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Separating Parent & Teen College Dreams

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Separating Parent & Teen College Dreams

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter, a high school junior, to visit a college an hour away from our home. On paper, the school seemed like a good fit for her. But between the tour, the information session and the other students we met on campus, it became clear that the school would not be a good match for her.

On the ride home my daughter and I got into a little argument. We had already seen several schools and she was frustrated because she had not fallen in love with any of them. I countered that she wasn’t being open-minded and that no school was going to be perfect.

Later on I realized what was really bothering me. We had already looked at almost all the schools on her list that were within driving distance. The next step would be to look at schools that require a long train or plane ride. I wanted her go to college close to our home so that I could keep her close to me. Like every parent sending a child off to college soon – I was having a hard time letting go.

Letting Go

For parents, distinguishing their feelings from their child’s can be hard. Parents may push a certain agenda, rationalizing that they know what is best for their child. But these “children” are on their way to being adults and it is up to them to decide what they want as far as college, a career, etc.

Christine K. VanDeVelde, journalist and coauthor of the book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, says, “All parents have long held fantasies of who their children are and who they will become. They may not even be able to even recognize or articulate these feelings.”

“College admission is the end of a child’s childhood and day to day taking care of them,” says Michael Thompson, PhD and author of the book, Homesick and Happy. “Which college a teen chooses to attend is rarely that significant a question. The real questions are ‘How closely connected will we be? Are they grown up enough to handle college? And ultimately, did I do a good job as a parent?’”

WE Are Not Applying

“Be careful with the royal ‘we’ experience,” says VanDeVelde, “Many times you hear parents say ‘We applied to …’ but in fact, their child applied. The teen is the only person applying and going to college. Where to go to college needs to be their decision alone. Because when they get to college they will be there alone and have to live with that decision alone.”

Well-intentioned parents may not even realize they are living vicariously through their teen. A parent who had an amazing college experience may want their child to go to their alma mater and relive their glory days. Conversely, a parent that didn’t have a good experience or couldn’t get into or afford the college of their choice might transfer this dream to their child rather than allowing the child to live their own dream.

A parent that has gone to a highly ranked school may expect their teen to go a college equally as prestigious college. Unfortunately, given the intense competition and low percentage of acceptance rates at these top tier schools, this may not be a realistic goal.

Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University and co-founder of Challenge Success says, “Parents need to be wary of ‘parent peer pressure’ and a belief that their child is their masterpiece. Many parents want their child to go to a ‘name’ school because of how it will reflect on them, but status should not factor into a teen’s college choice.” Adds Thompson, “People like BMWs and designer clothes, and they like fancy college bumper stickers for their cars. The problem is this type of thinking shoe horns kids to apply to schools that may not be the right fit for them.”

Final Test

One of the reasons many parents get so overly involved in their teen’s college application process is because they view it as some sort of final parenting test.

Thompson recalls a parent who came to him halfway through her son’s junior year suggesting he take up a certain sport to give him a competitive edge in his application. Says Thompson, “She went as far as buying some expensive training equipment for a sport her son had no interest or talent in. It was so silly but she was motivated by fear and the worry that she hadn’t done everything she could for her son. But really, what parent has done everything?”

Parents should not look at where their teen goes to school as a final grade on their parenting. Says Thompson, “If parents think where their child goes to college is a grade on eighteen years of parenting, that is crazy. Parents can’t give college administrators that type of psychological power in their mind.”

Having Faith

I have a friend whose son goes to school in California. Many people have said to her, “I would never let my child go to college on the West Coast. What if he falls in love with it and never comes back?”

This type of thinking is not uncommon. Thompson says, “Their departure is going to break your heart but it shouldn’t. They are going to be alright and so are you.” Pope adds, “Teens are suppose to separate, it’s a healthy sign of independence. Even if they attend school close by they shouldn’t be coming home all the time.”

Remember, too, that separation is also hard for the teen. In the case of my own daughter, I realized that part of the reason she has not liked any of the schools we have seen is her own fear about leaving home. She is not sure she is ready to be on her own and that is understandable considering she has lived with us for seventeen years. Luckily we both have another year to get used to the idea and we are able to speak honestly about our feelings.

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