Look ahead to look back

Last week, my wife and I had to put our dog, Lola, down, the first pet I’d ever owned. And like fellow and past dog owners can attest to their dogs doing, she’d become a part of our family.

This won’t be a post about my dog, or death. In fact, in college admissions circles, “pet death” is one of those essays that’s so common it’s become an ineffective cliché.

But one part of dog ownership that I got right was that every night before I’d head upstairs to bed, I’d give Lola a quick scratch behind the ears and say, “Goodnight, sweet puppy.” Maybe it was maudlin to think this way, but no matter how tired I was or how strong the call of the comfy bed was proving to be, I’d remind myself that Lola wasn’t going to live in our house forever. I didn’t want to look back on her time here wishing I’d focused a little more on just how great it was to have her around. I made the decision once that I was going to end each night on a good Lola note. And I’m glad I did.

Parents of high school kids have so many wonderful things to look forward to as their kids move on from the teenage years. Watching them grow into adults, forge their lives, start their own families–that’s the good stuff. The relationship you’ll enjoy, the joy you’ll find in watching all of it happen, unlike Lola ending her run in our house last week, even when they’re no longer in the house to say goodnight to–all the best parts are still to come for you.

But there are still a limited number of days that your kid will be a full-time resident in your house. No matter how far in the future it may be, their departure date will eventually arrive.

How do you want to say you spent that limited time until then?

My guess is that when you look back, you won’t wish you’d spent more time talking about SAT scores, or arguing about homework, or fixating on perceived weaknesses to be fixed before it’s time for college applications.

I always try to remind Collegewise families that they’re only going to get to do this (watch their kid apply to college) once. Don’t ruin it by injecting all kinds of unnecessary stress or attaching lifelong significance to temporary outcomes like grades, test scores, or an admissions decision from a dream college. Sure, treat their future education with the attention it deserves. But find a way to see it for the exciting time it is, and to appreciate the joy in watching your student find their place for the next four years.

Your perspective changes when you remember that what’s happening right now, both good and stressful, won’t be happening forever. Look ahead to how you want to look back. And make the decision to make the most of this time.

We miss you, Lo. Goodnight, sweet puppy.

Self-driven kids

A new book, The Self-Driven Child, argues that influences like screen time, along with well-meaning parents and schools, are denying children and teens a sense of control over their own lives. And when kids don’t have the chance or the choice to do what they find meaningful, or to succeed or fail on their own, it leads to a host of problems like anxiety, depression, and even a failure to launch (which explains why more adults in their 20s and 30s are living at home).

Here’s Ned Johnson, the book’s co-author, as interviewed in Scientific American. I’m sharing this passage because it’s the perfect example of a simple but powerful decision parents can make that improves everything from your teen’s mental health, to your family relationship, to—yes—even college admissions outcomes.

“They [teens] are facing stressors each day, from school demands to social dynamics. You want home to be the place they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out. But if home is a stressful environment—if parents are an anxious or controlling presence—kids will seek that respite somewhere—or somehow—else. And most of the time, it’s a place you don’t want them to go. Or, if nowhere can be that safe base, they are really in trouble, as being chronically stressed is about the worst thing imaginable for brains, especially developing ones. That’s why we tell parents that one of the most important things they can say to their kids is, ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework,’ and why we want them to move in the direction of being a non-anxious presence for their kids.”

Five steps to easing college stress in your house

The stress surrounding the college admissions process can worm its way into areas of your life where it has no business. That’s one reason I’ve heard so many families comment that college talk has ruined their dinner table conversations.

Parents, here are five deceptively simple things you can start doing this week that will ease the college stress in your house. None of these encourage families to disengage from their kids’ futures. They’re simply meant to put college stress in the proper perspective–and place.

1. Make a point of recognizing and verbally acknowledging something about them you’re proud of that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college.

2. Own up to at least one mistake or failure of your own.
It’s good for kids to know that Mom and Dad are human and that even you don’t get everything right all the time.

3. Move one conversation a day away from tests, grades, or other college admissions-related factors and talk about something else instead, like current events, family vacation plans, news from relatives, etc.

4. Replace the temptation to intervene, fix, or otherwise correct with the words, “I trust you, but let me know if I can help.”

5. Openly appreciate what’s really important.
Family, health, and happiness are all more important than any grade, test score, or admissions decision.

Friend, manager, or agent?

When someone shares a struggle, complaint, or frustration, we make the choice whether to respond like a friend, a manager, or an agent.

A good friend is there to listen without judgment. A friend says, “That sounds really frustrating. I’m so sorry.”

A good manager is there to help find, but not necessarily produce, an appropriate solution. A manager says, “I understand. Let’s talk about how I might be able to help you work through or around this.”

And a good agent is there to make the problem go away so her star can just be a star. An agent says, “Don’t worry about a thing—I’ll take care of it.”

So parents, which role are you supposed to play when your teen comes to you with something they’re facing?

I don’t actually have a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But I will say that both the friend and manager roles encourage progress. The friend lets the person get it all out and gives them a chance to look at their own situation with a calm perspective. A manager offers an opportunity to find a solution without actually serving up the solution itself. People come away from those interactions changed in some way. And they’ve added some learning or growth to their emotional and intellectual bank account they can use to inform them in the future.

But while an agent who makes the problem go away has certainly done her job, she’s also ensured that her star will come right back to her the next time a problem arises. No learning or growth, just increased dependence.

That’s great for the agent, but not so great for the parent. And it’s even worse for the teen.

Good parents inevitably end up playing all three roles at different stages and in different situations. But a good approach might be to do two things:

1. Acknowledge that there are three different roles to be played.
2. When in doubt, start as a friend, if for no other reason than to delay judgment and to invite further conversation.

If the conversation continues and your teen doesn’t make it clear what role they’re inviting you to play, don’t be afraid to just ask them if they’re looking for your help, the chance to just talk, or a little of both.

If nothing else, you’ll create a space where they’re more likely to come back to you the next time, no matter which role they’re seeking when it happens.

Progress reporting

I began writing today’s blog post about the article “When did being an average student become a bad thing?” “Average” is often a pejorative term in our culture, nowhere more so than for college-bound high school students. It was shaping up to be a reassuring reminder that we don’t need our kids relentlessly achieving in all areas, all the time. Plenty of successful people in a variety of disciplines report being “average” students in high school. Who they are at 16 isn’t who they’ll be for life. Grades and test scores don’t mean that much in the long run. Let’s all try to relax a little bit.

And then the email from my son’s school arrived with the subject line, “Winter Progress Report.”

I don’t usually keep email open while I write (this was a good reminder why). But as soon as I saw those words, “progress report,” I abandoned the blog writing and anxiously opened the email. There’s a strange sense of foreboding around a formal document describing your child’s “progress.” What if he isn’t progressing like he should be? What if he’s behind? How will we get him caught up?

My son is three. He’s in preschool.

That preemptive worry didn’t last long. Of course, the progress report contained lots of descriptions like, “He enjoys working with glue, tape, and rubber stamps as he plays at the art table,” and “He is proud of his physical accomplishments, such as sliding down the pole.” That’s appropriate for a preschooler. We don’t need him doing long division or preparing for the SAT (oh, the horror). But that fleeting moment of anxiety that came when opening a progress report, especially while encouraging other parents to resist over-focusing on their kids’ achievements relative to other kids, reminded me what this must be like as our kids get older.

Sure, there are some very real indicators a teacher or school could share with a parent that would in fact be cause for concern. Difficulties learning or socializing, emotional troubles, any real challenge for which the kid—not the parent or the report card—would benefit from addressing are worth taking seriously.

But most grades, test scores, and other metrics so common in school are imperfect, incomplete snapshots of our kids. Yes, as parents, we should pay attention to them. We should talk with our kids about them, especially as a way to celebrate and encourage strengths rather than polishing perceived weaknesses. But we must remember that most of those measurements, who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who’s average, are arbitrary in retrospect and carry little to no weight in the future.

I acknowledged the irony of my progress report email. Then I smiled, imagined my kid “playing fire fighters and construction” (yep—that’s in the progress report), and got back to work. I hope we can all do something similar the next time a progress report arrives.

A good time to start stopping?

Parents, will you be regularly doing any of these things for your high schooler this year?

  • Making key decisions about how they spend their time?
  • Arguing with the adults (teachers, counselors, coaches, etc.) in your student’s life?
  • Lobbying to get them what they want?
  • Checking (or even doing) their work for them?
  • Cleaning up any residue from their failures?
  • Securing their desired opportunities for them?

Now consider the same questions again–not whether you’ll do them this year, but whether you’ll do them forever.

If not forever, maybe this year is a good time to start stopping?

8 questions for managers (plus counselors, parents, and students)

Claire Lew’s latest piece, The 8 best questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting, is designed (and perfect) for managers to ask of an employee. But some versions of these questions might be helpful for counselors to ask their students, for parents to ask their kids, and even for kids to ask themselves.

That third suggestion might seem strange, but students, imagine if you regularly considered—and honestly answered—questions like:

How’s life?

What am I worried about right now?

What are my biggest time-wasters?

Would I like more or less direction from my parents or my counselor?

Are there any decisions I’m hung up on?

Wouldn’t you be in a much better position to work towards answers that would make you happier, more successful, and less stressed?

Perspective power

Nate was an early Collegewise student of mine who had remarkable talent and passion for music. I remember when he brought a CD (it was 2002) to one of our meetings so I could hear an original song he’d written. It sounded great, and when I asked him about the band on the recording, he modestly revealed that he’d played all the instruments—both guitars, the bass, and the drums—himself, and then mixed them together into a fluid recording. We got back to researching appropriate colleges with music programs. He was a smart, nice, interesting kid. And I’d really been enjoying working with him.

But after one of our meetings, he and his family stopped returning my phone calls. Almost two months later, his mother finally called me back. I still remember her exact words because they hit me so hard.

I’m so sorry we haven’t been in touch. I just wanted to be honest and tell you what’s been going on in our family. We learned that Nate has a pretty serious substance abuse problem, so we’ve pulled him out of school to get him the help he needs. I don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but it might be awhile before we can focus on college for him again.

She was so calm, measured, and genuinely concerned about her son. The college planning didn’t matter for the time being. Nate’s life was a lot more important than his GPA.

Not more than an hour later, another parent called me in tears because her son’s SAT scores hadn’t risen as high after his tutoring program as they’d hoped. She wanted to discuss what “could be done to fix this.”

I’m not marginalizing her reaction to her son’s scores, especially given her money and his time that they’d invested (though disappointment was probably a more appropriate reaction than tears). But I remember thinking about the power of perspective, and that while both parents were just wanting what was best for their kids, one had a lot more to realistically worry about than the other did.

The college admissions process can chip away at even the calmest, sanest parent’s perspective. When fellow parents around you seem so concerned about grades and test scores and candidacy for prestigious colleges, you can almost feel negligent as a parent if you don’t engage at the same level so many other parents seem to be lured to do.

But when you feel that pressure getting to you, take a step back and ask yourself some honest questions. Is this a problem worth worrying about? Is there a potential outcome that could cause your student legitimate long-term damage to their health or happiness? Will this issue really matter in 10 years, in 10 months, or even in 10 days?

I’ve never heard a parent of a grown adult say that everything would have been different if their son or daughter had just gotten into AP Bio or raised their ACT score or been accepted to Brown back in high school. Perspective can save your college admissions process, and your parental sanity.

This week, I heard from Nate. He didn’t go on to college, but today he’s happy, sober, and succeeding in his career. He also sent me a photo of his infant son…perched atop Dad’s guitar.

Parents, no matter what happens during your college planning, please maintain your perspective. Your child’s future is everything, but their future college is not.

Parents, what effect is social media having on your kids?

Social media isn’t just connecting teens. It’s also leading to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Time spent connecting online can make even seasoned adults feel like everyone we know is having a more successful, joyous, fulfilling life than we are. And for teens, the need to stay connected, the pressure to respond appropriately, and the inevitable reminders of events and interactions they were not invited to be part of all lead to a new level of social pressure that most parents can’t relate to based on our own teenage years.

Parents, if you’re concerned about the time your teen is spending online and/or the associated effects, and if you’d like to take some productive parental measures to mitigate what seem to be a host of negative consequences in the digital age, here’s an interesting article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Social Media and Teen Anxiety: How parents can help their kids navigate the pressures of their digital lives — without pulling the plug on the positives.”

Should learning embrace kids’ mistakes?

The Greater Good Science Center based at UC Berkeley sponsors scientific research into social and emotional well-being, and helps educators, families, and leaders apply the findings to their own lives. Their recent piece, Why We Should Embrace Mistakes in School, shares some compelling findings showing that the best way to set students up for long-term learning and success is not to praise their ability to get the right answer, but to acknowledge and even praise their mistakes along the way.

The notion of somehow rewarding failure can be difficult for many parents and students to embrace, especially when you’re immersed in a college-bound culture that often feels like anything short of perfection somehow falls short.

But if you read the findings with an open mind, you’ll see that the recommendations actually help raise—not lower—expectations, aspirations, and potential. And when kids learn to see the value in the effort over the outcome, they’re better prepared to attack scenarios that don’t have a right answer, and better positioned for a world where there is no such thing as straight A’s in life.