A toolkit money can’t buy

Stanford Radio just aired this interview with former dean of freshmen and author Julie Lythcott-Haims on the dangers of overparenting and how to avoid that behavior. But she also takes the time to acknowledge that the overparenting phenomenon is present primarily in upper middle class families with parents who have disposable time and money and can invest resources to direct and manage their kids’ lives. A working class family holding down multiple jobs doesn’t have the same amount of time and money to invest in what she calls “cultivation of childhood.”

So what did she notice in both groups of kids when they arrived at Stanford? This portion starts about 28 minutes in:

“…as dean, I saw first-gen kids, kids from working class or poor backgrounds, come to this campus with such a sense of self. When they had a problem, they would say, ‘How am I going to handle it?’ They would come to me for advice. But they spoke with a strong letter II’m going to try this and I’m going to try that. I’ll come back and see you and follow up. Whereas their more affluent counterparts were more likely to text their parent and expect their parent to jump in and handle the problem, whatever it was. So they [under-resourced kids] basically came to campus…with an extra tray in their toolkit.”

If you’re a parent who isn’t able to spend time and money to shadow, cultivate, and orchestrate every moment of your kids’ lives, you can take some pride and comfort in the fact that you’re likely helping them learn some of the important skills they’ll need to be successful as young adults.

And parents with time and money to invest should be proud and appreciative of the life you’re creating for your family. But remember that if you can step back and embrace the opportunities for your kids to find their own way, to make and learn from their mistakes, and to manage their own challenges, you’ll be helping them add a tray to their toolkit, one that money can’t buy.

No parents allowed

Some friends were recently telling my wife and me that their four-year-old daughter began ballet classes a few months ago. But until the first recital, they’d never actually watched their tiny dancer do any ballet. It’s not that they aren’t invested parents—they are. But the instructor has one rule that must be followed: Parents are not allowed to observe the classes. In fact, they need to physically leave the building for the entirety of the class.

Four-year-olds can be easily distracted. And according to the instructor, that’s especially true when a parent is within their child’s field of vision. The problem is only exacerbated when parents can’t help but snap pictures, film video, or even lob their own instructions to their newbie ballerinas.

When it’s recital time, parents (and their cameras) are invited and warmly welcomed. But the classes are for dancers only. No parents allowed.

When I write often here about the need for parents of teenagers to stop hovering, to step back, and to allow their teens to take more responsibility for their own lives even if that means occasionally letting them fail, it’s never lost on me just how much worse the opposite problem would be. Better to be a little too invested than to completely ignore your student.

But in your search for the right balance, consider whether or not your presence (at the practice, the performance, the tournament, etc.) is a positive addition for your teen. When in doubt, just ask your son or daughter. Express how interested you are, but acknowledge that they should get to decide whether or not they want a parent in the literal or figurative stands.

It might be a temporary blow to your ego not to get an invite. But if given the choice, you likely would not want your teen in the room when you give your big sales presentation, or when the boss is delivering your annual performance review, or when the results are announced for the PTA election in which you’re a candidate. It doesn’t mean you love your kid any less. It just means that sometimes, having an audience creates more stress than it does support.

Our friends easily embraced the “No parents allowed” rule as an opportunity to take a nice walk together for an hour every Saturday. Maybe staying back can benefit both you and your student?

Engage, attend, and cheer on when you’re invited and welcome. And when you’re not, accept—and embrace—when no parents are allowed.

Parents: start the trend at home

Some college admissions articles resonate so much with readers that many people forward them to me, and that was certainly true with the recent New York Times piece “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person.” But the article also struck a chord with the counselor community as a whole, both inside and outside of Collegewise (many have been posting and commenting on social media).

I can hear what the cynics will say.

It’s a sweet message, but “nice” doesn’t get you into good colleges.

You can’t list “nice” on a college application.

If the writer likes nice kids so much, why did she and her former colleagues at Dartmouth focus so much on grades, test scores, and impressive activities?

But naysayers, especially those who are parents, are missing the larger message.

Parents, what kind of teen are you hoping to raise?

Do you want to raise one with perfect grades and high test scores? Or are you trying to raise a mature, compassionate, and, yes, nice human being?

Of course, those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of kids at the top of their class who are also compassionate, sensitive, generous, etc.

But here’s the parental gut check: are you teaching, acknowledging, and praising the behaviors that make your teen a good person? Or has the college admissions frenzy caused you to ignore those traits in favor of teaching, acknowledging, and praising behaviors that lead to stronger GPAs, test scores, resumes, etc.?

The author would love to start a trend where colleges “foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit.”

Until that day, why not start the trend at home?

Five examples parents can set for teens

One of my college planning themes is that parents are always on stage. Your kids are learning from your behaviors even if you aren’t intending for those behaviors to be teaching moments. And beyond the obvious ones like “Don’t lie, cheat or steal” and “Be nice to people,” there are plenty of opportunities for parents to use their own interests, lives, and challenges as opportunities to set good examples for their kids. Here are five that will teach them skills that can help them get into college–and also be successful once they get there.

1. Share your own goals.
You probably have goals of your own. Maybe you’re vying for a promotion at work. Maybe you want to initiate a new project with the PTA. Maybe you just want to spend more time with your family. But whatever your goals, share them with your kids. Talk about what you’re reaching for and why it matters to you. Include the details about what’s difficult, intimidating, or just plain unknown. Setting and striving for goals are skills that kids can learn. And showing them how will be a lot more powerful than telling them will be.

2. Let them see and hear your passion.
What is it that you love to do? Practice law? Cook? Play golf? Whether it’s your profession, an obligation that you embrace, or even just a hobby, today’s kids need to be reminded just how much value there is in finding and doing what you love. So share your enthusiasm. Even better, invite them to experience it, too. They may shun you and feign teenage embarrassment. But even if they roll their eyes at how much Mom or Dad loves to go to work at the restaurant every day, or do home improvement projects, or watch their alma mater’s football games, you’re still showing them just how much joy can be found when you do what you love, part-time or full-time.

3. Show your love of learning.
Learning begins at home, and so does the love of learning. What have you spent time, energy, or even money to learn? Even better, where did you invest those resources willingly, not because you were obligated to do so? That’s the learning sweet spot, and it sets a great example for your kids. A former Collegewise student wrote his essay about how much his dad loved to read about business, how he’d sit in his easy chair with a highlighter and pore over a different book every weekend. This student didn’t have a personal interest in business, but the example his dad had set resonated with him. Many of today’s students are so focused on achieving high GPAs that they’ve lost (or never had) any joy around learning. Demonstrate at home that the opportunities to learn, and to fall in intellectual love with a topic, are everywhere. The attitude will leave a lasting impression even if the love-worthy topic hasn’t presented itself yet.

4. Don’t hide your failures.
Parents aren’t perfect. Sometimes we go for promotions that we don’t get. Sometimes we don’t handle a difficult situation as well as we should have. Sometimes we paint the bathroom and don’t realize until it’s over that we’re not as proficient with color choice as we thought we were. I’m not suggesting that you should create and celebrate a family culture of continuous failure. But kids need to learn that part of being successful means trying difficult things that might not work. If your kids see you not just fail, but also bounce back and keep going, that’s a wonderful example to set for them.

5. Focus on the right things.
When you’re elderly and you look back on your life, do you imagine that you’ll think, “I’m so glad I obsessed about my son’s SAT scores as much as I did,” or, “She’d be nowhere today if she hadn’t gotten accepted to Duke,” or, “My proudest accomplishment as a parent was the day I won the grading war with her high school Spanish teacher”? Those might seem like ridiculous scenarios to propose. But one way to evaluate your behavior today is to imagine how you’ll look back on that behavior many tomorrows from now. Your kids’ education is important. But GPAs, test scores, and admissions decisions from a particular college? None of those things are more important than family, health, and happiness. So yes, treat your kids’ college future with the attention it deserves. Combine high expectations with unconditional love. But don’t forget to appreciate the things that really matter in the long run. If you keep setting good examples, your kids will appreciate those things, too.

Better for parents, too

I write often here about the dangers of overparenting, of doing for your kids what they can (and I would argue, should) do for themselves. Overparenting sends your student the message that you don’t have confidence in their abilities to succeed without you. It teaches them to sit back and wait for Mom or Dad to take care of everything. And it doesn’t prepare them for the independence of college.

But overparenting is damaging to parents, too.

Good parenting is a difficult job. Why make it more difficult by adding the additional jobs of manager, agent, and publicist?

Adults—especially parents—have enough responsibilities without assuming those that should reside with your kids.

Good parenting sometimes means doing things that kids will resent you for now but thank you for later. Overparenting, on the other hand, leads to both short-term and lasting resentment.

Overparenting aims to secure outcomes like admissions to prestigious colleges that ultimately just aren’t in your control.

And most importantly, overparenting robs you of what should be one of the greatest parenting joys: watching your kids grow into mature, capable, responsible adults who can enjoy a new relationship with you based on mutual respect rather than mutual dependence.

Overparenting comes from a good place, but leads to a bad place.

Instead, step back. Resist the urge to do for your kids what they can do (or even can almost do) for themselves. Combine high expectations with unconditional love. Cheer from the sidelines without taking over. Embrace the difficult idea that challenges and even failure are what helps kids to grow.

It’s not easy. But every good parent wants the best for their kids. This will be better for your kids.

It’s better for parents, too.

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.”