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Articles / Applying to College / Parents and the College Process

Parents and the College Process

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Aug. 29, 2018
Parents and the College Process
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I'm a parent who, with my wife, has raised two quite successful and happy children who are now in their 40s. I often reflect on their lives, from birth through K-12, college, careers, marriage and children of their own. In doing this, I often wonder what kind of grade I have earned as a parent. Was I one of those parents who pushed them, or did I allow them to flourish on their own?

Helicopter parents can be a problem. I probably hovered too much over my daughter and son, but I was aware of it, applying direction when I thought either one showed a lack of or need for it. Therein lies the razor's edge. How can we know when our parenting becomes imprisoning? When do our efforts to foster growth morph into stress-inducing oversight?

Of course, I'm looking at parenting now as someone long detached from the day-to-day encounters of “Have you done your homework yet?" or “Be home by nine!" You may be in the thick of it, monitoring grades, encouraging reading lists, shuttling among extracurricular events more than an Uber driver, etc. If so, that's good because it gives parents the chance to self-issue a report card now, to see just how close your helicopter blades are coming to your offspring during these critical years.

Since the central focus of my blog here is college admissions, let me address parents who have high schoolers who are about to enter the college process. Where does enabling come into play here? Let's take a look at what it means to be an enabling parent when it comes to college admissions.

Parenting in the Admissions Environment

According to clinical social worker Darlene Albury, “... an enabler is a person who by their actions makes 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. However, 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 parents, then, who might also share this addictive attraction to a virtually impossible challenge, may consequently become enablers through “supportive" actions. This feeds the dream, which in many cases turns into a nightmare of frustration, disappointment and self-loathing due to the likely inevitable reality of admissions denial.

Check out college-related discussion forums on the internet (tip: here's the best) where enabling is a hot topic. I have observed many 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 child's application for them. The other extreme admits to writing (“editing") essays for their son or daughter. There are many shades between these excesses, too.

Obviously, I'm not a behavioral psychologist, but my experience as both a parent and a counselor shows me that it's possible to 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 tornado aftermath bedroom scenes? I struggled with that and so do many other parents.

Roots Begin Early

Fast-forward to present day, when that formerly small 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 or daughter visit, I have to fight my tendency to check the oil and tire-pressure levels of their cars. But I don't. Obviously, they've 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 who may be reading this: 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 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." I'd like to recall an event from my past that speaks to this point.

When I was in ninth grade, my parents and I went on a beach vacation with another family whose son was my age. He and I got along well, so I was looking forward to some fun in the sun with him. My friend 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 in beach towns that rented cabins), waiting for my buddy to get up next door. 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 their 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 poured it into a bowl for him. Next (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 nanny-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 come to mind. In most cases, parents mean well, but their objectivity can be clouded by heavily disguised self-interests.

You may be asking, “So what does all 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.

Consider Your Motivation

A crucial fundamental of this topic is analyzing the first thing that comes into your head when you think about the college admissions process. If you have ever thought, "Hey, I never had the chance to go to [name of lusted-after college] when I was a kid, so now my kid's gonna get that chance," you may suffer from what I call VKS -- Vicarious Kid Syndrome, an affliction that parents can develop. You may be trying to relive your life through that of your child. Lots of potential dangers here, folks.

What, exactly, does vicarious mean? In general, it means taking the place of somebody else. You have to ask yourself the hard question: “Do I want my child to seek admission to [college name here] 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, “Hi. I'm Dave and I want to live vicariously through my son." Just be aware of your current attitudes and mindset.

Become more sensitive to your child's deep-rooted potential. If you judge that your son or daughter has true competitive potential for what I call “a highly competitive dream," then you may, if you desire, become an advocate for that outcome. 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 child's long-range growth, happiness and even his or her college success.

If you discover that you are one of the parents that is hovering too closely, 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. In my view, the rewards of that far outweigh the frustrations and disappointments. Think about it.

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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