YCBK 275: Higher Ed is freaking out that affirmative action may end [Transcript]
How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

Parents, Perfection, and College Admissions

Dr. Lisa Rouff

Anxiety over college admissions doesn’t only affect the students but parents as well. Dr. Lisa Rouff shares her experience and reminds us that while the stakes are high, they aren’t as high as our anxiety leads us to believe.

Last week I attended an event at my daughter’s high school in which parents were able to hear freshman-year students speak openly about the different types of stresses they encounter.  Far and away, they talked most about conflict with their parents regarding grades.  Many students reported feeling that if they made a mistake at school, their parents didn’t trust that they would try to rectify the situation on their own and kept bringing the problem up until it exploded into an argument.  Students repeatedly told us that if they have a problem that needs our help, they will ask us–otherwise, why couldn’t parents give them a little space to figure things out, especially if the situation wasn’t dire?

Why, indeed?  It was a good and reasonable question.

The answer was evident the week before when I attended an event at my son’s middle school.  The school is moving away from letter grades and towards a competency-based learning system, which caused some visible anxiety on the part of the parents.  Without learning how to “make the A’s” in middle school, how would their children succeed in high school?  One parent operationalized this success by saying, “Well, students need to get straight A’s and 1600 SATs to get into college,”  as if this was a fact.

To be honest, sitting in the auditorium, I felt my own anxiety rising.  This was odd because rationally I know that kids don’t need to get straight A’s and perfect test scores to get into a good school.  I help great kids with checkered transcripts, and no test scores apply to college every day, and so far, they are doing really well in the process–getting into their first choice, getting merit aid, and generally feeling pretty successful.  Not to mention that my own college-age daughter got two C+’s her freshman year of high school and yet somehow managed to get accepted into thirteen out of the fourteen colleges to which she applied.  It was as if the “group think” and the collective anxiety in the room was taking over my rational brain, and I became nervous that my 5th grader was somehow going to fail in life as a result of this change.

For educated, middle class and above parents, we are living in a world of collective and probably irrational anxiety, and it’s affecting our kids. This is why, I explained to a 9th grader, that his mom couldn’t stop bothering him about his poor math test grade–she was too anxious about it to stop.  It wasn’t personal–it was that she was terrified that any mistake would lead to a doomed life.

At the end of the day, this problem isn’t the students–it’s the parents’ issue.  Luckily, we can do something about this– we can protect our kids from our own collective anxiety.  We can remember that we all make mistakes and fail, and rather than dooming us, these are the things that help us grow into the successful people we are now.  Robbing our kids of this same opportunity to try to figure things out for themselves, even if it leads to temporary problems, may make it harder for them to succeed in the long run.

So, parents, I think we need to all take a breath and step away from the social pressure and the assumption that only perfection is allowed.  We need to be really thoughtful about when to intervene and when to let our kids figure it out for themselves.  As the kids told me, when they need help, they will ask for it–why not give them a little space? Because really, the stakes are not as high as they may appear at parent meetings.

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