My ex-husband sent me a list of recommended summer reading last week. All of the books were suggested by college admissions counselors and are aimed to get parents ready for the competitive and perplexing college admissions process. I deleted his message.
I have agreed to take my daughter on a quick tour of college campuses this summer, just to get a sense of scale and culture. My own parents drove me to a few schools near my southern California home when I was growing up. We visited Pepperdine, with its luxurious dormitories and expansive view of the Pacific. And we drove by busy, industrial Cal Poly Pomona, where my father enrolled because he was fired from the telephone company for having too many speeding tickets and didn't want my mom to get mad at him. "But honey, I enrolled in college!"
When I was a girl, parents didn't meddle the way they do now.
I applied to college on my own and clearly didn't have all of the pertinent information. I remember my high school guidance counselor calling me in one afternoon to let me know that I might be eligible for a scholarship for Irish students. I had to inform her that I am not Irish. My college admission choice was based primarily on finances and proximity to my high school boyfriend.
I don't remember feeling pressure from my parents to attend any specific school (except one that was far away from my high school boyfriend). There was no parental competition among their friends. No one put Ivy League stickers on the rear windows of their cars.
In those days, in my world, we just grew up and did the best we could.
My daughter will be a junior in high school in the fall. Granted, she isn't a typical high school kid. But who is? Diagnosed at age 3 with autism, she remained in public school until half way though eighth grade. It got to be too much for her, and she came home and spent the rest of middle school working with me as well as a gracious tutor at our kitchen table. Freshman year, she enrolled at a really small, specialized school at which she has thrived. She's very intelligent and has big plans for her future. Her current goal is to be the ambassador to Japan.
I have helped many friends' kids with their college essays over the years. The competition is intense and the pressure on these kids is unimaginable. The parents I run into these days talk of little else. And I realize even the parents of older children, those who have already been to college, still focus their conversations on the achievement of their kids.
I don't know where the balance lies between being an advocate for your child and counting their achievements as your own.
Clearly, as adults, we've experienced more than our teenagers have. There are careers that I had never even heard of when I went to college. There are possibilities that I didn't consider. Just as my own knowledge is limited, so was that of my parents. They had a singular way of looking at things; just as I interpret the world through my own lens. I can only tell my daughter what I have come to believe and to guide her to seek counsel from those she admires. And yet, there is something in a teenager that is miraculous. There's an elemental spark that we, as adults have mostly doused with time, indifference and accumulated disappointment. Our children believe that they can make a difference, they are trying to make sense of every agony and injustice and they are still willing to seek solutions to problems we've accepted as fact.
The best thing that we can do for our children is let them know that their voices matter. They have something unique to contribute to the world and that can only be accomplished when they are willing to trust themselves and make their own path.
We should remind them that there are options, there are choices and we all design our lives in different ways. There is no singular best-practice formula for a good and meaningful life.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.