Can Parents Be Too Supportive?

The stories are so prevalent they don’t even bring a giggle anymore: parents who follow their son when the college interviewer calls his name, saying they are ready for “their” interview; the mother who “tweaks” her high school senior’s college essay by rewriting its entirety; the father who says he doesn’t care what school his daughter attends as along as its his alma mater; or the “really good” parents who don’t open the long-awaited envelope from the favored university, waiting impatiently to hand it to their child at the front door, then later admit the only reason they didn’t open it is because they could see faintly through the envelope that it was an acceptance.

These parents, while well-meaning, are all examples of why psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld labeled parenting “the most competitive sport in America,” pointing out in his book Hyper-Parenting, “If you can put a Harvard, Yale, or MIT sticker on the back of the BMW, you’ve won.”

Parents must be invested in the choice process, since they are often footing the bill, but there are limits to how far parental involvement should stretch. Ivy-League-hopeful parents aren’t the only ones trying too hard, either.

We want the best for our children, and sometimes forget that means letting them handle things themselves. According to Rosenfeld, under these parents’ competitive sport spirit lie, “complicated psychological dynamics intrinsic to every parent-child relationship: separation and individuation, power and control, mastery and dependence.”

When parents “kid-manage” their child into a top school, the entire family-affair situation becomes more than a little dysfunctional. Unless parents are going to go away to Harvard with Junior (not unheard of, of course), the child will be the one who has to survive the stress of day-to-day college life at a school he didn’t actually get himself into.

Parents argue that they know their child is capable, but the admittance procedure is too competitive. That may be true, but college admissions officers aren’t fooled.

“I can tell when an adult has doctored an essay,” said William Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University. He admits that when parents help too much, it throws the whole application process into doubt—and not necessarily in the student’s favor—and the essay tells him a lot when it’s been tweaked. He explains, “It’s better crafted, but it’s not as compelling. It eliminates the voice of the 17-year-old. We’re not admitting 45-year-olds.”

While parents mean well, such overwhelming involvement may actually keep their children from gaining what is really best for them. Some students ignore gut feelings about where they really want to attend, and chose the school mom and dad attended, or the one with the best rankings. Others may dismiss the perfect school because mom doesn’t like the campus, or dad likes the big school better.

What it all boils down to is the choice and application process is one of the most important ways for students to assert their true identities in a truly adult manner. Self-knowledge is critical for a student leaving home for college, but how much self-knowledge can they recognize if their college identity has too much of their parents’ DNA? While it can be argued the application process is skewered sometimes, at its best it can be the first important adult decision that can lead to a more confident future.

Defining the Parent’s Role

You must remember that this is your child’s show. While you play an integral role in the selection process, from both a financial and advisory capacity, you are not the star and you should not try to direct.

It’s okay to have high aspirations for your son or daughter, and to provide suggestions he or she may not have considered. You can suggest proper dress and straighten your son’s tie, but do not follow him into the admissions interview.

Give your child the chance to accept your help. Ask, “What can I do?” rather than saying, “You should…”

Help without taking over. You can call colleges for information and resources, as well as schedule interviews (at your child’s request, of course). Everyone’s lives get busier every day, and college admissions officers know that extracurricular activities may limit the time your child has to make such calls during business hours.

What admissions officers don’t like is the student making the call and they hear a parent coaching in the background, telling the student what to say.

While your 16 or 17-year-old probably still needs to gain organizational skills, juggling a huge project like choosing a college may be overwhelming. You can help in the selection process by assuming some of the tedious organizational aspects, and your child will learn from your model.

But again, ask if he would like you to help—make him make the decision. Then only do what you’ve agreed to do. Don’t take on more because you don’t see your student working quickly enough on it.

And remember that this is leading to a new phase in your life as well. When your child leaves for college, you will have the chance to pause, relax, and reflect.

You will be gaining new time and new options. While your child is planning her future, you might want to think about what changes you might want to make in your own.

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