With the Oscars behind us, it's time for America's next gladiatorial event: college acceptances and rejections. Many schools are mailing out (or posting online) their admissions decisions during the next few weeks. Each letter carries a potent message. The notions of "accepted" and "rejected" are emotionally loaded ideas -- a clear demarcation of "winners" and "losers" -- and parents are as invested in those rejections and acceptances just as much as their kids. As a therapist working on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where expectations for success run sky-high -- I've seen many tears shed over rejections from Ivy League schools.
So, why do parents personalize this process? For one thing, they break from the gate very early, often sacrificing precious free time to "help" write reports about The Navaho, or construct classical Greek temples from toothpicks and papier mâché. Then there's the whiteboard calendar in the kitchen, crammed with a 24/7 schedule of activities from football practice and fencing lessons to afterschool enrichment classes in Shakespearean dramaturgy or string theory. (And we haven't even mentioned the tutors and SAT pre-classes yet). All these activities represent a lot of time, money and effort for parents -- and many do this with some idea in the back of their mind of creating a "perfect" college candidate, one that will catch the attention of an admissions officer.
Here's what many parents often fail to understand: College admissions are a concrete and obvious goalpost -- but that's only the pregame show. The true test of a child's successful transition to independence lies next September, in the first semester of college. That's when the rubber meets the road and a young adult must draw on the precious internal resources that have hopefully been cultivated over the course of childhood and adolescence: impulse control, maturity, self-guidance, and overall independent functioning. All of these are the signposts of successful parenting, not the acceptance letter. If a kid can do laundry, study unsupervised, stay organized amid the lack of structure, and manage alcohol consumption reasonably, then the parent can step into the spotlight and take a bow.
So, parents, take a deep breath and see the long-term view. If you are lucky, your child will attend an institution of higher learning. Whether that place is located in Cambridge, New Haven or Columbus, your child can thrive. In the coming weeks, try to tamp down your ego, your guilt at having missed a holiday school show, your competitive spirit, and whatever else may be driving you to hyperventilate at the thought of "rejection" and "acceptance" by a college. If your child can bounce back from a college rejection, if he can be happy over an acceptance without its being regarded as the top-tier of lifetime achievement, then you're on the right track. Take pride in creating a kid who can fly solo. And if you want a dose of reality, read Sunday's New York Times article about qualified students in poor neighborhoods who don't apply to top colleges because they never even realized it was an option. Now, that's something to cry about.