Mommies and Me

A good friend who’s a college counselor at a small private school called me a few nights ago and let off some steam about some of the parents he was dealing with. Pushy, unrealistic, and completely disrespectful of his experience, dedication, and talents in the field, they were getting under his skin more than usual, it seemed. Despite his best efforts, all too many students were applying to upwards of a dozen schools for no reason other than that they could. It was getting to be all too much and he wondered how much longer he could take it.

I sympathized but inside I was gleeful no longer to be in that position. My time with the sad, desperate, and insecure mommies and daddies at my former school came to a sudden end this year and I’ve never looked back. I’m relieved no longer to be working with control freaks who plan out their children’s lives, ignorant adults who think that because they have PhDs or law or business degrees they know everything, haughty cowards who aren’t honest about their plans for their children, and emotionally fragile parents who take their children’s rejections from college harder than their children do. (In my experience, kids are far more resilient than their parents unless they’ve let their parents do everything for them). It must be hard raising children to be helpless, but many of these parents seem to be doing their best to make it happen.

Years ago, I had a mother tell me that if her child didn’t get into Harvard he’d “be a bum” but today things are subtler and more insidious. In particular I can’t help thinking about the parent who came to me this year in tears because her child hadn’t gotten into her first choice college. Despite the fact that the child had been admitted to every other college to which she had applied, the mommy focused on that one school. She was devastated that her child would be forced to go to a “lesser” college, despite that fact that she had an acceptance list that would be the envy of any student in any year. She visited me several times quivering and tearing up; I wondered what she expected me to do…I reminded her of the excellent choices her daughter had but to no avail. She was obsessed with the one school that was now inaccessible. I tried to be sympathetic, but clearly wasn’t sympathetic or perhaps outraged enough, since this mommy ended up visiting my colleague several times for extended shoulder-to-cry-on sessions. Perhaps she expected me to call the offending college and whip them into shape, something I wouldn’t have done even if I thought I could. (And for the record, I thought her daughter should have been admitted to that school. But such is life.)

I think also of the first time I sent a report of students’ successful applications to the school’s director. With our new Naviance program I was pleased to be able to show him in very concrete terms how excellently our seniors had fared with colleges big and small, “prestigious” and otherwise, all across the country. After looking the extensive list over for a few minutes, his first question was, “Can you do a report on where they didn’t get in?” I was stunned and not a little sickened. Despite a record of incredible success, he wanted to focus on the “failures.” When I returned with that list later, he had to dig the acceptance list out of the trash.

When schools and parents focus on “failure” instead of success in this area, there’s something very wrong. It’s one thing if no one is getting into college or procedural or systemic elements interfere with successful admissions, but it’s something else entirely when in the glow of successful applications those in charge can’t see anything but “failure.” To those whom much is given, it seems that much more is supposed to be added. If you have a great deal, you’re supposed to have it all, perhaps. Well, I pity those people and hope that one day they can revel in their children’s and students’ successes instead of wallowing in what didn’t happen. I don’t blame kids, but I do fault the parents and schools who teach them this “all or nothing” outlook and who need the imprimatur of a “prestigious” college acceptance to validate their children’s lives (and by extension themselves). they should be ashamed of themselves.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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