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Staying Out of Our Kids’ College Applications

I swore I would not be the kind of mom who micro-managed my kids’ college applications. No helicoptering for me. No sirree, I was too wise and evolved for that kind of shallow “my kids define me” mentality.

My grandparents and my parents went to college. I went to college. My kids work hard and play hard at good schools; all predictors were excellent that my children would go to college too.

That was the important thing – not WHERE my kids went to college. That would be their choice.  Neither my self-esteem nor the measure of my success as a parent would ever be wrapped up in a bumper sticker proclaiming my children’s college acceptance.

This week, my son is beginning his senior year in high school. Time to put my money where my mouth has been for the last 17 years.  And let’s just say, it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.

My son is laid back, confident, and stubborn.  He has told me, in no uncertain terms, that he has heard me brag for 17 years that I would stay out of this process.  He tells me regularly that things are fine. That he is 100% on top of, and in charge of, the tests, applications, teacher recommendations, and deadlines.

Funny, this doesn’t stop be from bugging him. And worrying. Endlessly.

I am a professional writer and editor, I remind my son.  Other parents would pay me good money to read their children’s college essays.  Does he want me to look at his? At no charge?

“Not really, Mom.  But thanks.  I’ll let you know if I need help.”

And um, did I mention I’m a third generation legacy at Harvard College? You know, that nice school in Cambridge, Mass? Math is one of my son’s stronger subjects, so I asked him to calculate what degree of Harvard legacy that makes him.  And did he want to look up the statistics on the improved chances of a fourth generation Harvard legacy getting accepted into, say, Harvard? And I slip in that I have given at least a small amount of money to Harvard every single year since the day I graduated. Which cannot hurt his chances.

“But Mom, you know, I’m not really interested in the Ivy League.”

To this, as a parent, I have no answer.

Fortunately, even though I seem unable to follow my own advice, I have been able to hear advice from other kids.  Last spring, our school held an evening meeting where high school seniors offered advice to parents of rising seniors.  One particularly eloquent student explained how excruciating all the adult attention can be.

“Even our mailman asked me where I was applying and what my first choice was,” he told us.

His (very good) advice: before senior year starts, tell your parents in no uncertain terms who they can tell, and what they can reveal, about your college application process and choices.  Otherwise, he said, they will talk to you and everyone else about nothing else for nine months.  He pointed out that he and his friends were already obsessing about college. Endlessly.  It doesn’t help anyone when parents obsess about something kids are trying hard not to obsess about.

I am trying to follow his advice.

Other pointers for parents: Try to ask about college only once or twice a week, not every day (or several times a day). Go away when early action/early decision results are announced so you don’t have to run into other kids and parents who are finding out the emotionally laden news. Ditto for the day when regular acceptances are announced.  Otherwise, it will begin to feel that the point of every 18 year oldo’s life is whether or not they got into their first choice.  Accepted or rejected.  A brutal, unnecessary, irrelevant label.

I keep reminding myself: neither childhood, nor parenthood, is a competition.  I applied to and have already gone to college. My educational career is over.  My son’s is about to start.  My job now is pure back up; doing nothing unless he asks for or obviously needs help.  Which you think might be easy.  But in some ways, for some parents, holding yourself back is harder than charging ahead full speed.

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