Last fall, our son’s senior class parents gathered (somewhat tenderly) for the first time for a senior class parent meeting. There were friendly “hellos” and murmurs of “I can’t believe we’re already senior-class parents.” I left that school meeting with life-changing parenting advice and not a moment too soon. Our beloved campus ministry director humbly greeted us with these words of wisdom (or something close).
For the past two years and the rest of this year, nearly every conversation your child has with an adult out in the world has centered around what their next step will be, what university they want to attend, what they want to major in, and what campuses they’re visiting.
It comes from parents, strangers at the grocery store, the neighbors, and at the big family Christmas. Your student has to answer these big questions hourly. All day, every day. In school, online, at home. Don’t make this their identity right now. Let them stop thinking about college in your house. Or at least try to be aware.Mr. Clarke
Something clicked in me. Mr. Clarke was very right. It was 100 percent true. For well over a year, my husband and I (along with all the grandparents, neighbors, cousins, friends, and strangers) had focused on where our son “might” go to college, what he “may” want to study, and how we “could” pay for it if he qualified for the right scholarships. So many conversations with our son centered around the prospect of college, the endless “what ifs.”
How did we get here? We thought we were “connecting” with our son.
“College and the Future” became our favorite topic
Talking about the future was fun, right? Yes, but only to a degree. We had overinflated one aspect of this human’s beautiful existence: the four years that would come after the “right now.” Our son was our first child. He would be a second-generation college student. He attended a college prep high school, and with all that came an unhealthy level of expectation and future talk.
I was guilty. College and the future was our favorite subject.
I immediately stopped any extra college-focused dialogue cold turkey. I also made sure my husband was on board. From that day forward, when our son came home from school for the rest of the year, I asked him about all the other things that truly mattered to him that day.
What current class was he excited about? How was the Friday night football broadcast going? Did he get the new part for his mountain bike? What did he eat for lunch? What were his plans for the weekend?
I realized that too much college talk was not healthy for any of us
That golden parenting advice on that autumn senior parent night changed my behavior. It also changed my approach as I spoke to other teens and my kids’ friends out in the world. I chose my words and questions carefully. I took an interest in their lives just now.
I realized too much college and future talk wasn’t just unhealthy for our son. It was unhealthy for our whole family. Our freshman daughter’s life was also characterized by an inflated public interest in her brother’s endeavors. She was peppered with questions about his plans, thus setting a cycle of college anxiety that may have started with her even earlier.
When my husband and I ran into other parents, the first question out of their mouths was, where was our son looking at colleges? It begged the polite question of asking where their student was looking. It’s a back-and-forth senior parent “call and answer;” it’s hard not to feel a constant game of comparison.
We’ve made college another consumer grab with a “scarcity” mentality
College admission is indeed another American obsession. It’s a broken system in which some aim to gain entry and afford tuition. In vying for the limited resources and spots, we’ve made college another consumer grab with a “scarcity” mentality. It’s also an inaccurate indicator of future happiness. And happiness is what I want for my children.
This pressure-cooker environment happens well before a child has finished being a child. Don’t let the discussion of post-high school plans and college admission be the defining memory of your child’s junior and senior years. Don’t let it run your family’s heart. Slow down. Take it all in.
These are teenagers. They shouldn’t be reminded of deadlines, admission, perceived rejection, success, or failure 24/7. Yes, go ahead and enjoy the college tours and make the trips a fun, bonding moment. Let the application discussion and process be an important event; give it the space and brevity it deserves, and get through it.
Try to live in the present with your kids
But then — and this is important — let yourselves quiet down. Try not to discuss the future ad nauseam. It’s all about balance. Live in the “right now” with your high schoolers because it is fleeting.
I’m not an overly protective mother, but I took it upon myself to manage expectations and healthy conversations with the time I had left. A little bit of “Mama Bear” came out in me. And, yes, I ran some interference.
These are some of the words I used with others. You can borrow them to prep grandparents, neighbors, and friends no matter what your child’s post-high school plans are,
“Everyone is so interested in X’s plans after high school. It had been dominating our conversations in our house too much. We’re trying to take some pressure off him so he can enjoy being 17. It would mean a lot if you don’t mind asking him about everything else he’s doing now.“
Teens do not owe anyone an explanation of their college admissions process
No student should have to substantiate why they’re going to a community college or trade school or taking a gap year with anyone but their parents and counselor. Most adults are well-intentioned and want to relate to a young person’s entry into adulthood. But also—let’s be brutally honest — so many adults are just plain nosy. There’s no reason your teenager needs to discuss the detailed merits of one university over another with the neighbor or validate a potential theater major with your Aunt Vicky.
Publicly discussing the pros and cons of such a personal choice with so many adults is utterly ludicrous. Teenagers are all doing such incredible things. Ask them about their current days.
Show an interest in ALL aspects of your teens’ life
When we parents (and others) show genuine interest in ALL the aspects of a teenager’s life—every single day—we let them know they are so much more than their plans next year, the college they get into, or the degree they pursue.
Let’s let them bask in the tiny details of being 16, 17 and 18.
The college discussion topic dominated our family’s dinner table conversations for more months than I am proud of. But, once I saw this, the adults at the table were able to drive the discussion back to what truly meant the most to our family: the details of our days, our togetherness, our hopes, the daily highs and disappointments, and being “right here and right now.”
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