Teach our children well

College counselors often come across parents who couch their kids as victims in the college admissions process. They’re victims of a system that seems unfair or of purported preferential treatment toward other students. And in some of the more bizarre expressions, they’re victims of the lack of a life tragedy (which is now being labeled as a disadvantage).

I’ll admit that while I still don’t agree with those characterizations, since having children of my own, I have more empathy for the parental love that drives them. Wanting more for our kids is part of a parent’s job. That’s a big job, one over which we only have so much control. It’s only natural that the responsibility can lead to occasional irrationality.

A recent Atlantic piece, “Dear Therapist: I’m Worried the College-Admissions Process Is Rigged Against My Son,” doesn’t pull virtual punches in its tough love-infused response. But it also addresses some of the facts many parents who feel this way might be overlooking. And even more importantly, it offers some good reminders for parents to avoid injecting feelings of disappointment or failure where our kids may be naturally resilient enough to move on. This passage in particular captures that notion well:

“… how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your son will respond to it. It’s true that sometimes there isn’t enough to go around—there are only so many leads in the school production, so many spots at a given college, and so many openings for a job someone really wants. At the same time, parents have the potential to turn a situation that their kids would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s miserable. At that point, it’s the parent creating the child’s misery, not the situation. The messages parents send their kids have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would ever do. You have a great opportunity right now to teach your son well.”

Where accepted status won’t change

Brennan Bernard’s latest Forbes piece, “A Letter To College Applicants,” is written for students. But it really should be shared with their parents, too. Parents, your kids are going to need you to help them see the message conveyed within, that their life will be about many things bigger and more important than any decision from a college. Teens don’t have the life experience and perspective to zoom out like that, to see the bigger picture when the present reality looms so much larger than the unclear future. The college admissions process has a way of not only exacerbating the pain of that inexperience, but also of luring so many parents to lose the same perspective. Bernard’s piece just might help both parties regain their footing.

And while Bernard offers an invitation to students to express their love and appreciation for their parent or the caring adult in their life, the college admissions process is the perfect opportunity for parents to do exactly the same in reverse. Remind your son or daughter how much more they are to you than a grade, test score, or admissions decisions, and that their accepted status for your family will never change.

When all you can do is the best you can do

Parents, imagine that you’ve just applied for ten new jobs at different organizations around the country. You’ll be receiving decisions from all of them in the next 30 days. Each opportunity has its own pros and cons. And each will require that you make a significant life change—new responsibilities, new co-workers, maybe even a new location. You’re nervous, you’re excited, and you’re uncertain. People in rooms together are making decisions about you and your life, and now that you’ve applied and interviewed, there’s nothing else you can do to influence those outcomes. You’ve just got to sit and wait.

That’s not unlike what seniors are experiencing as they wait to hear back from colleges.

The best way to support your teens during this time is to remind them through words and actions that you’re in their corner, that you just want them to be happy, and most importantly, that you love them no matter which colleges say yes. Don’t inject more gravity and anxiety into these forthcoming decisions by talking about them incessantly, rethinking the application approach, or preemptively strategizing to work around bad news that hasn’t even arrived yet.

Just wait with them and live your lives. It’s really all you can do, but it turns out it’s also the best thing you can do you.


Where can you take options off the table?

How can a softball pitcher keep her focus and retire the side when getting shelled on the mound while the runs are adding up?

How can a speech and debate competitor keep his composure when he loses his train of thought?

How can the teenage part-time restaurant hostess manage a growing crowd of hungry, impatient diners when there just aren’t enough tables to go around?

How can the student body president get the cabinet back on track when there’s dissent in the ranks and nobody seems to want to work together anymore?

How can a test-taker stay calm and forge ahead when the last three questions have left him rattled and questioning his level of preparation?

There may be more than one viable way to overcome those challenges. But in each circumstance, the student needs to go through the experience to learn how. And a parent stepping in to handle it for them? That option was never even on the table.

But where else in your student’s life does that option remain? And more importantly, where could you use the challenge as an opportunity to help your student learn, grow, and emerge better prepared to handle the next inevitable challenge?

Parents—and students—where else could you take the option off the table?

Parents should be consultants, not managers

Dr. William Stixrud, author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, recommends that parents be their kids’ consultants, not their managers. And in this 50-minute interview, well worth the listen, he shares some great advice including:

• Why giving kids more sense of control sets them up to thrive
• A more effective approach to homework battles and technology use
• The parenting magic of the words, “It’s your call”
• How to prepare your kids for college (and it doesn’t involve preparing for standardized tests)

Our praise and their pride

Praise is a powerful instrument, especially when delivered from parents to their kids. Although some teens may go to great lengths to appear otherwise, they thrive on parent approval. Parental praise has byproducts, as teens are likely to seek out opportunities to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.

There’s no itemized list of good and bad praises, and let’s not inject unnecessary worry or strategy into parental expressions of admiration towards their kids. But there are two particular types of praise that can actually have the opposite of their intended effect:

1. Praising intelligence
“You’re so smart” certainly has a nice ring to it—who wouldn’t want to hear that? But in addition to praising something the student had virtually nothing to do with (intelligent kids should be praising their parents for passing on good genes), the bigger issue is that research has shown that praising kids for innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.

When an intellectual challenge eventually presents itself, students who identify as intelligent can panic. This is one of the reasons so many students who attend highly selective colleges suffer from impostor syndrome on arrival. It’s a rude awakening to find out on day one that your former moniker as “the smartest kid in class” no longer applies.

A few alternatives: Praise their curiosity, effort, or willingness to take on challenging subjects. Those are repeatable behaviors regardless of how readily the student can understand what’s being presented.

2. Comparative praising
“You scored the most points,” or “You were the best soloist tonight,” or “You got the highest grade in the class!” are praises based on comparison. The message they give your student is that to be praiseworthy, someone else needs to be less praiseworthy. Nobody’s suggesting that we should divide our praise equally among every participant. But your student’s not always going to be the top scorer, performer, or achiever. To set them up for future success, praise the traits that put them in those positions: their hard work, commitment to their goals, willingness to take on challenges, etc.

When in doubt, praise away. If your worst crime as a parent is that you praised often but not perfectly, that’s a pretty great track record. But if we can be mindful about what we’re praising, our kids will be more likely to continue doing those very things that earned our praise and their pride.

Home/school balance

Many professionals struggle with their work/life balance. I’ve never met an adult who said, “I wish that my boss and my job-related stress and my performance at work would play a bigger role in my life at home.”

And yet many kids today are struggling with home/school balance.

Parents, what if your home became the place where kids could be free of:

  • Measurement of performance
  • Comparisons to other kids
  • Judgment based on grades or test scores
  • Suggestions to fix their weaknesses
  • Pressure to succeed by subjective metrics
  • Recurring conversations about college admissions
  • Imposed guilt for mistakes made

Not a home free of expectations or bloated with universal praise. But a place where the love is unconditional, where a student’s performance as a family member is more important than their performance as a college applicant.

How would that change the environment at home? And how might it embolden them to thrive in the environment at school?

Both might improve with a better home/school balance.

Giving kids agency

It’s a difficult balancing act for parents to help their kids develop the skills to be successful while simultaneously letting go enough to allow them to develop the agency to become capable young adults. If you’re a parent struggling with this challenge, give this 40-minute interview with author and former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims a listen. And if you’re unsure whether you’d benefit from the advice, the first minute alone might turn you around.

Regularly ask “why?”

In response to my post last week with data demonstrating why teens need to get more sleep, a parent replied with an earnest and totally reasonable question: How? As she pointed out, getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is a challenge with school, classes, activities, part-time jobs, etc. For a concerned parent who agrees that too many students are taking on too much, and who would very much like to encourage their kids to get more sleep, what exactly can be done about it?

There’s no easy answer here, but I recommend that families start start by asking “why?” when confronted with those choices that are preventing kids from getting more sleep.

Four AP classes—why? Activities filling up all their free time–why? And if the answers are, “Because kids need to get into ‘good’ colleges,” stick with, “Why?” There are hundreds of colleges in this country that will happily admit a kid with B’s, no AP classes, average test scores, and a part-time job after school as their only activity.

These are choices that kids and families make. And one of those choices is to opt in to—or out of—the race for a coveted spot at one of those colleges that denies most of their applicants.

We might say that this is the way it has to be, that kids need to get accepted to the most selective college they can lest they somehow be left behind their more competitive (and sleep-deprived) classmates. But if you meet that assumption with a powerful “why?” you’ll see that it doesn’t hold up. There’s no data to support that kids who go to highly selective colleges are happier or more successful in life. The namebranditus afflicting so many families is a powerful story they’ve been told and now tell themselves. But it’s not a fact-based objective on which you can predicate your high school career.

The truth is that some kids thrive on competition and achievement. They’re internally wired to finish at the top and feel a sense of exhilaration in the chase. But many more do not. I don’t prescribe one way to approach high school. But whatever approach you see—and even endorse—with your student, take the time to regularly ask, “Why?”

Our kids need more sleep

From Challenge Success’s regular newsletter, which arrived in my inbox this week:

“Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that not getting enough sleep is associated with certain health risks and that more than ⅔ of U.S. high school students report less than 8 hours of sleep during school nights. When teens consistently get the right amount of sleep, they feel and function better. A lack of adequate sleep is associated with increased risk of physical illnesses, such as obesity and diabetes, injury-related risk behaviors (e.g. risky driving or not wearing a helmet), poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and poor academic performance.”