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The Parent Problem

Where to draw the line between childhood and adulthood is as old an issue as the concepts themselves. My own parents were both amused and annoyed that Stanford sent them the bills for my tuition, room, and board, but did not send them my grades because, as far as Stanford was concerned, I was a newly-minted adult (with the zero balance in my bank account to prove it).

As a parent, college consultant, and former admission director, I have thought a lot about the ambivalent relationship to parents that is built into the transition from high school to college in the United States. As if by magic, our kids are supposed to morph from child to adult when they walk down the jetway to board the plane, or hop into the passenger seat, for that much-hyped trip from bedroom at home to dorm room at college. The whole transition to college apparatus — high school counselors, independent college consultants, college admission directors, and freshman orientation programs — tends to give short shrift to parents' emotional and informational needs. The focus is the students; but often, we could better serve our students by better addressing the needs of their parents.

It is virtually impossible to work in this field without collecting anecdotes that demonstrate inappropriate, overbearing parental behavior. A parent should not write a student's college application essays any more than a parent should write a student's essays for English class. But we need to be more sensitive to the variety of connections between teens and parents, and cultural differences in parental input into major life decisions.

We miss opportunities when we construe parents as potential obstacles to their teens' maturation rather than partners in that process. First, parents can be a tremendous support for their kids as they research and apply to colleges. Parents are capable of providing perspective and alleviating anxiety, particularly if they can identify which of their kids' fears are unfounded or overblown.

Second, whatever conflicts may or may not exist in a family, parents know their kids better than admission pros. Their insights can help us be better guides to the students we counsel. Recently, the parent of a student told me that her daughter often becomes passionate about a particular idea or goal, and then drops it a few months later (common behavior for many teens). That piece of information gave me a context in which to talk with her daughter about how much her current passion should guide her decision-making about where to attend college.

The message should be more nuanced than, "You may stop parenting now, but please send your check to the following address." In fact, parenting doesn't stop; it changes. It happens at a distance, and as a result, in more concentrated spurts. It happens without the day-to-day surveillance we may wistfully view as a lost luxury.

"Going to college" is not a single event, one moment in time, like moving into a freshman dorm, that defines the onset of adulthood; it is many moments that give parent and child multiple chances to redefine their relationship. The more we recognize that parents are participants in this process rather than obstacles to pulling it off, the better consultants, counselors, and admission directors we will be.

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