The best antidote to worry

Worry ruins college admission for too many families. All the uncertainty about what might happen with one upcoming grade, test, or admissions decision can leave some students and parents in a constant state of anxiety, almost all of which will seem overblown in retrospect when that student eventually moves into a dorm and becomes a college freshman.

Research out of the University of Chicago shows that the best way to stop worrying about what might happen tomorrow is to be grateful for what you have today. Your health, your family, your friends, your life—all of these things are more important than your SAT score or whether Northwestern says yes. If that feels true in theory but difficult to embrace in practice because you’re in the middle of this potentially stressful time, here’s an article that shares not just the research, but also a simple exercise to help you embrace gratitude as your worry antidote.

Stretch and learn

Our family’s go-to babysitter is headed to college next week, so we’re in the market for a replacement. When my wife saw a post on a parent list-serve pitching the experienced babysitting services of an incoming freshman at a local high school, she called the number listed. Turns out that number wasn’t the student’s—it was his mother’s, who also made it clear in the first two minutes that she would be doing all the vetting during this exchange.

He’s only available on these particular days and times. Can you accommodate that?

How old are your kids? He doesn’t take care of kids younger than two.

What’s the latest time you would need him to stay? I don’t like him to be out past nine.

I don’t think any of those are unreasonable positions to take. This is a 14-year-old kid, not a professional nanny. There’s nothing wrong with a 14-year-old who doesn’t even drive yet being unavailable during certain hours, preferring to work with kids of a certain age, or needing to be home by a certain time.

But is there any reason why he couldn’t speak for himself? He presumably knows his schedule. He knows the age range of the kids he feels comfortable caring for. He knows what time his parents would like him to come home. He’s got all the information necessary to take it from there.

He could have fielded that phone call. He could have answered questions and maybe thought of a few of his own to ask. He could have represented himself and shown his potential part-time employers that he’s exactly the kind of mature, responsible kid that many people look for in a babysitter.

But he didn’t get to do any of those things—his mother did them for him. What a missed opportunity, for him and for her.

I can see the argument that this is a parental judgment call. He’s not in high school yet. He’s on the step, but not yet through the door, of that transition when many kids’ capabilities surpass their dependence on Mom and Dad. Maybe this was the first phone call that came in and his mother wanted him to hear the kinds of questions she asks so he can learn to do that himself. It’s possible that he’s been allowed all sorts of opportunities to represent himself.

But no matter what the reason, I hope he’ll soon be answering his own phone calls, handling his own interviews, and learning his own lessons along the way. He won’t do it perfectly the first time. But he’ll get better with each repetition as long as he’s given the opportunity to stretch and learn.

Those kids—the ones who can think and act for themselves—are the high school students who will raise their hands in class, or call a local non-profit to inquire about volunteer opportunities, or sit comfortably and have a conversation with their college interviewer.

They later become the college students who will visit a professor during office hours, show up for the club meeting they saw advertised on a campus flyer, or seek out resources, opportunities, and mentors that are widely available for students who don’t just sit back and wait.

And yes, they become the adults who can navigate their way through life’s personal and professional complexities, where your success and happiness are driven a lot more by your work ethic, character, confidence, communication skills, and empathy than they are by your ability to follow directions and get an “A.”

Parents, as your kids progress through the teenage years, some of the most crucial lessons they can learn won’t be in the classroom, or even in their chosen activities. The teachings will come from the experiences around how they’ve chosen to spend their time. There’s a host of maturing opportunities around getting a job as a babysitter that have nothing to do with taking care of kids. Those same opportunities exist when they don’t get into a class that they want, or they run for a club office and lose the election, or they see an exciting opportunity but aren’t sure how to pursue it. That’s where life’s learning happens. And it’s important that parents let them enroll.

It’s a process, and you shouldn’t be expected to flip the independence switch one day. But just like when you teach them to drive, eventually, you’ve got to let them take the wheel for themselves. If you don’t, you’ll be driving them forever.

I think any student, no matter what their grades and test scores, can become someone who’s capable of making their way successfully. But they need their parents to step back and allow them the opportunities to stretch and learn.

Someday, it’s going to be you

Sharing the concluding paragraph of Caitlin Flanagan’s recent NY Times piece about dropping her sons off at college feels like it needs a spoiler alert. So if you’re really interested in the article, please read it first and then come back for my message. But for the rest of you, here’s the snippet:

“I had only one moment of the kind of reckoning I’d been dreading all summer, or perhaps for the past 18 years. We’d dropped the first son off in Ohio, the second in New York, and I’d stayed around for a couple of extra days in case I was needed (I wasn’t). On my last day, I met him at a coffee shop near his dorm. We sat in the sunshine with cold drinks, and he seemed to me impossibly young to be left there — as young, I’m certain, as I must have seemed to my own parents in 1979. And then it was time to go to the airport. I hailed a cab, and my son heaved my suitcase into the trunk. I hugged him one last time, as quickly as possible, and got in the cab. And then I watched him disappear into a jostling New York crowd, headed in the general direction of his memory foam mattress topper and his new life.”

I’ll admit it—my kids are both under three, but that paragraph still got to me. Someday, that’s going to be us, my wife and I dropping each of our boys off at college. As long as they’re happy and excited about where they’re going, I’m certain we won’t care at all whether or not the schools are famous. But as celebratory as it’ll be for them, I’m guessing that moment when they each walk off into their new lives will be bittersweet for us.

Parents, no matter where you are in the college process, someday, that’s going to be you dropping your kids off and saying goodbye. Someday, the SATs and the applications and the consternation around choosing Calculus or Advanced Placement Statistics will all be over, and they’ll wave goodbye to start their new lives in college.

Knowing that it’s going to be you someday, what do you want the days, weeks, months, and years that precede that moment to look like? When that big day comes, what will be important to you to say about the time that led up to it, when they searched and applied and chose the place they’ll call home for the next four years, all while they were still eating at your dinner table and sleeping in their room down the hall?

Regular readers likely know what I’d prescribe, and even more likely, what I’d rally against. But no matter what your answer, make the choice. Decide today what you want that path to look like.

Your family deserves more than to focus only on the destination at the expense of the journey. And it’s a more compelling exercise to be thoughtful about that path when you know that no matter what you do, that day is coming. It’s going to be you someday.

Checklisted childhoods

Julie Lythcott-Haims isn’t just a former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success. She’s also a parent herself, one who openly admits that at the same time in her life when she first began chastising Stanford parents for hovering over their kids, she also caught herself doing the same thing with her own young children. I think that’s why her advice resonates so much with me, and why I share her as a source so often here. She knows the difficulties, the grey areas, the uncertainties a parent can face. But she’s also seen Stanford freshmen, some of the world’s brightest and most accomplished 18-year-olds, who were unable to face even the most common of daily challenges without calling Mom or Dad for instructions.

This recent Time article, adapted from her book mentioned above, shares Julie’s story of how she came to the realization that someone needed to speak out against what she had seen for herself as a harmful parenting practice. If this passage below resonates with you, if you’re a parent who wants to step back but worries that doing so will put your student at a disadvantage, I hope you’ll give both the article and the book a read.

“… I’m here to tell you—warn you—that this way of parenting is harmful to kids, to parents, to us all. You know it, I know it. We all know it. We see our children withering under the pressure of the checklisted childhood, feel ourselves struggling to keep up, and we imagine a different, saner way, exists elsewhere. Wyoming? Yet we look over our shoulder and see the galloping herd of other parents who are spending more money, hiring more help, taking more time off just to ensure their kid makes the grade, makes the cut, and gets admitted to that school over our kid, all the while bragging about their outcomes. We want to trust our instincts, wish we were brave enough to walk away, focus on family time not test prep, incite laughter, prompt joy, let our kids just be, but we fear the herd, and the short term win their kid will achieve with all that help. The overparenting herd has become a bully we feel the need to go along with.”

Goofing off = better learning

Dr. Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. Here’s a snippet from her recent article in The Atlantic, “How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn.”

“When parents seek my advice about what activities their child should be doing, they’re often surprised when I pare down their proposed list and prescribe free time during the week for good goofing off. It’s not that kids aren’t paying attention during this time, it’s that their attention has shifted within. Important things are going on in there. Even adults can only pay attention for about 20 minutes at a time before getting less effective. When a child has finished her math homework and is taking time between assignments to make a smoothie or read a chapter in a book, or when he comes home after school and blows off steam by shooting baskets in the backyard for an hour before starting his homework, the brain is still processing information very effectively. It’s sorting through what it’s taken in, attaching emotional meaning to it, cementing it in memory, and integrating it into the individual’s core self. It’s all part of building a child’s identity, about learning who they are apart from what they do.”

A university professor’s perspective on over-involved parents

Duquesne University professor Dr. Karen Fancher’s office is directly in front of the elevator doors, leading to a recurring experience which she describes as follows (the link within this quote also appears in the article):

“I’m concentrating on something, but out of the corner of my eye I see the elevator doors slide open. It’s a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman, presumably her mother. The parent walks into my office, with the girl trailing sheepishly behind. The mother says, ‘My daughter will be starting here in the fall. We want to change one of her elective classes.’ I try to make eye contact and address the girl as I politely give them directions to the Office of Student Services down the hall, but it’s the mother who apologizes for interrupting me. They leave my office, Mom leading the way with the class schedule in her hand. Do you see the issue here? The child has been accepted into a major university and is weeks away from starting a difficult area of study, but it’s her parent who is doing all of the talking to get her problem corrected, while she says nothing and appears to be dragged along against her will.”

The article goes on to share not only a thoughtful analysis of both the long-term detrimental effects on kids and the challenges for faculty dealing with over-involved parents, but also some tips for parents that can help you step back and allow your kids to take responsibility for their own educations.

The role of “parent”

Parents, imagine you had a big presentation at work. You worked and worried. You put in the long hours and maybe even a restless night or two. But unfortunately, it just didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. You’re disappointed. The wind is officially out of your sails. You feel like you failed and you need to muster the energy to pick yourself back up and get back to work tomorrow.

What would you want your kids to say to you when you got home?

“Maybe you should have started on the presentation earlier.”

“Is this going to negatively impact your chances at a promotion?”

“What’s your boss’s email address? I want to talk to her and see how we can fix this.”

“You’ll need to make up for that with some extra sales numbers this quarter.”

“Making good slides is definitely not your strong point. We should get you someone to help you with that before the next presentation.”

Or would you rather your kids told you they were sorry that it didn’t go as you’d hoped, gave you a hug, and kept treating you like their mom or dad who they love unconditionally, regardless of your professional successes or failures?

I know that parents feel inextricably linked to their kids’ education. But as much as possible, try to preserve your role as mom or dad, a role that doesn’t change with any grade, test score, or admissions decision.

Bonus suggestion: Say one thing to your kids today that reminds them exactly what role you’re playing. Don’t assume that they know.

Recharging vs. enduring

From bestselling authors Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan in a recent Harvard Business Review piece, “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure“:

“A resilient child is a well-rested one. When an exhausted student goes to school, he risks hurting everyone on the road with his impaired driving; he doesn’t have the cognitive resources to do well on his English test; he has lower self-control with his friends; and at home, he is moody with his parents. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. And the bad habits we learn when we’re young only magnify when we hit the workforce.”

The article then goes on to share some compelling research showing the importance of real “recovery periods,” and the distinction between simply stopping your work and actually recovering from the time spent doing it. It’s worth a read for students looking to get an edge without necessarily adding more hours of work to the day, and for parents who may welcome a reminder that the strategically placed video game session or other completely-non-school-related distraction can actually be a long-term improver of mind, health, and performance.

Life grades on a curve

A recent Atlantic article, “The Ethos of the Overinvolved Parent,” made the rounds in our counselor and admissions officer social media groups yesterday, generating frustration with the reality but also a fair amount of understanding, especially from fellow parents, about why it’s so hard to let go.

Stacy, the mother interviewed for the article, argues that for $65,000 a year—the cost of her daughter’s “prestigious private college”—she won’t hesitate to call school officials when she perceives things aren’t going well. That’s exactly what happened when Stacy’s daughter waited four weeks for the school to schedule an interview for a desirable internship at a local hospital. Stacy intervened and called her daughter’s advisor.

As Stacy describes today’s college experience:

“‘It’s a lot for them to navigate, and it wouldn’t be fair to tell them to navigate it on their own,’ she said. ‘It’s not called helicopter parenting. It’s called Parenting 2017.’”

I can see the basis for this argument. Parents like Stacy pay a lot of money for college. And they’re evaluating not only what the post-college return on that investment will be, but also the degree to which the promises are being kept for the benefactors—the students.

But here’s the twist I would add. At what point will it be her daughter’s responsibility to manage her own life, and how soon before then should she be allowed to start learning those lessons?

I don’t know what steps Stacy’s daughter had taken with her advisor to get that interview scheduled. Had she checked by phone or email? Did she visit during office hours? Did she offer to schedule the interview herself, only to have all of these efforts rebuffed or ignored?

Or did she just sit back and “frantically wait” as the article describes it?

Whichever scenario it was, it would seem that the only lesson this student likely learned is that when she experiences a frustration or setback, Mom will swoop in and fix it for her.

What would have been the worst-case scenario had Stacy not intervened? The student doesn’t get the internship? I find it hard to believe that there’s only one worthwhile internship available to a college kid in Boston. And the lesson learned might have been an invaluable one—if you really want something, show initiative. Be resourceful. Don’t just sit back and “frantically wait.”

The world is not a place that caters to our every whim. We all have to face obstacles, deal with difficult or unresponsive people, and navigate our way through situations that don’t have a clear path or correct answer. It takes time to learn how to do these things. There’s no class kids can take to learn the steps in just one semester.

But life is its own best teacher here. It will throw a lot of material at kids as they get older. And this instructor is also forgiving of many wrong answers as long as kids learn from their mistakes. It’s up to parents to let their kids enroll in this course, and to commit to offering only the occasional guidance or tutoring rather than jumping in to do the homework or take the tests for their students.

Students won’t get a perfect grade in this particular class—nobody does. But most successful people have failed in their lives. And that’s proof that life grades on a curve.

When great parenting = great managing

The increasing complexity of the college admissions process can occasionally leave parents unclear as to what they should be doing to best support their kids. Yes, we all know to take care of them and to love them unconditionally. But when does supporting them become over-parenting? When does backing off become disengaging from their lives? When does encouraging them to pursue their dreams become pushing them too hard? Much like the job of a great manager is to help their employees be happy and successful at work, an argument could be made that one important job of a great parent is to help kids be happy and successful in life. Here are five ways great parenting looks like great managing.

1. Define what success looks like.
A good manager doesn’t just define the job responsibilities—she defines what success looks like in the role, how it’s measured, and why it’s important to the mission of the company. A great parent can take the same approach with his kids. Rather than create a narrow definition that ties to transcripts and test scores, think of the values you’d like your kids to develop and take with them when they leave the nest, like work ethic, character, curiosity, and kindness. High school is going to end someday, but a broader definition of success, one that isn’t prescribed by the college admissions process, is something they bring with them into adulthood.

2. Offer regular recognition and praise.
Great managers know that effective praise and recognition can help employees better understand both their own value and what’s important to the organization. And great parents know that one of the best ways to encourage the success they define in #1 is to recognize and praise the right behaviors when they see them. I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on how to praise effectively.

3. Let them find their own route to success.
The best managers don’t legislate every step an employee should take to do an important job well. And they don’t constantly jump in and take over to make sure things are done to their exacting standards. Instead, they describe the desired outcomes, offer appropriate support to guide their people, then let their employees find their own individual routes to get there. Great parents make their expectations clear, but they also acknowledge that every kid is different. They recognize and appreciate what makes each of their kids unique. Instead of expecting that your kids will approach the world exactly as you or their siblings do, encourage them to find how they learn, work, and thrive best.

4. Allow for recoverable failures.
Workplaces can’t benefit from innovation if they don’t allow people to try things that might not work. So great managers encourage employees to experiment, to initiate, and to try new things, all while making sure that any potential failure is one that’s acceptable and recoverable. Great parents appreciate that many of the best opportunities for learning and growth come from the failure that follows trying something that’s new, different, or challenging for their kids. As long as kids aren’t doing anything to put their health or their future at risk (crimes, not test scores, put their future at risk), the occasional recoverable failure can breed resilience, knowledge, and long-term success. Embrace and encourage those opportunities, help them see the ensuing lessons, and enjoy the benefits that come from raising kids who aren’t afraid to fail.

5. Care about the person, not just the results.
Great managers don’t just care about the work—they care about the people behind the work. Employees need to know that they are more than just a name on a paycheck and that someone is concerned about them as people first and employees second. I know that parents don’t need to be reminded to care about their kids. But kids need to know—and to occasionally be reminded—that their parents love them for who they are, not just for what they achieve. Don’t allow the college admissions process to overshadow what’s really important. Happy, healthy kids who feel cared about will bring more joy and fulfillment to your family than any grade, test score, or admissions decisions will.