If you are the parent of a high school senior, this is only secondarily the Holiday Season. It is, front and center, the College Season. The jolliness of your mood might well depend on what news your child did or didn't receive in an Early Decision letter the past week or so, and whether the dozen or so applications they will likely be filing by the turn of the year are anywhere near finished by now.
"The letter from Vanderbilt said it was the MOST COMPETITIVE application year EVER," the woman in the high end boutique crowed to her friend. Her son had just gotten in. And the fact that he'd beaten the highest odds EVER was a point of pride to his mom. Of course that EVER has been true of every school for every year in at least the past decade. It just keeps getting more competitive. And parents keep taking it more personally.
My parents never used the word "we" when talking about the process. My son is a senior this year, and I have slipped more than once.
I hereby vow to stop.
Every social and economic trend of the past two decades -- the laudable goal of diversity; the equalizing role of the internet in bringing schools to the attention of kids who might have otherwise stayed close to home; the stunning role of the best endowed schools of allowing low-income students to graduate without debt; the unexpected consequences of the Common Application which lets students apply with much less effort to far more schools; the regrettable arms race when it comes to extracurricular activities and test scores; the inexcusable game playing by many schools to attract as many applicants as they can so they can reject them and boost the all important selectivity score -- all these have joined forces to make our children believe that their life is a race and the "best" college is the finish line.
As parents, we can control none of the above. What we can control is the message we send, and because our kids are smart (just LOOK at their transcripts!) they will know whether we are telling them the truth or just patronizing them. So we have to believe it ourselves when we say that the bumper sticker on our car and the logo on their sweatshirt is not the measure of anything. Because the fact is they will be who they become because of who they are not where they go.
In the Washington Post last week, psychologist Lynn Field flipped an unspoken assumption on its head and suggested that it is BAD parenting to push your child to do their best, and aim high and take those SATs one more time because "you can do better." Our kids see through that, she says. They know what we REALLY mean:
In a black-and-white way of looking at things, we have come to believe that only the top-top students succeed by getting in to the college of their choosing. The others? They are left to muddle through and even perhaps -- gasp! -- go to a community college.
As a mental health provider who works with teenagers, I find it heartbreaking to see the effect of this myth on the psyches of high schoolers. Any doubt about the power of negative thinking is banished by sitting across from a teen whose stomach is in a knot because his or her self-worth is tied to a GPA or wrapped up in the name of a college.
But, but, but...you sputter. (Or maybe that is me sputtering. Old habits die hard.) What about their FUTURE? What if all they do is lie around playing video games because we aren't pushing them? And isn't it true that the "best" school will get them furthest in life? Aren't I helping them by making them see that?
As educators, parents, psychologists and counselors, we need to encourage teenagers to do their best for themselves -- and often this can mean setting their sights on a good-enough school. The fact of the matter is, no matter what school you attend, you can get the education you desire.
Which I really do believe. Now I need to figure out how to stop sending the message that I don't.
How are you weathering the college application process at your house? Any advice on how to ratchet down the angst?
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin