College Decision: Why Your Teen Needs Your Help

I did not let my sons make a college decision alone. I just didn’t. When they knew their options, I did not throw up my hands and say, “It is your life, it is your four years, it is your decision. I don’t have much to add.”

Today’s parenting orthodoxy suggests that they are adults, highly informed, and capable of making college decisions without parental intervention. Look, just one mom’s opinion, but…no.

teen boy walking down stairs
I wanted to help my sons learn how to think through their college decision, not make it for them. (Pexels)

Deciding which college to attend is one of the greatest teaching moments in our kids’ lives, and there was no way I would quietly let this slip by. It is a chance to show our teens how to consider, carefully reflect and make a sizeable complex decision. It was a chance to teach them about scratching below the surface when weighing two options. It was a turning point in our lives where I didn’t decide with their help but vice versa.

In weighing their options, my sons asked my husband, their father, what he thought they should do. He refused to answer, telling them that he would talk it through with them endlessly, but at this point, it wasn’t his opinion but theirs that mattered. Me? Yeah, I blurted my opinions out in five minutes. Let’s just say that there are different approaches that parents can take.

Yet, letting them figure out how to frame the college decision on their own seemed a dereliction of duty.

I was not going to decide on which school to attend (even with my propensity to over-parent, I knew I was not going along for the four years), but I was going to show them the many ways to think about something that would have such a big impact on their lives. But mostly, honestly, we talked.

11 ways parents can help their teen think through a college decision

1. Advice

We talked about how you seek out good advice and what you learn to ignore. Over the process of deciding, they learned to tune out those who knew less than they did (by and large, parent and grandparent types who offered information that was 30 or more years out of date) and to focus on those who knew them well or knew more than they did about the experience they were considering.

2. Pros and Cons

We discussed weighing the pros and cons of any decision and then weighing those factors by what matters most to you. Most decisions in life are complicated and usually involve some element of compromise.

3. Last Two Years of College

We talked about trying to imagine yourself, not next year at 18, but three or four years from now, and whether the same things will be vital to you that are important today.

4. Leaving Friends

We talked about how hard it is to leave friends to move away and strain those ties. But if their parent’s generation, without the aid of social media, could maintain lifelong friendships, they would too.

5. Keeping Options Open

We talked about how they might not know what they want to study or might know and change their minds, but that, like so many other things in life, there is value in keeping some options open. However, there is almost always a price of some sort to pay for that flexibility.

6. Course Requirements

We delved deep into the colleges’ websites and discussed the course requirements for their first two years of study. I told them what I had thought they liked and disliked about high school and how that might be important information in thinking through the next step in their education.

7. Opportunities

We talked about what was important in their time in college. I am sure I spoke about once-in-a-lifetime learning experiences, and they talked about fun. In the end, we appreciated each other’s points of view.

8. Living Somewhere Else

We talked about how college is one of the most significant opportunities to learn about a different place, and while you might want to go to school close to home, it is worth at least thinking about living elsewhere.

9. Money

We talked about money. Until my kids were making a college decision, the most significant spending decision they had ever made occurred in J. Crew, where I did say, “It is your money, so you need to decide if you like the blue or the grey better.”

This was not a $250,000 decision but a very different magnitude. My sons probably won’t be faced with a spending decision of this size until they take out a mortgage, and they will do that with a 30 or 32-year-old brain, not a 17-year-old one. And it will be their money, not mine.

10. Listen to Yourself

We talked about listening first and foremost to yourself and whether the decision is right or wrong, owning it, taking responsibility for it, and making the best of it.

11. Not Alone

We talked about how you don’t need to make big decisions alone and that those who love you best are there to challenge you, question you, offer you counsel and then get on your side with whatever decision you make.

In time they will decide about jobs, houses, and spouses. They will make many life-changing decisions without so much sending me a text. But on those nights when they lie in bed mulling over their options, wondering what the best course of action is, I hope that something of that spring when they were 17 comes back to them.

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About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

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