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Articles / Applying to College / When Helping Hands Can Hurt

When Helping Hands Can Hurt

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 11, 2018

I was talking to a friend the other day and we were remembering the days when our kids had graduated from college and moved away to work their first jobs. My buddy laughed when he told me about his two sons. He said that they always forgot about their mother's birthday and even Mother's Day sometimes.

The early consequences of their forgetfulness included a hurt mother (and wife), which made life difficult for Dad. Once his sons left the nest, their absentmindedness became even more hurtful as it was piled atop the fact that they were no longer at home and missed by Mom. So, after a year or two of missed birthday cards and one especially absent Mother's Day card, my friend took action.

He explained to me how he would anticipate his wife's birthday and Mother's Day with his special plan. He would go to the card store and buy each of his sons a birthday card or a Mother's Day card, as appropriate, place them inside a mailing envelope, and send them to each son, along with detailed instructions about signing ("Write something loving and special!") and when to send ("Your mother's birthday is May 5. Mail this no later than May 2!").


He has been doing this for years. I asked him why he just doesn't leave his sons to fend for themselves and he gave me a (sort of) logical answer. He explained that it made his life easier when his wife wasn't pouting about being forgotten on her birthday or Mother's Day. That makes sense for him but, in my view, makes him a candidate for the Enabling Parents (a.k.a. Helicoptering) Hall of Fame.

I've talked about helicopter parents before and the effect that over-parenting has on high schoolers entering and enduring the college admissions process. But what about enabling? Are you familiar with that term? If not, let's take a look at what it means to be an enabling parent when it comes to college admissions.

According to Darlene Albury, "an enabler is a person who by their actions make it easier for an addict to continue their self-destructive behavior ..." In most contexts, this type of enabling usually applies to family, friends, or relatives of drug- or alcohol-dependent individuals. In our context here, I'm talking about the parents of high schoolers seeking to get into highly competitive colleges, perhaps the Ivy League or other so-called "elite" institutions of higher learning. The "self-destructive behavior" part of the above definition, as it applies to the college admissions process in many cases can be a self-delusional belief by the high schooler that s/he has a legitimate chance to beat the difficult odds and be accepted by one of those elite schools. That belief may be, in fact, an addiction to an impossible dream. I see this all too frequently in my work as an independent admissions counselor.


The enabling parent, who may also share this attraction to a virtually impossible-odds challenge, may then become the enabler through his or her "supportive" actions, thus feeding the dream, so to speak, which in many cases turns out to be a nightmare of frustration, disappointment, and self-loathing due to the consequences of admissions denial. You'll probably be able to find a number of discussion forums on the Web (here's The Best college-related forum) where enabling is a hot topic. I have observed many semi-heated exchanges among forum participants discussing how much help parents should offer their children during the college application process. One extreme faction adamantly states that parents shouldn't even mail their kid's application for them. The other extreme admits to writing {"editing," as they encode it) essays for their kid. There are many shades in between.

How does this relate to our discussion of college admissions? Well, I'm certainly no behavioral psychologist, but my experience shows me that we can inhibit our children's quest for self-identity by trying to insert ourselves into their developmental trials too strongly. When is it time for them to try to feed themselves (resulting in those classic high-chair-tray food flings)? How about those shoestrings (they might trip and fall down)? And those post-tornado room scenes (I struggled with that)? Fast-forward to present day, when that once-little child is now facing the torrents of the increasingly maddening and ego-bruising college admissions process. What's a parent to do?

It's not easy. We all want what's best for our kids, but sometimes we get in the way of what's best. When we do more for them than we should, we take away some of their independence. Even today, when our adult son visits on holidays, I have to fight my tendency to check the oil and tire-pressure levels of his car. But I don't. He's been able to drive tens of thousands of miles successfully without my fussy maintenance checks. The roots of enabling can begin quite early, though.


Here’s a question for you high schoolers (and college students): How involved in your life are your parents? In other words, how much independence do you enjoy within your lifestyle? Are you able to go about your school work, social activities, and daily life with a minimum of parental control, or is one or the other (or both) of your parents constantly present, hovering, directing, or even controlling your life? That also goes for your college process, as you search for realistically matched colleges, hopefully, rather than The Impossible Dream schools.

Parents, how integrated and actively involved are you in your teen’s life? Pause for a moment and ask yourself if you may be suppressing the developing independence of your child. Do you insert yourself into areas of his or her life that, in fact, don’t require your presence or actions?

I mentioned above that "The roots of enabling can begin quite early." To reemphasize this point, if you'll pardon me for quoting myself, I'd like to recall a certain event from my past that, I think, proves my point.

One particular memory that I have from my younger years might serve as an example of what I’m talking about. When I was in ninth grade, my family went on a beach vacation with another family whose son was my age. He and I got along well, as did our respective parents, so I was looking forward to some fun in the sun. We arrived at the beach and promptly started to have a good time. This young lad and I were both without siblings, the only-child syndrome. Anyway, all was cool until the first morning we were there. I had gotten up and made my breakfast, a quick bowl of cereal and some orange juice. No big deal.

I milled around outside our cabin (yes, those were those storied days of yesteryear when people vacationed at beach resorts that had cabins), waiting for my buddy to get up. He was a late-sleeper. I finally heard him stirring, after his mother semi-loudly prodded him to get up. He greeted me with a yell from the kitchen and said that he would be right out as soon as he had breakfast, so I grabbed a seat on the porch of his cabin and waited. While I was waiting, I heard his mother attending his breakfast needs. She asked him what kind of cereal he wanted and then I heard her pouring it into a bowl for him. Next (and, finally, here comes the money quote), I heard her ask him, “Do you just want me to sprinkle sugar on this or would you like me to dissolve the sugar in some milk first and then pour it on your cereal?”


Yikes! Was she a Mom or a butler? I’ve often thought about that incident and wondered how my buddy’s life turned out. Maybe his Mom tied his shoes for him. If he got married, maybe she went on his honeymoon with him. Visions of Norman Bates danced in my head. Anyway, a recent report has given me a clue about the kinds of effects over-involved parents can have on younger children, especially teens.

Mom and/or Dad, you may be asking, "So what does this have to do with me, as a parent, "helping" my son or daughter with the college admissions process?" Well, to be frank, ask yourself a question: Are you trying to live vicariously through your child? In other words, are you trying to realize dreams denied to you by having your child realize them for you? That's a tough question to answer honestly.

As I once wrote in a series of College Confidential articles:

Let's talk about motivations. One of the crucial fundamentals is analyzing the first thing that comes into your head about the ... college admissions process. Have you ever thought: "Hey, I never had the chance to go [to this or that school] when I was a kid. So now, by gosh, my kid's gonna get that chance"? If so, you may suffer from VKS [Vicarious Kid Syndrome]. You may be trying to relive your life through that of your kid's. Lots of potential land mines here, folks.


Okay. What exactly does vicarious mean? In general, it means, "taking the place of another person." You have to ask yourself the hard question: "Do I want my kid to seek [this or that school] so that the 'prestige' [whatever that means] will rub off on me?" Be honest. You're reading this in private and no one is impatiently waiting for your answer. Just nod your head if it's true. You don't have to attend a VKSers Anonymous meeting, stand up, and say, "Hello. My name is [put your name here] and I want to live vicariously through my kid." Just be aware of your stance here.

Become more sensitive to your kids' deep-rooted potentials. If, after being properly sensitized, you judge that your son or daughter has true competitive potential for, what I call "a high-end dream,", then you may become an advocate for that outcome, should you choose to do so. However, if your intentions are rooted anywhere near your own self-interests, then you should do some serious soul searching. You may be gambling with your kid's long-range happiness and college success.

Thus, find out if you are an enabling parent. If you discover that you are, you may want to reconsider your position, not only as a provider, overseer, and mentor, but also as someone who helps your child see the realities of the world more objectively. From my point of view and experience, the rewards of that far outweigh the frustrations and disappointments.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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