we should celebrate those pursuits that make our kids happy even in the absence of extraordinary talent or achievement. No adult achieves at the highest levels with everything we try. And a student who throws her all into a subject or activity but doesn’t necessarily reach the top is just fine.

“It’s not easy to ignore societal pressure to push, push, push; to trust that our children will find their own way without our stepping in to be their street sweeper, snowplow, Zamboni, or whatever you want to call it. But here’s some perspective: Our parents didn’t sign us up for all the extras—in fact, they didn’t sign us up for much at all, instead booting us outside to make our own fun in the neighborhood. They were more concerned with whether we ate our vegetables than how many goals we scored (at a game they likely didn’t attend). And look how well we turned out. We don’t owe our success to private coaching and tutoring; we owe it to our intrinsic desire to be our best self. That’s what we need to focus on with our children: building their self-esteem; creating a safe environment where it’s okay to fail and okay to try again; and encouraging them to be nice, honest, and loyal. And, perhaps most important of all, embracing mediocrity.”


Just (let them) make progress

Studies keep showing that helicopter parenting is bad for kids. Back off, don’t run their lives, let them fail and learn, etc. But other recommendations, like those in this article, remind readers that “…a little hovering is just right.” I sympathize with those well-intentioned parents who want to do the right thing by their kids but may struggle to find the right balance between hovering constantly and heaving them out of the nest entirely.

I can’t imagine a formula that would effectively dictate to any parent the precise measurements of exactly how engaged they should be with the high school and college lives of each of their kids. Parents, kids, and circumstances are different. And each deserves their own appropriate consideration.

But here’s a suggested guideline: Are you and your kids making progress?

Not compared to other parents and kids. Not compared to what an article or a speaker or a blogger like me tells you. But compared to where you were a month, six months, or a year ago.

Are you doing less for your kids than you were?

Are they able to do more for themselves than they were?

Are you stepping in, taking over, managing, and directing less than you were?

Are they needing less direction, less intervention, and less delegation than they were?

Are you seeing a more capable, mature, independent young adult than you were before?

Bottom line: Are they making more of their own decisions, handling more of their own problems, finding more of their own solutions, and learning more from both failure and success than they were before?

Progress is the key to a work in progress. Just (let them) make it.

What kind of parent involvement helps?

In the largest-ever study of its kind, researchers at Duke and UT Austin found that parental involvement in their kids’ educations, such as meeting with teachers and helping kids with homework, not only fails to improve academic performance for their kids, but also can even hinder it.

But the study, which a 2014 issue of The Atlantic profiles here, did reveal that parental involvement can be very effective when helping to make the schools better for all students in attendance, like working to secure new textbooks, better facilities, and programs like art, music, and theater.

Immersing ourselves in our kids’ academic lives is both ineffective and unhealthy (welcome news for busy, working, and overscheduled parents). But if you do have the time and inclination to do more, work to improve the school, the conditions, and learning for everyone. It’s not just more generous—it’s also the most effective way to help your own kids.

Monday morning Q&A: Choosing a private counselor

Ai asks:

What are the most important qualifications that a family should consider when hiring a college admissions counselor?

I started writing a reply and experienced déjà vu. Sure enough, here’s my answer to this very question written seven years ago.  All of that advice still stands, and I encourage you and any other readers to start there. But here are a few more thoughts gleaned from seven more years of experience (and over 2500 blog posts) since then.

Credentials like admissions or counseling experience, an advanced degree, or a good reputation in town are worth noting because they are, at the very least, the marks of a professional who treats this craft as more than just a hobby. But none of those qualifications alone guarantees that a private counselor will be willing or able to deliver the change you’re hoping they can make for your family. So a good place to start is by answering this question, which might be an uncomfortable exercise for some parents. If you had to be brutally honest, why exactly are you considering hiring a private counselor?

Your brutally honest answer might be purely mechanical, like:

We know there are lots of good colleges, but we need help finding them.

The process seems really complex, and I think it would help to have an expert who could guide us through it.

But for many other parents, the brutal honesty sweeps away the half-truth factual answers and reveals the more emotional reasons that might be uncomfortable admitting to yourself or others, like:

Every parent in my circle has hired a private counselor, and I feel like I’m letting my student down by not doing the same.

I’m scared to death that my kid is going to make a mistake and I’ll feel terrible I didn’t catch it.

I don’t want to fight with my son about this anymore. I’m tired. I want someone else to nag him and explain why this is all so important.

I want my daughter to go to a prestigious college, and I’m willing to pay for an advantage if the right person can give it to me.

I’m not endorsing or rejecting any of these reasons—you get to have them as this is your student’s college process, after all. But whatever your answer is, mechanical, emotional, or somewhere in between, you won’t feel good spending money for help unless that person creates the change you’re looking for. And credentials alone won’t tell you whether or not a potential counselor is willing or able to deliver that outcome for you. You’ll need to have a very real, open conversation about your expectations and what a successful outcome looks like to you. The right counselor for you will understand and appreciate how forthright you are, and they’ll be both honest and specific about whether they can deliver what you’re looking for.

Some parents may resist what feels like a psychological exercise, but you’re not buying a car, a computer, or a new roof for your house—this is guidance for your student’s journey to college. There are stakes and emotions in play here that need to be acknowledged by all parties. The more willing you are to do just that, the more likely you’ll be to make the right choice for you and your student, especially if you follow the advice in that past post referenced above.

Thanks for your question, Ai!

If you’ve got a question, feel free to submit it here. I’ll answer another next week.

Their best adult selves

One of my high school friends just started a new job as the principal at the same high school his own kids attend. He shared a photo on social media this week of his ear-to-ear grin while standing next to his two good-natured teens on their first day of school together.

But back in high school, he was the guy in our first period Spanish class who would read the daily bulletin and make up stories along the way just to delay the start of the actual instruction as long as possible. He also spent one day repeatedly and clandestinely climbing out the window of that classroom and then reentering through the front door to the amusement of the students and the flummoxed stare of our teacher, who couldn’t figure out how he kept entering seemingly without ever exiting.

Parents, you can take some worry and pressure off yourself—and maybe your kids, too—with the occasional reminder that high schoolers today aren’t yet who they’ll be tomorrow. Whether or not your student is achieving at their full potential, time, college, and the right parenting combination of expectations and unconditional love have a wonderful way of helping them eventually become their best adult selves.