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.

Need encouragement to stop over-parenting?

When I deliver messages to parents like:

  • What you do in college is more important than whether or not the school is prestigious
  • Parents need to step back and allow their kids to find their own way
  • Grades, test scores, and admissions decisions don’t measure your child’s worth or your success as a parent…

…I find that parents respond in one of three ways.

  1. They agree wholeheartedly and are already embracing that approach.
  2. They think it’s ridiculous and wish I would just tell them how to get their kids into Harvard.
  3. They want to do it and they know in their parenting hearts that it’s the healthy, sane approach. But they have nagging fears that they’ll somehow be leaving their kids at a disadvantage.

If you’re in the third group, I encourage you to watch this 14-minute TED Talk, How to raise successful kids — without over-parenting. The speaker is Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, and a parent herself (one who admits in the talk that even she has fallen for the over-parenting trap).

Thanks to loyal reader George for sending it to me.

Make the effort

When I started writing this blog daily almost seven years ago, I always had a nagging question in the back of my mind whenever I would dole out parenting advice for those going through the college admissions process—will I be able to walk this talk when I’m a parent myself? Now that I’ve joined the ranks, that answer is not entirely clear yet. Parenting a one-and-a-half-year-old is a lot different than parenting a teenager. I’ve still got some time left to gear up for his high school years.

But while I’m still comfortable standing by my advice not to helicopter parent, to prepare kids for independence, and to do your most important job well during the college application process, I do have a sense of how hard it might be to follow it perfectly when my little guy is a teenager (probably one who won’t be interested in any of Pop’s college admissions advice).

Madeline Levine–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”shares this post, which I really appreciated as a reminder that even the best advice isn’t always easy to follow, even for those who prescribe it. As she relates:

“In the crazy, coincidental way that things work, as I sat down to write this piece, my youngest son, who is in law school, calls me. He has forgotten to sign up for a course he needs; he’s upset and uncertain how to proceed. This is a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ moment for me. He is a great kid, works hard, has been quite independent throughout school, and this is his first snafu. I know I’m not going to fix it for him, but I also know that I’m going to help him. I re-read a couple of my own book chapters. After all this time, I’m surprisingly conflicted. I could smooth his path in a heartbeat. I know this would be a mistake.”

I share this to remind parents that doing what’s best for your kids isn’t always easy. You’re not doing a bad job if you don’t get it right every time. Even the experts sometimes struggle to follow their own advice when it comes to their own children, whether they’re parenting toddlers or law students.

Nobody is suggesting that you have to parent perfectly. You just have to consistently show up and try to do what’s best for your kids, even when those actions aren’t necessarily what feels best for you.

It’s more important to make the effort than it is to be mistake-free.

For parents: just enjoy watching them play

My senior year of high school, I was the goalkeeper on our soccer team that lost the league championship to a team that, based on records, we had to beat twice to take home the title. We won the first game after four overtimes and a penalty kick shootout in which I saved the final game-winning penalty kick. But we lost the second, and the championship, on a savable shot. When I walked into the house after the game, the only thing my dad did was start applauding right there in the living room. Thanks, Pop.

An Open Letter to My Dad, who Makes Me Want to Quit Sports wasn’t actually written by a kid. The author is John O’Sullivan, Founder and CEO of the group Changing the Game Project, whose mission is to, as they put it, “…put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’” But it’s pretty clear that as a player and a coach, O’Sullivan knows what it’s like when a young athlete feels like his or her parent refuses to just watch the game and instead insists on coaching from the stands, yelling at the refs, and delivering an intensive post-game analysis on the car ride home.

I thought this portion was particularly appropriate for parents whose kids are going through the college admissions process. Yes, this is a sports example, but too many parents forget that the anxiety, judgement, and rejection that often come with applying to college—these things are happening to the kids, not to the parents. The parents’ job is to support, cheer (not yell) from the sidelines, and make it clear that their love and pride isn’t dependent on a winning outcome.

“It’s confusing when you are still upset about the loss hours after a game. How long is it appropriate to be sad and angry? I mean, I am the one who played, right? We are supposed to win some and lose some if we play good teams, right? We got beat, but now we have to move on and get ready for the next game. I am not sure how staying angry will help me get better for the next game. I certainly don’t feel like learning much immediately after a loss. The best thing you can do after a game is tell me you are proud of me for competing, and showing good sportsmanship, and that you love to watch me play.”

For parents of athletes, O’Sullivan’s 14-minute TED Talk is worth viewing, too.

How to be a parental superhero

My mom still remembers the day she found my brother’s housing application to UC Berkeley sitting on the floor of his bedroom.

It was due in three hours.

In the days before the internet (and with my brother somewhere on the water with his crew team), she saw just one option—make the two-hour round trip drive to Berkeley to personally deliver the application for him.

When she told him later that night what she’d done for him, his chagrined, remorseful response said it all: “I’m sorry, Mom.”

Readers of this blog know how often I preach against helicopter parenting where parents are constantly hovering to play equal parts manager, publicist, and personal assistant for their kids. I write often that parents need to train their high school kids for the independence of adult life, and that good parenting should involve a taper period before college when you progressively do less and less for your kids.

But like so many parts of parenting, I recognize (even more so now that I’m a parent myself) that this is often easier said than done, and that not every situation—or every kid—presents with a clear right or wrong course of parenting action.

When the infamous housing application snafu took place, my brother was ranked #1 in his high school class. He rose every morning at 5:30 a.m., took our school’s most demanding course curriculum, rowed for a state championship crew, and routinely stayed up until past midnight to maintain his perfect GPA. This was not a kid whose mother was running his life for him; this was a kid who was totally self-driven, who’d achieved because of his own ambitions, and in the throes of school and sports and college applications, managed to let one item of paperwork get past him.

Had my mom not swooped in and saved the day, what lesson would she have taught him? That one mistake among all that perfection should cost him the chance to live in a dorm as a freshman?

NoDropOffsI recalled this tale from our family lore this week when I read about an all-boys private school in Little Rock that does not allow parents to drop off their kids’ forgotten homework, lunches, and other items mistakenly left behind. Principal Steve Straessle is serious about the policy, as evidenced by the sign placed at the front of the school.

Not surprisingly, the article and the subsequent social media sharing stirred plenty of parental debate in the comments sections, ranging from those who praised the policy to those who found it bordering on abuse.

I don’t take issue with the policy, and I suspect that it actually rankles (and teaches!) the parents far more than it does the kids. Teens are resilient—they won’t experience long-term trauma going one day without a lunch or a lacrosse stick that they left behind.

But I do understand how some parents might feel when they reach the school and see that sign. What if your student doesn’t eat breakfast and will now go to school, then to football practice, without a single morsel of food? Yes, he’ll be fine and this is far from a tragic circumstance. But I understand why his parent might be uneasy.

What if that homework assignment left behind is the difference between a B+ and the A- he’s been working so hard for all semester?

And most importantly, what if the item left behind is not a symptom of a chronic problem, but a rare dropped ball in an increasingly frenzied, pressure-packed life of a motivated, hardworking, good kid?

I think that last question is the key for parents facing the choice of saving the day or letting their student learn his or her lesson.

Are you lending a rare assist to a student with a demonstrated history of independence, a student who’s proven that he’s responsible and ready for college but, like all of us, might occasionally miss something on his ever-increasing to-do list?

Or have these assists become a routine part of what is now daily management, something that you’ve unintentionally taught your student to expect as part of Mom or Dad’s role as a parent?

If you’re in the first camp, rest easy. You’re a good parent who cares enough to step in (and then step right back out) occasionally.

But if you’re in the second camp, I think it’s worth facing some tough facts that you might be offering (or simply forcing) too much assistance, and that your student might be too dependent on you. You’re not a bad person or a bad parent. But you’re also not helping your student learn to navigate his own life. If he doesn’t start learning that lesson before he goes to college, the transition to not having Mom or Dad there to take care of everything will be far more difficult, stressful, and potentially messy.

Superheroes swoop in to occasionally save the day when nobody else can help someone in need. They don’t hover constantly to prevent people from facing any challenge at all.

P.S. Today, my brother is a graduate of Harvard. And my mother no longer hand delivers important documents for him.

Positivity in the (home) workplace?

According to the New Yorker’s What Makes People Feel Upbeat at Work, here’s what a group of researchers found contributes most to workplace positivity:

“The highest performers of all were those in a moderately regulated environment who also felt a high degree of autonomy, as determined by their responses to a single statement: ‘My job permits me to decide on my own how to go about doing the work.’ In other words, people want to feel in control. They want to be afforded respect and to determine on their own how to act; it is this autonomy that helps foster emotional positivity. [Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia] Grandey suggests we are all still a bit like our two-year-old selves: tell a toddler exactly what to do and what not to do, and she balks. Let her figure it out within a certain framework, and she is happy.”

Obviously, this has implications for the workplace. But parents, what would happen if you implemented a similar system to your home “workplace” where your student does academic work and college applications?

What kind of guest will your student be?

Parents, if you were hosting a large dinner party, how would you decide who to invite?

Would you base the invites on professional success alone? Would those with the most esteemed positions, best credentials, or biggest paychecks automatically get a seat at your table?

Or would you be more interested in what kind of guest they would actually be?

Professional success can certainly be part of what makes someone an interesting addition to your dinner table. But you’d probably be most likely to invite people you liked–people who were pleasant, affable, and all-around good additions. One arrogant blowhard or critical cynic can really drag a party down no matter how great their resume. But someone fun, engaged, and interested actually makes the evening better for the host and for the guests. Success is impressive. But impressive doesn’t necessarily equal likeable.

That’s exactly why so many colleges ask students to write essays as part of the application.

The application, transcript, test scores, activities, letters of rec—they all communicate a student’s success. But most students don’t just sit in class while they’re in college. They become participating members of a campus community, with clubs, organizations, activities, and yes, even shared meals. Credentials prove that you can handle the work. But likeability proves that you’ll be a guest who makes the upcoming four-year dinner party that much more enjoyable for those who are seated—literally and figuratively—at your table.

Remember that great college essays reveal who a student is, not just what they’ve accomplished. Qualifications reveal a lot about a student’s potential success. But their interests, personality, character, strengths, and even weaknesses—all expressed in their own 17-year-old voice—that’s where colleges decide what kind of guest your student will be.

For parents: when your delivery is all wrong

Take care in your delivery.

Imagine your son or daughter is getting married and you want to look your best on the big day. So you get a haircut, buy a new outfit, and visit a tailor to make sure it’s perfect. You spend a lot of time getting ready until you’re sure to look your best not just at the event, but also in all the pictures that will live on.

Then you show up to the wedding and your son or daughter says, “I don’t like your outfit at all. You’d look much better in something else.”

Wouldn’t you be hurt? Wouldn’t it seem insensitive? Wouldn’t you feel dejected to have all that time and care and pride you’d taken be so flippantly dismissed?

So imagine how your student feels when you read their college essay and say, “I don’t like this topic at all. You should write about something else.”

You might be right about the topic (though please read this post, and this one, before you decide). But your delivery is all wrong.