How to train your parents to step back

I write often here about how important it is for parents to step back. Kids who rely on their parents to direct, manage, and fix their lives for them are less successful getting into college and less prepared once they get there.

But the truth is that there’s a lot teenagers can do to earn that independence rather than just lament its absence. Here are five suggestions.

1. Start doing things you’ve always been asked to do.
Asking for independence isn’t nearly as effective as actually demonstrating it. And the best way to start is to do things your parents have always had to ask you to do, like making your bed, cleaning your room, taking out the trash, etc. Tasks like these are the low-hanging fruit of independence. You don’t need permission. You don’t have to earn the right. Just start (and don’t stop). Every teen wants to stay out later or have access to the family car or spend unsupervised time with their friends. But it’s hard to entrust a teenager with a car and late curfew if you can’t be trusted to make your bed without being asked. Assuming responsibility for the things you’ve always had to be asked to do will demonstrate a real maturity and independence that you and your parents can build on.

2. Look for opportunities where failure would be recoverable.
Most parents’ reluctance to step back comes from their fear of what will happen if things go badly. If the first independence you seek is to manage your entire college application process with no parental oversight, failure might not be recoverable (missing a deadline could mean that a college you loved is now completely off the table). Instead, start with things where you could recover from the worst case scenario. Meeting with your counselor to discuss your course planning, keeping track of your schedule for your part-time job, asking your calculus teacher for some extra help before the next exam—if those things don’t go well, there will be little harm done and your parents could even step in if you needed them to. Think of it like training for a marathon or investing money—you have to build up slowly before you can safely go big.

3. Seek advice along with permission.
Many students assert their need for independence along with a steadfast refusal to listen to any advice. But the problem with that approach is that it puts you and your parents on opposite sides of the table. And as ready as you may be to do more on your own, your parents know more about life than you do. So instead, ask for their advice along with their permission. There’s a big difference between “Can I go with my friends to look at colleges this weekend?” and “I want to look at colleges this weekend with my friends. What do you think I should do while I’m there to get the most out of it?” See the difference? The former is pushing them out. The latter is inviting them in.

4. Share credit, own blame.
As you direct more of your own life, some things will work out as you’d hoped, and some will not. How you respond to each will affect whether or not you’ll get more chances to stretch in the future. So here’s a tip—give your parents credit when things go well, but own all the blame yourself when they don’t.

“My counselor agreed to let me do an independent study, just like we talked about. Thanks for your advice. It really helped.”

“I thought I could juggle both activities at the same time, but I was wrong. I’ll make sure not to take on more than I can handle again.”

No demand for acknowledgement when it goes right, and no excuses for when it goes wrong. Just a willingness to share the good and to own the bad. And both responses earn you more opportunities in the future.

5. Respect the process.
The transfer of responsibility from parent to student isn’t meant to happen overnight. It’s a process. And like any process that a) involves human beings and b) is worth doing, it takes time, patience, and an acknowledgment that if it were easy, everyone would do it perfectly. So expect that it will take some time. You and your parents may both make mistakes along the way—remember that they’re more likely to forgive yours if you’re willing to do the same for them. And most importantly, care more about progress than you do about getting what you want when you want it. Showing that you can move maturely and productively through the ups and downs doesn’t just show respect for the process. It also shows that you’re behaving like the adult who’s ready for the very independence you’re seeking.

The best antidote to worry

Worry ruins college admission for too many families. All the uncertainty about what might happen with one upcoming grade, test, or admissions decision can leave some students and parents in a constant state of anxiety, almost all of which will seem overblown in retrospect when that student eventually moves into a dorm and becomes a college freshman.

Research out of the University of Chicago shows that the best way to stop worrying about what might happen tomorrow is to be grateful for what you have today. Your health, your family, your friends, your life—all of these things are more important than your SAT score or whether Northwestern says yes. If that feels true in theory but difficult to embrace in practice because you’re in the middle of this potentially stressful time, here’s an article that shares not just the research, but also a simple exercise to help you embrace gratitude as your worry antidote.

The confidence formula

Whether you’re selling, dating, or trying to get into college, confidence helps. And it works best when you combine two beliefs.

1. I’d really like for this to work out between us.
2. If you decide I’m not for you, no hard feelings. There are others I may be a better match for.

No pressure. No arrogance. No desperation. Just a genuine interest in finding the best path forward for both parties and the recognition that one no today is just that—one no today.

Sleep as an investment, not a cost

Patricia D. Horoho is a retired United States Army lieutenant general who also served as the 43rd U.S. Army Surgeon General and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. And this interview shares some of her strong beliefs about the importance of sleep in achieving peak performance. In particular, I loved this phrase: “We’ve got to view each hour of sleep as the ammunition our brains need.”

Think of sleep not as a cost to your performance today, but as an investment in your performance tomorrow.

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.

Mistakes can be persuasive

Just a month ago, I posted about how sharing weaknesses can accentuate a strength. Here’s another example, this one from Warren Buffet, the 86-year-old CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s most successful investors.

The financial and business stakes are high when Buffett pens his annual letter to shareholders. Yet as Bob Cialdini, a psychology professor who studies and writes on the science of influence and persuasion, points out in this recent CNBC piece, Buffet almost always describes—within the first page or two—an error or mistake that he and his company made in the previous year.

Here’s how Cialdini describes the effect of those admissions:

“It is so disarming. . . I say to myself every time, ‘Oh! This guy is being straight with us. What is he going to say next? I need to pay attention to everything he says next!. . . He’s established himself as a trustworthy credible source of information before he describes the things that are most favorable, that he wants me to process and recall. Brilliant.”

Mistakes really can be persuasive, a tip worth remembering for students who will soon be trying to persuade with their applications and essays.

Not working is work

Brad Stulberg is the author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Here’s a snippet from his recent NYMAG piece, “Sometimes Not Working Is Work, Too“:

“The world’s best musicians, athletes, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs tend to consider rest an essential part of their jobs. They think about rest not as being something that is passive (i.e., nothing is happening, you’re wasting time) but rather as being something that is active (i.e., your brain — or if you’re an athlete, your body — is growing and getting better), and thus, they’re far more liable to respect it. This draws upon something that behavioral economists call the commission bias: an innate human tendency toward action over inaction… This isn’t to say that you should regularly slouch off. But it does mean that even if you’re in the throes of work you love, you should still prioritize eight hours of sleep, some form of regular exercise, and a few short breaks every day. Trust that not working is integral to doing good, sustainable work. Not working is the work.”

Students, while you’re working and learning and applying to college this summer, make sure you also rest, recharge, and have some fun with your friends. It’s not just important for your health and happiness. It’s also part of doing great work.

Take a risk

From pediatric psychologist Dr. Kate E. Eshleman’s “Taking a Risk: What Would You Do If You Knew You Couldn’t Fail?”:

“There is always the chance that taking a risk will end in failure, but failure, in some form, is inevitable. If you operate too much within your comfort zone, you will develop an expectation that you must be good at everything, which can lead to significant feelings of pressure and stress. It’s better to learn how to recover from failure and cope with those feelings of frustration and disappointment. Throughout life, you will experience situations in school, work or relationships that do not go as planned. Each experience that falls short of success is your opportunity to develop healthy coping skills. This is a skill that does not come naturally; you must develop and practice it.”

I’ve never met an admissions officer, even from the most selective of colleges, who would disagree.

What you say vs. what you do

One of the best ways to keep yourself honest about whether or not you’re actually prioritizing what’s important to you is to regularly take stock of two things.

1. What are your goals, aspirations, passions, interests, etc.? These are your words, the things you say are important to you.

2. How are you actually spending your most valuable asset—time? These are your actions, the things that you’re actually making important to you.

Now see how often you can legitimately connect items in #1 with those in #2.

The more connections you have, the better your words are aligned with your actions.

Not many connections? Change what you’re doing to support what you’re saying. Or maybe even more effectively, change what you’re saying to reflect what you’re already doing.