There were twice as many parents as teenagers in the room, light streaming through a Palladian window at one end. We were huddled with our kids, coaching them to the last minute on what questions to ask the alumni liaison about how to get into the University of Virginia. It came as a shock to us parents that day when the liaison entered the room and asked us to move to the far end of the table. She then sat down and passed out folders to our kids and focused her attention entirely on them.
The UVA Alumni Association provides a staff member who explains the admissions process to alumni children.She made it clear from the beginning she was there only to advise them; she could not “get the kids in.” In fact, we parents would be bit players as well. Getting admitted to college was going to be entirely up to our kids.
But here’s just how competitive the landscape is right now: This year, 89 percent of the entering class at UVA was in the top tenth of their class. At William & Mary, 78 percent had a GPA over 3. 75. At Virginia’s best colleges, average SAT scores are close to perfect. How can good parents just back off and let their teens take the lead in such an important benchmark in life?
On the other hand, the news is almost all bad for the children of parents who hover, known these days as helicopter parents. From blossoming neuroses among freshman who have never had to fend for themselves to dismal job prospects for new graduates who lack initiative, it is clear that our kids need to learn how to navigate on their own The sooner the better.
So, what is a good parent to do in light of this contradiction: How do we balance the difficulty of getting our children into a good school with the need to let them find their own path?
Charles Klink, Ph.D., assistant vice provost in the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment at Virginia Commonwealth University, encourages parents and children to visit colleges they are considering early to start to get a feel for a good fit. He likens the process of applying to college to “a conversation” between parents and children “about what is important to both.” The conversation should continue throughout the high school years.
Joseph Allen, Ph.D., and Claudia Worrell Allen, Ph.D., would agree. In their new book, Escaping the Endless Adolescence, the UVA psychology professor and his wife, a clinical psychologist, observe the ways in which our children have become hampered by our drive to Over nurture them. While nurturing, of course, is a good thing – and instinctual in good parents – the time has come for those of us who trend in this direction to lighten up and let our kids have some more responsibility for their fate.
The Allens point out that teens actually need to have things expected of them. Many kids today, if they work at all, are rarely responsible for purchasing necessities or contributing to the family’s income, as they once might have been.In fact, teens often have discretionary spending that surpasses their parents’. This is an example – along with all the management, services, and goods we provide – of how parents are encouraging teens to think short, rather than long-term. Then, according to the Allens, our kids are shocked when this kind of self-oriented thinking collides with the real worlds of college and beyond.
What does this mean when it comes to preparing for college?
For a start, you can begin your kids on a program of learning self-care: laundry, transportation, budget, and even appointment making. These skills can be coached starting at 14. The Allens suggest letting college become a reality to your kids early, so that they have something to work toward that is solid – not an abstraction suggested by their parents.
As for the complex world of academic preparation for college, three things matter the most: the quality of the classes taken in high school, test scores, and the application. For top college placement, honors, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate classes should be taken whenever possible, starting in the ninth grade.
In terms of testing, Klink at VCU recommends that parents know which tests are required and what is available in terms of resources. After that, what students do “is hardwired,” he says. If they are already motivated and showing a lot of initiative, studying for the tests will go well; if not, then not.
In fact, Klink suggests following this philosophy throughout the application process. Rather than abandoning the helicopter altogether, parents should think of themselves as “traffic helicopters.” They are there to observe and to make sure that resources are available, but not to land and take care of things on the ground themselves.
Klink’s strongest advice for students and for parents is to have “high expectations wedded to ability.” If the student isn’t engaged – if the parents drive the process – the student will “not really be focused, and the wheels fall off quickly” at college, he says. “It is important for the parents not to get caught up in their vision of their child’s life,” but to respect whom their child is. “If someone wants to go to college, there are a number of choices available,” he explains.
It was no real surprise to me that my son didn’t get into UVA – despite his good record at an excellent private school and several generations of alumni family. It is just that hard to get in. But he is following the path for him and may end up there after all. He is taking advantage of the agreement between Virginia’s community colleges and many of the state’s four-year colleges and universities – James Madison, UVA, Virginia Tech, University of Mary Washington, Mary Baldwin and many others – that guarantees a transfer with appropriate success at the community college.
So, any child can thrive in the Virginia college system. We just have to let them!