Can Our Parental Help Really Hinder Our Kids?

From the Inside…

By Marilee Jones

Can Our Parental Help Really Hinder Our Kids?

So many parents today are completely mystified about the college admissions process, and for good reason.  If we didn’t go to college, or if we studied in another country, we might find the college admissions process to be intimidating.  If we attended college, we probably remember a simpler admissions process, one unaccompanied by box loads of view books, monthly emails and phone calls from eager admissions staffers and student interns working to establish brand loyalty earlier than the competition.  Our own admissions process consisted of hearing about colleges from friends/older siblings/adults, taking the SATS at the last possible minute with no preparation, filling out and submitting the application to a college.  Most often, our parents were not involved because we Baby Boomers and Gen Xers lived in Kid World, rarely intersecting with the adults around us.  We applied, we got in, we enrolled. Pretty simple.  Not a lot of angst about choice of school.  Most of us applied to colleges in our own local areas in the era before so many colleges became ‘national’.

Now we are witnessing our own child getting mail from colleges, maybe from test-coaching businesses, years in advance. Our child might be disinterested or scared or out of the house doing extracurricular activities to get into college, too busy to even think about choosing one.  We might be choking with the thought of how we’ll pay the tuition- especially now when banks have limited lending – or how we’ll live without our child around or how fast our life is moving now.  Our child, in turn, is practicing their independence and may be making life very difficult for us in characteristic teenage fashion.  No wonder we want to take charge.  Taking charge just feels better than having life happen to us. In desperation, we wonder how can we help our child get the edge…

This is where the trouble begins and boundaries get crossed.  This is when we feel pressure to intervene, to make the process of applying to college as easy as possible for our child, because we can’t bear to see them hurt, anxious or more stressed.  We can figure out what to do.  There is always a means to an end, right?

Unfortunately, being overly involved in your child’s life and taking too much responsibility for your child’s college application process can actually be harmful to them.  While you think you are being helpful to your busy child by making all of the phone calls to college admissions offices, and managing the application process, the admissions personnel on the other end are drawing a range a conclusions about your child, and all of them are bad.  For example, when they hear only from the parent, they can assume that the student isn’t interested in their school (not good in this competitive climate), or that the student doesn’t know how to prioritize (too busy to talk to us?  Not right for us), or that the student is too passive and connected to parents (not ready for college).  In addition, by stepping in to ‘help’, you are sending the message to your child that they are not good enough/smart enough/mature enough to apply to college on their own.  It undermines their confidence at the very time they need to gather their strength to move through this difficult passage.  Worst of all, by taking the actions your child should be taking, you are training them to be passive when colleges are actually looking for whole healthy people with intellectual curiosity, drive to answer questions, curiosity to ask previously unasked questions.  Colleges are looking for people poised for success, who have already developed baseline skills to prepare them to handle a rigorous professional life, people with the emotional intelligence and social competence to work hard while having professional longevity and joy in their career.


Sadly, we see many parents so committed to their child having an outstanding college application that they miss out on some of the joy of raising children.  They fear that unless their child keeps up with their over-scheduled friends they will lose out in college admissions and not be admitted to a good school.  The tragedy here is that not only is this not true, but the very cornerstone of a healthy relationship between parents and children – quality time – is often dropped in the rush for perfection.  Arranging the finest opportunities for their children is not a parent’s best opportunity for influence, just as shuttling children between activities is not quality time.

Nothing will create children poised for success in college and in life more than the knowledge that their parents are absolutely and unconditionally in love with them.  This love and attention is best demonstrated when parents serve as role models and family members make time to cherish one another.  The most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare their children for success arise not from extracurricular or academic commitments, but from a firm grounding in parental love and guidance.  It’s about raising happy, well-adjusted adolescents for whom there will be the right college, not trying to force a child to become someone they are not just to get into a college they will hate while making the parents look good.

Less Stress, More Success

"Her book has added to her reputation as a kind of guru of the movement to tame the college admissions frenzy.”
New York Times
Our book group just read your book and it sparked more conversation than we’ve had in the seven years we’ve been reading together. Being successful professionals with busy lives and even busier children, we’re all trying to figure out how to find the time to just stop and enjoy our lives amidst so much pressure. Some of us find ourselves quoting you to our husbands and kids now, so you are our hero. ;-)
Sophia N. and Nancy R.

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