College Access Counseling

My firm, College Access Counseling, Ltd., works with adults and organizations who counsel and support first-generation and minority students on the way to college. I teach the ins and outs of the college process, helping them build social and cultural capital for their students. Click here for more information. I also write for NACAC's blog, Admitted. You can read my entries as well as some of my colleagues', here. Click here to read one of my entries in the New York Times's blog, The Choice.

November 21, 2007

Mommies and Me

A good friend who's a college counselor at a small private school called me a few nights ago and let off some steam about some of the parents he was dealing with. Pushy, unrealistic, and completely disrespectful of his experience, dedication, and talents in the field, they were getting under his skin more than usual, it seemed. Despite his best efforts, all too many students were applying to upwards of a dozen schools for no reason other than that they could. It was getting to be all too much and he wondered how much longer he could take it.

I sympathized but inside I was gleeful no longer to be in that position. My time with the sad, desperate, and insecure mommies and daddies at my former school came to a sudden end this year and I've never looked back. I'm relieved no longer to be working with control freaks who plan out their children's lives, ignorant adults who think that because they have PhDs or law or business degrees they know everything, haughty cowards who aren't honest about their plans for their children, and emotionally fragile parents who take their children's rejections from college harder than their children do. (In my experience, kids are far more resilient than their parents unless they've let their parents do everything for them). It must be hard raising children to be helpless, but many of these parents seem to be doing their best to make it happen.

Years ago, I had a mother tell me that if her child didn't get into Harvard he'd "be a bum" but today things are subtler and more insidious. In particular I can't help thinking about the parent who came to me this year in tears because her child hadn't gotten into her first choice college. Despite the fact that the child had been admitted to every other college to which she had applied, the mommy focused on that one school. She was devastated that her child would be forced to go to a "lesser" college, despite that fact that she had an acceptance list that would be the envy of any student in any year. She visited me several times quivering and tearing up; I wondered what she expected me to do...I reminded her of the excellent choices her daughter had but to no avail. She was obsessed with the one school that was now inaccessible. I tried to be sympathetic, but clearly wasn't sympathetic or perhaps outraged enough, since this mommy ended up visiting my colleague several times for extended shoulder-to-cry-on sessions. Perhaps she expected me to call the offending college and whip them into shape, something I wouldn't have done even if I thought I could. (And for the record, I thought her daughter should have been admitted to that school. But such is life.)

I think also of the first time I sent a report of students' successful applications to the school's director. With our new Naviance program I was pleased to be able to show him in very concrete terms how excellently our seniors had fared with colleges big and small, "prestigious" and otherwise, all across the country. After looking the extensive list over for a few minutes, his first question was, "Can you do a report on where they didn't get in?" I was stunned and not a little sickened. Despite a record of incredible success, he wanted to focus on the "failures." When I returned with that list later, he had to dig the acceptance list out of the trash.

When schools and parents focus on "failure" instead of success in this area, there's something very wrong. It's one thing if no one is getting into college or procedural or systemic elements interfere with successful admissions, but it's something else entirely when in the glow of successful applications those in charge can't see anything but "failure." To those whom much is given, it seems that much more is supposed to be added. If you have a great deal, you're supposed to have it all, perhaps. Well, I pity those people and hope that one day they can revel in their children's and students' successes instead of wallowing in what didn't happen. I don't blame kids, but I do fault the parents and schools who teach them this "all or nothing" outlook and who need the imprimatur of a "prestigious" college acceptance to validate their children's lives (and by extension themselves). they should be ashamed of themselves.


Anonymous said...

Hope this essay reaches those who need to read it. And that they recognize themselves,not that they'll change their behavior but might have a touch (or more) of chagrin.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to disagree with the previous comment. I found this post rather rude. I agree that these parent's actions were neither appropriate nor constructive, but portraying these "helicopter" parents in this way shows a lack of understanding on the part of the post's author. Further, criticizing one's former employer in such a public way, no matter the circumstances of one's dismissal is never in good taste.

As I'm sure the author realizes, alot of ill will is created in the college process, particularly in the environment in which he was employed. The forces at work there are much better dealt with through understanding and education rather than somewhat blunt criticism. Not everyone can get into Harvard, and that's a hard fact to come to terms with for many parents. But posts like these don't help the recovery process at all.

Willard M. Dix said...

If by "rude" you mean "accurate" I stand guilty as charged. I've dealt with these kinds of parents long enough to be able to describe and comment on them, I think. And the kind of behavior they exhibit should be challenged and corrected. Unfortunately, weak and cowardly administrators seem to have adopted the "customer is always right" approach to education, in which case no matter what the cost to the child's education (making him/her more independent, helping with the maturation process, etc.) counselors (and teachers) now have to "give the lady what she wants." This consumerist approach to education is one of the great tragedies of our time.

The cravenness of administrators happens everywhere and at both high school and college levels, and I hear about it from colleagues who are more reluctant to speak out than I am, so I also believe I'm speaking more broadly than you might think.

I should also say that the majority of parents I've worked with over the years are NOT in this silly and sad category. They understand what their children are going through and are eager to help and be productive by working with counselors and teachers to create the best environment for their children. Very few of them think they know better than the professionals at their schools, but the few who do think that, the 10 percent, say, end up taking 90 percent of our time. Too bad for all of us, the students most of all.

I'd be interested to know what "forces" you consider to be "at work" here and what kind of "understanding and education" you'd suggest. In my experience, the parents I'm talking about are impervious to either; that's why they're the way they are. Despite handouts, mailing, presentations, and so on, they cannot process the information they need to view the whole college process with some dispassion or to see their children as independent beings instead of extensions of themselves.

Get a few counselors from either side of the admission desk in a room and they'll curl your toes with parent horror stories. It's a shame that schools and colleges won't stand up to these people often enough. Perhaps they'd get the message. But we tend to be magnanimous people more willing to take abuse than cause controversy. I'm trying at least a little to do the latter.

I find it interesting that you talk about a "recovery process" in relation to this whole thing. Do you advocate a "college process rehab" place somewhere? Maybe in the Yukon Territory, where there are no computers or cell phone service? Might not be a bad idea, really.

As for my former employer, well, you seem to have very exacting standards of "good taste." I haven't said even a fraction of what I could say. That's for another time.

Barbara said...

Well said, Will in your response to Anonymous.


Blog Archive

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