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Take a breather, Mom and Dad

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, May 2008

Those of you who loyally follow my writing know that my focus is always on helping students maneuver their way through the college application maze without falling victim to the insanity that leads to unnecessary anxiety, poor choices or less-than-welcome outcomes.

The key player in the college application process is always the student, very much a child, yet on the cusp of independence. As parents, we tell this child that he must ask permission to spend the night at a friend’s house, yet expect that he will know how to invest an extraordinary amount of money and four years of his existence in the pursuit of an education that may shape the rest of his life. Teachers and parents understand that young people feel burdened by this responsibility. They help, support and encourage the young person as she struggles to make decisions about her education and her life. What people underestimate is the effect this process has on the people who love that child the most: Mom and Dad.

When their children are young, parents pride themselves on being able to calm their child’s fears with a reassuring hug and some soothing words. They guide their children through the appropriate milestones: kindergarten, summer camp, first date, and the stress and joy of getting their driver’s license. No milestone, however, is more wrenching — or final — for both the child and the parent than college admission. Even 17 years of being a good parent does not adequately prepare mothers and fathers to deal with the emotions that flare in the family as their child prepares to leave the nest for college.

Young people, of course, do nothing to help their parents through this difficult time. They become moody, they worry, they withdraw, they work too hard or not enough, they forget the meaning of the word “deadline,” they refuse to make decisions or they make decisions that make no sense to anyone other than another 17-year-old. In short, they act like teenagers. When parents try to bring order to the chaos created by their college-bound offspring, they are accused of being controlling. Is it any wonder that many parents approach the end of their child’s high school years with dread?

The college application process that today’s young people experience is more complex than the process their parents remember from their own lives. The U.S. currently has the largest cohort of high school graduates — and the greatest percentage of high school graduates attending college — of any time in our history. Colleges have launched marketing campaigns that rival the most successful corporate conglomerates, and have begun to recruit among populations, both domestic and international, that were previously untapped. Despite this influx of students, the number of seats in college classrooms has not increased.

Scarcity breeds desire. My favorite restaurant has always been the one where I could not get a reservation. With newspaper headlines heralding single-digit acceptance rates at our most selective colleges, it is not surprising that people draw the conclusion that any college worth attending is beyond the reach of all but the most outstanding applicants. The conundrum is that the rules by which any particular college, regardless of its level of selectivity, defines “outstanding applicant” or even “acceptable applicant” are not clear to students and their families. Students who have gotten A’s in all the AP courses that fit into their schedule, achieved stellar SAT scores, and served as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper have not earned the privilege of applying to college without anxiety and dread.

Nor have Mom and Dad. Parents understand that helping their child move on to college is one of the last and greatest teaching opportunities they will share with their son or daughter while the latter still lives at home. They need to think about what they want their child to learn from this experience and how they want to facilitate the learning. Both parents and child need to know that they have responsibilities in the process and they need to set boundaries and checkpoints so that tasks are accomplished in a timely manner. It is natural for parents who have been closely and successfully involved in their child’s schoolwork and activities to want to continue to assist them as they maneuver the complex application process. And in a variety of ways even students who resist their parents’ attempts to help want and need some input from them. High school students who already feel burdened by homework and activities often have difficulty managing the tasks that accompany college applications. Parents, seeing their child’s distress, are eager to help. The problem is one of balance.

In our upwardly mobile, achievement-oriented society the college admission process has morphed into the final exam of parenthood. If a child does well by whatever standards parents and their friends define that term, the parents have aced the test. If the child does not achieve his or the family’s goals, parents question their role in the process. Should they have done more? Helped the child more? Learned more about the process? Called in favors from friends? In their eagerness to give their child the best possible advantages in the admission process, some parents create situations that are not helpful to themselves or their child.

Tell-tale signs that you have become overly invested in your child’s college application process
  • When you talk about your child’s applications, you speak in the first person, plural. “We are applying to Yale.” “We have three more essays to write.”
  • You spend your lunch hour trolling college web sites. You know every .edu by heart.
  • You Googled your child’s admissions interviewer and taped points of interest on your child’s mirror.
  • You read your colleagues’ diplomas to see if anyone might write an alumni letter of reference for your child.
  • You have sent a 2 a.m. e-mail to your child’s college counselor.
  • You have uttered the words, “What if he doesn’t get in anywhere?” And you meant them.
  • College discussions have brought you to tears more than twice.
  • You have ripped the mail from the mail carrier’s hand because you couldn’t wait to check out the newest batch of viewbooks.
  • You have threatened to fill out your child’s college application yourself if your child didn’t do them soon. Or you actually have filled out your child’s applications.
  • Your child’s application essays sound like they were written by a parent — because they were.
In recent years, colleges have branded overly-helpful adults as “helicopter parents.” Seen as “hovering” over their child’s lives, these parents are accused of managing situations that college students should be able to handle themselves. Admissions officers look for the imprint of the helicopter parent in the application process also, as they suspect that some parents have taken on too many of the application tasks that should be carried out by the applicant. The line between the appropriately helpful parent and the parent whose help deprives their child of the learning opportunities of the process is slim. Once crossed, both the child and the parent suffer.

I’ve never like the term “helicopter parent.” I think it diminishes parents’ concern for their child’s well-being and undermines the high cost that hovering parents pay to ensure their child’s success. In air-travel terms I prefer airplanes to helicopters. Think of the flight attendant who instructs adults to put on their own oxygen mask before assisting the child sitting next to them. Parents need to take care of themselves before they can help their child transition from high school life with mom and dad to the independence and freedom of college life.

I encourage parents to avoid running the show. Set limits, define realistic expectations, negotiate responsibilities, and make sure that everyone knows how to keep others apprised of progress. Then back off and observe. Facilitate, but don’t direct. Convey the message, “We love you and are proud of you. We will love you and will continue to be proud of you no matter where you go to college.” Don’t expect that you will know the answers to your child’s questions. That’s not your job. Your job is to be a parent, not an expert on the best way to get into Most Favorite University. Protect yourself from the insanity that swirls around every gathering of high school students and their parents. Practice responses to the intrusive questions of others. “No, Susie hasn’t decided where she’s applying yet, but we’re sure she will make good choices. What a pretty necklace. Is it new?” Above all, be good to yourself. Know that your merit as a parent is not defined by the decal on the rear window of your car. Your child is the product of 17 years of your influence mixed with the influence of everyone else who has passed through his life. Trust that you have done your best.

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