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.

What happens to Tiger Moms’ cubs?

I remember the hubbub—and the ensuing press coverage—when Yale law professor Amy Chua released her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011. She not only shared her parenting style that pushed her daughters towards academic perfection, restricted their extracurricular activities, and essentially forbid socializing, but also held up their academic and college admissions results as proof that tiger parenting works. But what I remember even more clearly was that while many parents I heard from via this blog or at seminars expressed their disagreement and even outright horror at raising children the tiger mom way, plenty of others proudly embraced the label. To them, “I’m a tiger mom/dad” was a badge of honor, a sign that they were doing their job and raising kids with the fortitude to compete and the work ethic to excel. And while one of the criticisms of Chua’s book was that it stereotyped Chinese parenting in the United States, I found that the parents embracing the label came from all backgrounds.

It turns out, however, that the results Chua depicted might have been an exception. In the first major study released on the topic, children of tiger parents have worse grades, they are more depressed, and they feel alienated from their parents.

Now that I am a parent, I’m more aware of and sensitive to the reality that there is no one approved method of raising happy, fulfilled, successful kids. But I can say that Collegewise has helped over 10,000 families navigate the college admissions process. And I can tell you that if any version of tiger parenting consistently produced more successful kids, we’d have recommended that approach, especially considering how many students seem driven to achieve those outcomes, with or without a tiger parent.

“Honey, stop talking”

A Collegewise family I worked with years ago had an endearing dynamic. During our meetings together, the mother would routinely say to the father, “Honey, stop talking.”

It would be hard to find a couples counselor who would endorse a relationship where one partner routinely shut down the other like this. But here was the difference. Mom would only say that when Dad was talking for their daughter.

“She’s interested in. . .”

“She needs an environment where. . .”

“She’s very strong in math. . .”

“We need to highlight her strengths in. . .”

“Why is this school on the list? She doesn’t want. . .”

Every time, gently but directly, Mom would interject, “Honey, stop talking.”

And every time he stopped, it gave their daughter space to start.

Things worked out pretty well. Today, their daughter is a Stanford graduate, a successful talent agent in Hollywood, recently married and raising a (very cute) dog.

The more engaged kids are with their own college process, the more favorable the outcomes will be. And one of the best ways for parents to help is to occasionally remind themselves to stop—and allow their kids to start—talking.

When the talk turns towards college

I posted a reminder for parents earlier this month that there are far more fascinating conversations to be had with your teens than those that revolve around college admissions topics. And I still maintain that you have a far more important job than that of college application general manager in your house. But there are times, especially for parents of seniors at this time of year, when you just can’t ignore the application deadline elephant in the room. Done right, a related conversation can leave your teen feeling supported, encouraged, and well-reminded that your relationship won’t change based on which colleges say yes or no. Here are a few tips to help you handle those conversations well.

1. Trade judgement for empathy.
Yes, it’s possible your student has procrastinated, ignored advice, or made other decisions that have put them in a more stressful position now than they needed to be in. Guess what? Seventeen-year-olds are supposed to make those mistakes. In fact, they can learn from them. Believe me, they’re likely feeling judged enough by the entire process without Mom or Dad chiming in. So instead of judging, try empathizing. Make an honest effort to understand how they’re feeling. The truth is that you don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in the world today, much less one who’s applying to college. If you make the effort to empathize, you’ll find the conversation will change. You’ll ask more questions. You’ll listen more. And you’ll probably come away with a better understanding of your teen and what they’re experiencing right now.

2. Offer an invitation, not solutions.
You’re the adult in this relationship, and it can be tempting to offer solutions that you know will help your kids get completed applications out the door. But even the most well-intentioned offers can still be received by teenagers as a sign that you just don’t believe in them. Asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” seems generous and unobtrusive, but often doesn’t yield an affirmative response. So instead, try offering an invitation, like, “If there’s anything I can do to help, will you tell me?” This sets the table for a future conversation even if your teen isn’t presently in the market for parental assistance.

3. Don’t draw comparisons.
What other kids or other families are doing during this time just doesn’t matter. In a process that’s all about comparison between applicants, resist any inclination to compare what your student is or isn’t doing with the actions (or inactions) of other students. Even when meant in a positive way, these comparisons just heighten kids’ feelings that their college application process really isn’t theirs at all.

4. Build on good news.
Has your teen made progress with their applications? Do they have a list with at least a few schools their counselor said were sure things? Even better, has your student already applied to and been accepted at some colleges? Don’t ignore those wins in favor of focusing on what’s left. Instead, celebrate them. Remind your kids how far they’ve come, how much they have to look forward to in college, and how happy you are about the positives worth celebrating. Progress, wins, and good news are like emotional fuel to help your kids face whatever comes next. Don’t miss the opportunity to build on this good news.

5. Remind them what won’t change.
The stakes can feel so high during the college admissions process: first-choice schools, competition between friends, joy and despair when decisions arrive, not to mention the sea of change coming when kids inevitably leave high school and head to college somewhere. In your conversations, it’s helpful to remind kids of those constants that won’t change–most importantly, your love for them. Remember, it’s likely abundantly clear to you how much you love your kids and how little their grades, SAT scores, or college decisions are likely to change that. But it’s not always clear to the applicant in the house. Any step you can take, whether in words within these conversations or actions outside of them, will go a long way to giving a sense of comfort and resilience to kids who are immersed in a process that can chip away at both.

A seventh grader can do it

This post showed up on a local parent listserv last week (I inserted the “xxxx” portions to protect the poster’s identity).

Hi, my name is xxxx and I’m a 7th grader at xxxx. I take advanced math and love it. If you are looking for an affordable math tutor with a great attitude about math for your child I am able to tutor up to 6th grade and charge $15 an hour. Is transportation too hard? No worries. I’ll come to you! Please email me at xxxx if you have questions or are interested.

This is one of those seemingly simple things that can have a lot of value when the student is allowed to drive it.

This student is promoting themselves. They wrote the ad, they posted the ad, and they’ll be fielding the incoming inquiries. If it’s successful, they’ll end up managing a schedule, showing that they can fulfill their responsibilities, and answering to their paying customers. They’ll inevitably learn from this experience even if they don’t receive a single inquiry.

It might be tempting to discount those merits. After all, it’s not that hard to post an ad. And lots of kids babysit or do other part-time jobs. But one of the shifts I’ve witnessed since I started Collegewise almost twenty years ago is that too many high school kids will sit back and let their parents handle this sort of thing for them (I wrote about one who posted on the very same listserv). And my wife and I routinely get parents knocking on our door to raise money for their students’ cheerleading or softball or football teams, with their kids nowhere in sight.

Parents, the next time you’re tempted to step in and help with pitching or fundraising or any other endeavor that will ultimately benefit your student, step back and consider whether this is something they could and should do for themselves. Guiding and encouraging is one thing. But taking it over entirely is another.

It’s easy to come up with excuses for why your kids can’t take it on. But if a seventh grader can do it, your high schooler can, too.

Let today happen

Parents, while your kids are still in the house, you don’t have to wonder if you’ll all be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner together. Whether you’re at your home table or visiting far-flung family members, your kids are along for the Thanksgiving ride.

Today is a good day to remember that it won’t always be that way.

Soon, your kids will be in college. Then they’ll be starting their lives, with jobs and priorities and families of their own. Watching them do those things can and should be a joyful parenting period of your own—especially the Thanksgivings when you’ll all be together! But turkey (or tofu) time together won’t necessarily be an annual guarantee. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy what you have together today.

You might be tempted to let the college application process invade your Thanksgiving. It’s not easy to shut off what might have been daily conversations about essays and applications and SAT scores. But those topics and to-do’s won’t disappear if you ignore them for one day. No student in the history of the college admissions process has been shut out of a college because their family declared Thanksgiving college-talk-free.

Parents, give yourselves and your kids a break today. Take a breath and appreciate your guaranteed Thanksgiving time together while you have it. As high school counselor Patrick O’Connor said so eloquently in his recent piece, “What you can — and can’t — say to a high school senior at Thanksgiving”:

“College will be great, but college is tomorrow, and Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for today. Let that happen.”

Learned decision making

Kids learn to make good decisions by actually making decisions. Whenever possible and reasonable, let kids choose. Classes, activities, hobbies, colleges, etc. Sometimes there’s a compelling reason to make the choice for them. But learned decision making is a compelling reason to let them choose.

Make it a little better

There’s a lot of wisdom in this pithy passage from one of my favorite management books:

“When you enter your place of work, you never leave it at zero. You either make it a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better.”

It also applies when you swap “place of work” with school, classroom, rehearsal, dinner with your family, etc.