Step Aside – When Should Parents Step In?

College is a rite of passage calling upon kids and parents to exhibit opposite behaviors. Kids need to hang on. Parents need to let go.

Forty years of teaching have brought a commonly asked question: “Are kids different today?”

My answer: “Kids have not changed as much as parents have.”

The biggest change I have observed over the course of my teaching career is the steady evolving parental creep of engagement in children’s affairs and challenges. The line separating who-is-responsible-for-what in the parent-child relationship has become extremely blurred.

Contrast this dynamic with the early-70s dinner table conversation I had with my mother during my senior year of high school.  She asked, “So, what are you doing about that college thing, anyway?”

I explained that after visiting ten colleges I had applied to four, all in the “most selective” category

With an admonishing tone, Mom asked, “So, you have no fall backs in the mix?”

I responded, “No. If I don’t get accepted anywhere [Ed: a far more likely outcome than my teenage naivete could process] I might check out some schools with rolling admissions or maybe take a year off.”

With a disapproving frown, my mother replied, “Sounds like a terrible plan. But, it’s your life.”

Although my mother’s approach seemed consistent with that taken by my friends’ parents, I cannot imagine one parent today in 100… make that 1000… handling this discussion the way that my mother handled that one back in 1972.

So, what?

One of the 5 Rules in my book College Success Guaranteed – 5 Rules to Make it Happen (Rowman Littlefield, 2011) is “Get a Mentor.”  However, if you are “that parent” who micromanaged play dates, conflicts with teachers, or the college applications process, then your child might never have mastered the interpersonal skills necessary for securing mentors.

When I shared my book with University of Southern California Distinguished Professor of Business and leadership guru Warren Bennis, his first comment to me was, “I only disagree with one point you make in your book, Malcolm. You don’t ‘get’ a mentor, you stalk mentors… and you stalk them your whole life!” High school teachers are expected to be on the lookout for kids who could use some extra help in their academic or personal lives. In college, the burden falls on the student, to go out and make the connections that can propel them forward.

So, what is a parent to do?

Start by backing off the college application process.  Do not interfere with your child’s first attempt to take the vulnerable step of presenting his or her credentials to the world for acceptance or rejection. Nothing like overzealous parental intervention to spoil a rich coming-of-age opportunity!

Letting go does not mean that you do nothing. It also does not mean that you should act indifferent to the outcome.  However, there is a big difference between offering to help (“Let me know if you’d like me to critique your essay.”) versus meddling or badgering (“What, you’re not going to ask Uncle Frank to use his pull at Georgetown?!?”).

When in doubt, step back. And remain stepped back after your child enrolls.

In the spirit of “practice what you preach,” a story from my own days as a college parent might shed some light.

As the 2012 presidential election raged, one of my daughters was struggling mightily with being ideologically outnumbered in an advanced class of fellow government majors.

At the end of the semester, my daughter told me that her professor pulled her aside to thank her for so passionately and articulately arguing the minority opinion during class discussions.  He said something to the effect of, “Without you, things might have been pretty boring.” In the end, the whole experience turned out to be one of the more meaningful ones of my daughter’s college career.  Glad I didn’t jump into the fray and ruin it!

To help keep the first-time college parent on track, I propose a mantra: “Is this my issue?”

Whether your child cannot stand his/her roommate, hates the food, or feels victimized by a cold-hearted professor, stop and ask yourself, “Is this my issue?” Not only is “No” the correct answer in each of those circumstances, it usually is. When in doubt, try “No” on for size.  It will be good for your child and for your sanity.

College offers a wealth of dynamic people who can make a huge difference in your child’s life. Step aside and give those people the chance to do so.


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