The environment itself will teach the child, if every error he makes is manifest to him without the intervention of a parent or teacher, who should remain a quiet observer of all that happens.” Maria Montessori
I remember the day last year when my daughter called me from her high school college counselor’s office and screamed into the phone, “You’re not helping me!” This was quickly followed by a rant detailing how all of her friends were on the phone with their parents who were narrating last-minute edits to their college essays. She was right. I’d offered some general insights here and there, but was largely quiet during the application process. And I certainly did not edit her essay.
For context, it’s perhaps relevant to note that I’m a Professor and an Associate Dean at a midwestern University. I review applications all the time and in fact, I muse that a large preponderance of essays now begin with an anecdote about the writer observing a poor child on a volunteer trip to a poor region and being inspired to change the world. The cynic in me wonders whether the parents might have arranged these trips for the expressed purpose of ensuring an authentic response to the personal statement prompt, much like the staging of Instagram stories. But I digress.
My friends who were more decidedly in the “helpful” camp were curious why I wasn’t sprinkling some professor magic on my daughter’s application to grease the skids, so to speak. After all, it was just yesterday that she was screaming, “Me do it!” and I was begging her to let me help her put on her pink sparkle shoes so we could get out the door. How did we happen upon this strange turn of events?
After some pondering, I realized how much my perspective on college kids had in fact been shaped by our Montessori preschool teachers. These were the teachers who taught us as much about parenting as they taught our children about self discovery. Their classrooms were havens of quiet focus where the work of the child instilled value in life’s purpose. Teaching was not about power or control or direction, but about careful observation; introducing the right material at the right time in the right circumstance – the result of which was often purposeful struggle followed quickly by the elation of mastery.
During one particularly eye-opening parent-teacher conference, we were cautioned about trees: Children love to climb trees and will beg their parents to help them reach the first branch so that they can climb higher. But while a child who can climb the tree unassisted is likely to return to the ground unscathed, a parent who lifts the child into the tree has no assurances that the child will be able to safely navigate its branches. More importantly, when the child is placed in the tree, rather than having scaled the tree independently, we rob her of the sense of mastery she’ll experience when she finally accomplishes that feat without help.
Now that they’re older, we’re monitoring and tracking and fighting mightily against the addictions of technology. We’re the first cohort of parents navigating all of this social media craziness. For good reason we’re called helicopters and lawnmowers, curling parents and Blackhawk parents; many have written about the intensity of parenting these days. But quite simply, a parent’s job is to observe. To make adjustments when life’s obstacles are too much or not enough, to help create an environment for the quiet and focused work of our almost-adults.
Making these observations then choosing how much and how to help is the constant deliberative state of a thoughtful parent. As we consider this balance, we would do well to remember that “swooping in” sends the message that you don’t believe she can do it herself. After all, if we had repeatedly tied their shoes for them when they were capable 6-year-olds, they might not have ridden a bike until they were 12. We all want happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids, but it is no more our job to place them in a college than it was to place them in that tree. Most often, the best college for a student is the place they find themselves, not the place we would help them to be.
Not helping is scary. The stakes are high. Even when we might not have micro managed their high school experiences, we think that this is surely the time to intervene, to capitalize on every advantage we can offer them. After all, it’s easy to edit, make some phone calls, bolster their application. Instead, it may be that the best way to support our children is simply to observe – and trust in the journey of our child.
Our daughter was home for Christmas, giddy with the exuberance of accomplishment. She’s all in. She’s found a college to call home, friendships to cultivate and new ways to embrace her autonomy. Knowing that she arrived there by her own engine and her own fortitude, she has claimed every success as her own. She’s learning how to invite the right amount of challenge into her life, and she’s looking at the world from high above the treetops.
Nancy Weaver, PhD, MPH is an Associate Dean and Professor of Behavioral Science in St. Louis, Missouri. She has three teenage children and enjoys connecting personal experiences with her work in higher education and research on public health and parenting. You can follow her at nancylweaver.wordpress.com.