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.

For parents with kids departing for college

Chris Alexander is a professor and dean at Davidson College. His recent Washington Post article, As drop-off looms, a professor’s note for new college parents, is one of the best I’ve read on the subject of parenting your college-age kid.

If you’re sending your son or daughter to college this fall, please read it. And if you’ve still got a few years to go, bookmark it and return to read it later. It’s difficult to not only be compassionate when you advise that parents back off, but also to give specific advice about the new kind of parenting your student will need while they’re in college. Alexander definitely pulls off both.

Five tips for parents who’ve been through this before

For parents who have been through the college admissions process before, your familiarity with the territory can lead to a much smoother, more enjoyable ride for you and for your younger kids. But it can also lead to frustration if your veteran expectations don’t align with college admissions reality. So here are five tips for parents who are about to go through the college admissions process again.

1. Expect it to be different.
It’s natural to let past experiences leave us feeling as if we know exactly what to expect the next time around. But like many of the milestones you’ve enjoyed with your younger kids, their college admissions process will likely not be the same—for them or for you—as it was when you navigated this with their older sibling. Instead of hoping for predictability, expect it to be different. Celebrate it as a sign that you’ve raised unique, interesting siblings, each with their own personality, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Your past experience still has value—if you learned that visiting eleven colleges in four days is too exhausting for your family, you can make a different decision this time. Just don’t expect that tours, trips, or takeaways will be the same. You’ll enjoy this more if you don’t expect predictability from an inherently unpredictable process.

2. Don’t compare.
Life as a younger sibling can’t help but involve the occasional—or frequent—comparison to their elder cohorts in the house. But the college admissions process is one time when a student needs to feel like it’s all about him. Don’t draw comparisons to where elder kids applied, how many times they took standardized tests, or how their admissions results played out. It’s hard for a student to take—and feel—ownership of their college admissions process if it’s constantly being compared and contrasted with that of their older sibling. I’m not saying you need to discount the fact that someone else in the house has been through this before. But high school students get plenty of measurement and comparison to other kids just by preparing for college. Home should be the one place where there’s no curve to compare against.

3. Focus where you have control.
It’s tempting for parents who’ve been through this before to expect that as veterans, they’ll be able to engineer a flawless process with perfect results. But no matter how grizzled you may be, you can still only influence, never fully control, how your student approaches the college admissions process. And you certainly can’t dictate whether or not a college says yes. So focus on the parts that you can control. You can decide how you approach this process with your new applicant. You can resolve to enjoy this time. You can allow your student to take the lead.  Accepting that you can’t control the process during this time is vital for both rookies and veterans. But parents who have experience need to understand that your newfound admissions knowledge won’t necessarily mean newfound control.

4. Recommit to your most important job.
A parent’s most important job during this process is to be the parent of a college applicant. Yes, you should let your kids take ownership of the process. But they need your guidance, encouragement, and occasional cheerleading. And even more importantly, they need you to show them how a mature adult handles stressful situations. Put more bluntly, your kids are taking cues from you, and they need you to not act like a lunatic on their behalf. This is not an easy job to do. But the best place to apply your learning from previous experience is to yourself and the important role you need to play. This applicant is different from your last applicant. But your overarching—and most important—job is not.

5. Let your most important lesson inform you.
Parents who’ve gone through this process before have probably learned the single most important college admissions lesson—things eventually work out. With all the anxiety, heartbreak, and other drama that so often accompanies this process while it’s happening, the long-term reality is that no lasting damage is done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision. Most kids get in someplace and enjoy life in college. Families emerge unscathed and enjoy life together on the other side. The process itself will be different this time. The collegiate outcomes likely will be, too. But the end result will almost certainly be the same. A suspenseful movie isn’t so tense when you’ve watched it before. And for this particular story of college admissions, you already know the wonderful spoiler.

High expectations + unconditional love

I consider myself an odd combination of a parenting novice and parenting expert.

My son is 18 months old, and I’m the first to admit that in spite of all the books, websites, and other sources of supposed parenting expertise that my wife and I have consumed since we learned he was on the way, every day, I’m reminded that I have no idea what I’m doing. Almost everything that works with one child may have the direct opposite effect with another. And anybody who tells you that they’ve figured it all out is fooling themselves. Welcome to the new parenting club.

But I have worked with hundreds of teenagers and their parents in the 17 years since I started Collegewise. I’ve noticed which kids seem the happiest and most balanced. I’ve noticed which parents seem to find more joy than frustration as the parents of teenagers. And I’ve noticed which families seem to have the best relationship with each other.

Almost without fail, they were the families with parents who combined high expectations with unconditional love.

They didn’t necessarily expect their kids to be perfect—their high expectations focused more on effort and character than on the outcomes. They appreciated their kids’ strengths and accepted their weaknesses. But while the expectations were clearly in place, there was never a time when one of their kids felt like their parents’ love was predicated on GPAs, test scores, or admission to any particular college.

I expect that when my son is a teenager, I’ll find that striking this balance—like just about all aspects of parenting—is much easier to say (or to share on a blog) than it is to pull off. If it were that easy and that universally effective, everyone would be doing it.

But if you’d like to see this concept of high expectations combined with unconditional love explained succinctly (with a visual aid), check out author Dan Pink’s new two-minute video featuring a tidbit from frequently-featured-here psychologist Angela Duckworth.

You may not get the balance right all the time. But it’s nice to know what to shoot for. And my statistical sample says that this is a parenting approach that (usually) works.

Recommended reading and viewing

Here are a couple reads (and one viewing) worth taking in over the weekend.

For students and parents, Denise Pope of Challenge Success and her interview with Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is well worth the hour of your time.

For counselors, Patrick O’Connor, high school counselor extraordinaire, offers his recommended approach to the significant changes we’ll see in this year’s admissions cycle, like the new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA.

For private counselors:

Warren Buffet has a surprisingly simple 3-word secret guaranteed to make your business succeed. And here’s Basecamp’s Jason Fried with some thoughts on how to say you’re sorry (hint: “We apologize for any inconvenience” is not it).

Have a great weekend.