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What’s the Role of a Parent in the College Journey?  Let It Be an Opportunity, not a Chore

Posted by Mary Kate McCain, Associate Director of College Counseling on Apr 26, 2019 9:17:15 AM

I received a call recently from a junior parent, asking, “What should I be doing right now?” It was a simple question, but I knew what was behind it. How do I help? What is my role?  

3In what is a student-directed process, parents often feel adrift because they don’t have clear marching orders. And too often, through the fog of the unknown -- the anxiety of expectations and stress of deadlines -- we lose sight of the real opportunity for growth that the college process offers the parent-child relationship. The conversations spent picturing the future, the time spent together on road trips, and the discussion of intended areas of study are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, unique to both the college process and this small window of time in our children’s lives. To not take advantage of this chance to better know your child is a wasted opportunity. Like so many things, the key is balance and communication. Humor helps.  So do patience and an open mind. We asked a handful of Tabor parents for their thoughts on how they tried to achieve balance and perspective throughout the process.  Here are some of their thoughts.

Balance

Taking an approach that views the process in its entirety, rather than episodic (research, visits, applications, decisions) is helpful. One parent shared, “ I think this “balance” between letting them be independent and being there to advise them is hard…As parents, we want our kids to have great options for college, but more importantly, we want them to feel more self-confident at the end of it all.” Another said, “Keeping quiet on college tours and letting her tell me what she thought of each school was important.”

Start Early

Another parent focused on getting an early start on the topic so deadlines and time constraints weren’t adding to the stress, “Lots of listening and finding the time to talk about college and visiting schools well ahead of time helped reduce stress going into senior year.” 

Support

But, of course, there are times to intervene, when the parenting impulse isn’t lying and doesn’t need to be checked. But when? And how do you know? One parent shared, “I think I stepped in most often when I felt he was getting down on himself.  I told him that he didn’t have to answer every question posed by well-meaning relatives or friends. He was allowed to say ‘I don’t know’ when his grandparents asked him where he was planning to apply.” 4

Have Fun

The highlight of the process for most of the parents – the road trips. “By far my favorite moments were the college visits over the years.  Some stressful, some funny, all a great time spent with the kids helping them see themselves in the next phase of their journeys.” But for one parent, “Watching my child hit send on the first application and watching my child’s face was by far the most rewarding!” As a college counselor, I can attest to that. I sat with a senior last year when he submitted his first college application, and the look of joy and pride was unmistakable. He turned to me and said, “I just did something important.”

The college process should be a partnership between child, parent and college counselor: a true partnership, with clearly defined roles worked out in advance. This is crucial because we know a couple of things to be true – high school is over before you know it; managing stress and expectations is important; your child will be attending college, not you; and in the end, it always works out.

Have a conversation with your child early in the process that leads to an agreement about how you are going to partner up. Parents likely will cover expenses for college visits, but how much? Students must write their own essays, but will they want to share with their parents? Students must research colleges, but will parents have veto power? And the list goes on. It might work best to create this agreement with your college counselor, who has witnessed the working relationships between parents and students over many years.

If we all agree that finding the right college is about finding the right fit, like a good pair of jeans, it is the students who need to try them on for size. If you are wondering what you should be doing right now, you’ll never go wrong when you listen, support, appreciate, and love.

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Topics: College Counseling