More helping, less hurting

It’s not easy for parents to offer helpful support to kids while simultaneously stepping back to allow them to drive their own lives. If you’d like some advice from experts on how to achieve that delicate balance, Join Collegewise counselors and fellow parents Kirsten Hanson-Press and Julie Simon at the following free webinar:

How Parents Can Help Without Hurting
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. (PST)
Click here for more information or to register.

I hope you’ll join us.


A comparison-free space

Most parents receive the message early in our parenting careers that it’s generally not a good idea to compare siblings. “Why can’t you be more responsible like your sister?” might be exactly what we’re thinking and feeling in the moment, but the sentiment is just going to make the unfavorably compared sibling feel bad about themselves.

The high school experience is rooted in comparisons. Kids are constantly compared to every other student in class, every other student who took the standardized test, every other student who’s applying to the dream schools, etc. And for many families, those comparisons seep into the home.

The calculus exam, the student body election, the tryouts for the team or the audition for the play or the big debate tournament–if parents focus all of their conversations with their kids on these outcomes, the feeling of being compared to their peers is inescapable for most kids, even when that’s not our intention. The message is that whoever scored the highest, ran the fastest, or sang the best is more deserving of praise and pride than the kids who worked just as hard and risked just as much.

Some tough-loving parents may point out that this is how the world works and that they’re just preparing their kids for it, but that’s just not true. You have no idea where your family doctor finished in her med school graduating class, and you probably don’t care (you probably care even less about what she scored on her SATs).

Comparisons may be part of the college admissions process, but they don’t need a place in your home. Appreciate your student for who they are, not how they stack up. Praise them for their efforts, not the comparison-driven outcomes.

And if you worry that you’re shielding them from the harsh realities of the world, remember that they’re immersed in comparisons all day, every day, arguably more so than any of us parents are in our jobs or our social circles. Their current high school universe will offer plenty of comparisons for them to feel measured against. Let’s make home their one comparison-free space.

The spirit of the message

I occasionally come across an article where I agree with the spirit—but not the letter—of the advice, and that’s the case with “10 Messages That Matter More Than a Report Card.” I simply cannot imagine ever saying to a child or teenager, “Your flexibility and grit certainly helped you grow from this adversity.” But while the letter of the advice recommends particular phrasing, the spirit—which is spot on—is that our kids’ happiness and success, both now and in the future, is dependent on so much more than just the grade they get in geometry. And we should be focusing our messaging on what’s really important.

It doesn’t matter how you say it as long as you get the spirit of the message across.

Parents and college essays: be afraid

Fear almost never belongs in the college admissions process. Collegewise counselors work hard to remove it. We commit to never injecting it. We want to help families embrace the journey to college as an exciting time where fear has no place.

But there is one instance where I intentionally instill fear because it’s both legitimate and necessary—when parents over-involve themselves in their student’s college essays.

What does “over-involvement” look like? Insisting (over the student’s objections) that they write what you want them to write. Rewriting portions in the way you think they should be written. Flat out writing the essay for your student. They’re all different versions of the same behavior—taking away the thoughts, words, and ensuing stories of a 17-year-old and replacing them with your own.

So, why should you be afraid to do it? Because when you over-involve yourself, admissions officers know it.

Admissions officers have read enough essays to know how students (and unfortunately, how over-involved parents) think and write. That sixth essay sense comes with experience. If you put 20 essays in front of me and asked me to pick out the one that was the product of an over-involved parent, I’ll bat 1000 on that exercise, every time. And I’ve read a fraction of the essays most admissions officers read.

Once the reader recognizes that an essay is not entirely the student’s, it triggers a cascade of negative application effects.

Now the reader is forced to question the integrity of the rest of the application. How much did Mom or Dad do? How much of what’s presented is unvarnished truth from a teen, and how much is over-polished (at best) or fiction (at worst) from the parent?

How often does this behavior repeat itself in the student’s academic work?

Will this parent take over the work once the student is admitted to college (no college professor wants to teach a student whose parents do some or all the work for them)?

Some parents might cry foul and claim this treatment isn’t fair. But the question of fairness isn’t the issue. It’s reality, and an entirely avoidable one.

And consider the effect this over-involvement has on your student. When you take over their essay, you’re telling them their stories aren’t good enough, that their writing isn’t good enough, and that they aren’t good enough. You’re telling them that they can’t get into college without you doing the work for them. And worst of all, you’re telling them that it’s OK to misrepresent themselves in the hopes that the end will justify the means.

Parents can absolutely suggest stories and approaches. You can correct grammar and spelling if you have that skill set. And you certainly know your student well enough to share feedback around questions like these.

But there’s just no nice way to say this. Parents, if you think your essay over-involvement is the exception, if you think you’re improving their essay and improving their chances of admission, you are kidding yourself. You’re making the essay worse. You’re making your student’s chances of admission worse. I know your intentions are good, but you’re making things worse.

If this sounds surprisingly critical or alarmist, that’s intentional. These risks are real. And if parents are going to take them, you deserve to know what you’re risking.

So if you’re afraid, listen to those fears. Step back and let your student get back to writing their own essays.

And if you’re looking for another voice to add to this chorus, please see this recent NY Times piece, “How I Know you Wrote your Kid’s College Essay.”

The earlier we start

My three-year-old preschooler recently arrived home with an assignment—create a project on a paper bag depicting “what home means to me.” The students could draw, attach photos, or use any other creative impulse to express their version of home. But whatever that version was, it would be displayed in the school hallways with the rest of the class’s finished work.

I understand that this is meant to encourage a shared discussion and experience for parent and student. But the idea that the work would be displayed made it difficult to follow the advice I always share with parents here—step back, don’t do things for your student that they can do themselves, and allow them to make their own mistakes. Still, we were resolute not to over-involve ourselves.

The discussion portion of the project lasted all of ten seconds before he scribbled wildly with a blue pen and proudly announced that it was an apartment downtown where he lived with all his friends. Apparently, his vision of home in that moment was not our home at all, but a different dwelling in a different location where he lived with friends but not his parents or sibling. It felt like a foreshadowing of the weeks before he leaves for college.

As of this week, Classroom A’s projects began popping up on the school hallways, most of which are elaborate parent-driven depictions involving photos of family gatherings, images of pets and siblings, and artistic renderings of various activities taking place in the home. And perched up there next to all of them is my boy’s indecipherable scribbling.

Did we do the right thing? Could we have coaxed him to watch us create something more meaningful that would have left us proud to see it depicted on the hall’s walls? As is so often the case for parents, I have no idea. I’m not a child rearing expert. I don’t know if we should feel proud or humiliated. That’s the parenting challenge. There’s no manual, no well-defined best practices or step-by-step procedure. You do what feels right.

But I do know that if we can’t step back now, how could we possibly expect to do so later when the stakes feel even higher? The future for every family is clear. Kids grow up, they move out, and they must find their way in the world. At some point, hopefully in the much distant future, parents won’t be around any longer to manage their lives even if they wanted to. We don’t get to control that eventuality. But we do get to control how we prepare ourselves and our kids.

And the earlier we start, the earlier we’ll all be prepared.

What’s most likely to motivate?

Parents and counselors, if a student is having trouble finding the motivation to make progress on their college applications, give motivational interviewing a try.

Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic technique to get patients to discover their own motivations for making a change–one that’s even been shown to be effective in the treatment of addiction. Here’s how to use it in practice.

Ask the student, “On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you to work on your college applications?”

Chances are that the student will respond with a low score. Let’s say the student answers, “I’m a 3.”

Then ask the student, “Why aren’t you a 2 or a 1?”

Then the student begins to explain their reasoning. Maybe they’re excited about the colleges on their list, maybe they’ve already finished two of the applications and just need to keep going on the rest, maybe they have a good idea for an essay but just haven’t started it yet. Whatever their reasons are, accept them.

In explaining their self-reported score, the student is connecting with their autonomous motivations, those that aren’t handed down from others. Plenty of research (and common sense) has shown that motivation that comes from within is a lot more effective than that from an outside source.

And speaking of coming from within, students, you don’t need a parent or counselor to use the technique on you. You can use it on yourself. Give yourself a 1-10 score on motivation, and then really think about the reasons your score isn’t lower. Chances are, you’ll start connecting with what’s most likely to motivate you.

High school all over again

I’ve noticed that what sometimes may appear to be parents putting pressure on their kids—to achieve, to excel, to get admitted to famous colleges, etc.—is actually secondhand pressure. It’s pressure parents are feeling themselves that drifts downward to their kids.

All the messaging kids hear directly and indirectly about how important it is to get good grades, score well on standardized tests, thrive in extracurricular activities, etc. exists in parent form, too.

“Getting into college is so stressful and complex. Parents better seek out—and often pay for—all the latest information and advice!”

“A student’s future is too important to leave to chance. Parents better assume the role of ‘manager’ and make all the decisions for their kids.”

“Other parents are making college prep a top priority. You’re letting your kids down if you don’t join the race, too.”

Peer pressure, status competitions, the desire to belong—adults who thought they’d left their teen troubles behind back in high school re-experience them all over again, this time as parents of high school kids.

The good news is that the rule you heard back in high school that was hard to follow still applies—just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Deciding what’s right for your family—and letting your kids decide what’s right for them—is a healthier and more productive approach than succumbing to high school pressure all over again.

Praise both strengths and effort

I always read the regular emails I signed up to receive from The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley’s initiative driving scientific research into social and emotional well-being. While I’m always willing to hear the college admissions-related advice from someone who’s demonstrated real expertise around a topic, it’s nice to come across recommendations also backed by scientific research, like their latest share, “How to Support Your Kid at School Without Being a Helicopter Parent.” This passage particularly resonated with me:

“In everyday life, encourage your children to believe in their own strengths—whether around their behavior, a sport, creativity, or whatever else you see—by praising and valuing them yourself, particularly when they find school challenging. Perhaps even more importantly, notice and comment on their hard work when you see it. When children hear that solid effort leads to success, rather than getting the message that they should be smart and get good grades, they persist more. This helps them become more resilient when they suffer any setbacks in doing their schoolwork.”

How to Raise an Adult: fall book tour

I’ve referred to few experts more frequently in the last 18 months than I have Julie-Lythcott Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult. She recently launched a fall book tour, and if you’re interested, here’s the full schedule of dates and locations. Note that some dates are dedicated to her other book, Real American, which is about an entirely different topic (I have heard wonderful things about that book, too, but have not read it).

If she isn’t speaking near you and you’d like to get better acquainted with her message, I highly recommend How to Raise an Adult and her popular TED Talk.

School is a dress rehearsal for life

Braden Bell, a teacher and a writer, had been pondering what he’d do differently as his fifth (and final) child began middle school. He detailed his resolutions in a recent Washington Post piece, “To raise independent kids, treat middle school like a dress rehearsal for life.” Much of the insight, particularly this portion, is just as applicable for high school students.

“Middle school is a dress rehearsal. It’s almost always messy, and we worry that it foreshadows a disastrous future for our children. Meaning well, we jump in and initiate, fix and micromanage, telling ourselves we will stop when the child matures enough to take over. But middle school is supposed to be messy. It’s how kids mature. This means making lots of mistakes, then experiencing consequences just strong enough to be an incentive for correction, but not strong enough to damage a life.”