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The college admissions process: Parents, we are the problem

September 29th, 2005 · 5 Comments

One spring morning, I observed a strange social interaction while I was walking in downtown Bainbridge Island, along Winslow Way. Near the crosswalk in front of the grocery store, I noticed a few women starting a conversation as their paths intersected. Without “hi” or “hello”, as I remember, they suddenly started saying sentences such as “Peter’s going to UC Berkeley.” These mothers were sharing their children’s college decisions. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it was the way in which they spoke, without greeting each other or sharing other news, that concerned me. These women probably were not best friends. And they were probably at least good acquaintances. The state of their social relationship permitted and condoned this kind of conversation. I’m certainly missing some context. Yet I thought it was strange. I’ve heard that in certain Asian cultures, one of the first questions people ask each other is how much money they make. This conversation seemed to be a similar sizing up of status. Instead of money, though, it was college admissions that mattered to these women.

Sunday’s Seattle Times carried an article The Admissions Obsession describing the pressures of college admissions and also the mission of Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy. From the website:

The Education Conservancy helps students, colleges and high schools overcome commercial interference in college admissions. By affirming educational values, EC works to reestablish educational authority, equity and access as college admission precepts. It unites educational principles with admission practices. It returns control of college admissions to those who are directly involved in education: students, colleges, parents and high schools. It calms the frenzy and hype that plague contemporary college admissions.

What intrigued me most in the newspaper article were the following paragraphs, quoting both Thacker and MIT’s dean of admissions, Marilee Jones.

High school has become a means to an end, Thacker says, recalling the father who asked him what sport his 9-year-old should play in order to get into an Ivy League school. Playing the harp becomes a means to getting into Oberlin. Attending the summer soccer camp turns into a line item on the application to Stanford. Going to the Galapagos for the summer gets milked in the interview with MIT.

“The message to the kids is, ‘We don’t really care about you as a person,’ ” MIT’s Jones says. “We care about the product. The seal of approval is the college you’re admitted to. That says, ‘Yes that school district was good, yes, that parent was good.’ It’s not about the kid.’ “

The article continued: […]

His advice to parents on how to prepare a child for college is this: Turn off the television. Let them ride the bike to the park and play Kick the Can. Read to them. Eat dinner together. It’s a dreamy replay of Thacker’s youth, when he built skateboards out of 2-by-4s.

Parents ask, why should I pay $40,000 to send my child to Hobart and William Smith Colleges when she could go to Princeton?

Are you buying prestige, Thacker asks, or are you investing in your child’s education?

Marilee Jones’ words hit me with their power and truth. How often do we look for validation in our children? How much do we seek approval in our children’s success?

I confess I’ve cried over my children’s struggles. And yet I wonder whether I am crying for them or for myself. Probably some of both. Am I upset that they are having a hard time? Or am I concerned what others will think of me as a mom? And am I worried that already they aren’t headed to Harvard?

How many kids grow up with Thacker’s advice, turning off the tv and playing Kick the Can in the street? Which ones of us in the middle class can afford that simplicity? The clock starts ticking for the kids, the resume starts been written, at age nine, and perhaps earlier.

I fear that we as parents put too much of our self-worth into our children’s achievements. The acceptance letter from Harvard or Stanford proves to us that the eighteen years of sacrifices, the shuttling and chaffeuring, the preschools and piano lessons were justified. We want that “seal of approval” that says we were good parents, indeed.

Adding more danger to the mix is the fact that many parents may leave their invested careers in order to take care of their children. There’s a temptation, I think, to channel the intense professional skills and energy into family life and activities. Now that women and men have more choices, I also think it’s easy to want to demonstrate that we parents made the right decisions, by churning out children who are the cream of the crop.

I felt Kathy Sierra’s post Paul Graham: “Dignity is deadly” fit with this college admissions article. To translate and transfer what she says about business into the world of parenting is to say that we lose our authenticity when we try to “be somebody”. Dignity is deadly because we are letting go of who we are.

That this need to meet professional expectations restricts us… perhaps even more than it enables a higher level of… what? Profits? Business? Clients? Respect?

This need to meet expectations leads to suffocation. When we are striving to be someone, we are restricting ourselves and losing who we are. Maybe our kids will get admitted to a good college. But maybe they won’t know who they are then.

Yes, I know my own kids are no where near college. And for all I know, someday I will be one of those moms exchanging college information on a street corner. Yes, I’d be naive not to say it could happen to me.

But what I’d like to see emerge from these discussions of college admissions is the fact that we parents are to blame. I suppose it sounds like a Cold War scenario. Unilateral disarmament is a big risk. If we are the only ones to stop pursuing activities and goals, then our children will suffer while others achieve and receive rewards.

Yet as we seek that seal of approval, I think we parents have to ask ourselves what our goals are. What does it mean to be a good mom? How will I know if I am a good parent? Is it about me?

Or is it about her? Is it about helping each of my daughters become the woman she was meant to be, no matter who that is? Is it about embracing our children, as we received them, and finding where they fit in the world, whether that is at Harvard or the hardware store?

As our kids play Kick the Can, can we play with them? Even if that means kicking away our expectations?

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris Ryland // Sep 29, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    Julie, as a homeschooling dad of eight, with three already of college age (two girls (frosh and senior) and a son who already dropped out after a year to be a cowboy/farrier in the south ;-), I can heartily recommend ‘getting out of the arms race.’

    I attended Harvard College (’72-’76) and can personally attest to its general emptiness even back then, other than as a meal ticket or a trade school. (Computer science, er, ‘applied math’ in my case.)

    We decided from the start of our home education efforts that we weren’t going to pursue the whole ‘professional’ route with our kids. Rather, we wanted them to be primarily ‘whole people’ with a true liberal education.

    Right now we’re sending the two girls to Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, California. TAC (as it’s called) is quite unique in the world, perhaps, for being the only true seminar-based, ‘great books’ education to be had, outside of St. John’s(Annapolis/Santa Fe). (We chose TAC because it’s unabashedly Catholic.) There are no electives and no lectures–only seminars. All from primary sources. The program recapitulates Western (and some Eastern) Civilization, including re-doing a fair bit of science ab initio. The kids really get a chance to wrestle directly with the greatest men and women that have passed on their best thoughts in writing.

    From spending a fair bit of time out there, and getting to know some of the tutors and students, I can’t recommend it more highly, though I know it’s early for your kids: .

  • 2 Chris Ryland // Sep 29, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    (Err, that’s http://www.thomasaquinas.edu for the missing link.)

  • 3 Mark A. Hershberger // Sep 29, 2005 at 7:31 pm

    I didn’t find college to be emptiness. For me, it was an awakening. But, then, I went to a public univerisity.

    I do somewhat envy the cultural literacy of my friends who went to those schools that use original sources and such. I somewhat regret my comp sci degree (except that I would’ve found it a little more difficult to get work doing what I wanted to do with a liberal arts degree.)

    Still, I agree that too many people see college as just another step into the big rat race that only ends when you die. Why people want to be in the rat race is beyond me. Well, not entirely. But why compete with so many imaginary expectations?

  • 4 Dori // Sep 30, 2005 at 8:44 pm

    But what I’d like to see emerge from these discussions of college admissions is the fact that we parents are to blame.

    What I’d like to see emerge is the fact that colleges get whatever they reward. So long as they reward kids (by accepting them) who are the products of the push-push-push culture, that’s what they’re going to get.

    Parents, imo, ought to blame themselves less. OTOH, we’re deep into the college admissions insanity at the moment, so I will admit to a certain amount of bias.

    When MIT comes up with a new method that doesn’t include sports-school band-student body officer-foreign travel-super volunteer-eagle scout-whatever as a prerequisite for admission, then I’ll believe that things are actually changing.

    [Note: for the record, my son has done no sports, no instruments, no elected office, and no foreign travel. We still have hopes for him getting into a good school, but it’ll have to be one that doesn’t require all the ticket-punching.]

  • 5 Bob V // Oct 1, 2005 at 8:07 am

    A few posts ago, Julie critiqued a People Magazine cover that juxtaposed an evaluation of celebrity attire and coverage of the Katrina debacle. She sighted this as a clear illustration between the haves and the have-nots.

    I think an even more clear distinction exists here. It is between those parents who obsess over where their children go to college and those who don’t care if they go to college.

    Among those parents who do obsess, I don’t think there is much to be gained from merely telling them to relax and let their kids play kick-the-can. You will probably get farther by asking them why exactly they want them to go to college. Asking them to refocus on what their real goals are (e.g. good job) might help them put things in perspective.

    The command “Relax!” won’t change behavior of wound-up parents.

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