Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: Those of us who have teenagers know that it's a mixed blessing. Very mixed. On the one hand, there's the likelihood they will be leaving our houses after they graduate from high school and head off to college. We can't imagine how they will be able to take care of themselves. Sometimes the worry keeps us up nights. We know that our hearts will break.
On the other hand ... well, for a lot of us, the anticipation of our teenager leaving the house has a kind of silver-lining quality. We'll turn their bedroom into a guest room! We'll no longer have to endure half-hour-long battles every morning trying to rouse a seemingly comatose teenager from her bed, facing a snarling wrath that makes us wonder why she never tried out for a role in an "Exorcist" remake. The house will no longer smell of hockey bag and hair product. OK, so our hearts will still break.
But before we reach that point, we need to get the teenagers into college. And if you've been reading anything in the news lately, you know that it's much, much harder to do that today than when we were the ones applying to schools. It's estimated that this year's crop of college applicants will be the largest in U.S. history -- which means that the competition is even more cutthroat and the pressure has reached unbearable levels (especially if you live in one of those suburban towns that prides itself on having "good schools").
While every family is different, it seems like all of us are feeling that extra anxiety. So here are a few ground rules to help parents handle college application season.
Don't believe the hype
A lot of what I read about applying to colleges seems to apply to, well, some other family. We're not likely to be sending our teenager to an Ivy League school, nor send applications (at $50 to $100 a pop) to two dozen schools. I'm guessing we're not the only ones, but when I read articles in the New York Times and Washington Post
, it feels like every other parent out there is spending thousands of dollars on coaches and application consultants to try to get their kids into just the right school. But those who work in the field say they're horrified by how overinvolved and pressure-driven today's parents are, and they recommend calming down. Don't start researching colleges for your ninth grader, and if your twelfth grader hasn't totally finalized his list yet, that's OK.
Do help, Don't take over
Choosing where to apply, completing the application and deciding where to go to college are some of the first truly huge decisions your teenager will make, and how she navigates this path will have big implications for her future. So yes, she deserves your guidance and your expertise. But no, you cannot do it for her -- neither the choosing
nor the writing of essays. This is her life, her job, her course to map. As hard as it is, now is the time to practice that exquisitely painful job of letting go. How you manage to walk alongside her, neither pushing nor dragging, is a good window into how your future relationship will go, as you begin to make the transition from caregiver of a child to parent of a (young) adult. Your child might make some bad choices, will definitely face rejection, may openly defy you to make choices that seem terribly wrong at the time (some of which will turn out to be right). This is the hardest part of parenting, by far, but if you play your cards right you will have a good relationship with your son or daughter long after they leave your house -- and they might even invite you to stay in theirs for holidays a decade or two into the future.
As they enter adulthood, savor the childhood that's ending
One thing I've learned over 17 years of parenting my daughter is that no matter how rocky things get, we can always reconnect over cookies and ice cream. When she was little, we would sit down together and watch Disney movies -- "Mulan," "Pocahontas" -- and snuggle together on the couch. Now that she's older, I sit with her and watch whatever she wants -- "Gossip Girl," "Jersey Shore" -- entertainment I wouldn't always choose but which always leads me into better understanding her and the generation she's growing up in. Spending time in her world, putting myself into her shoes -- this is how we've stayed connected throughout her childhood. Now that she's about to leave us, it seems more crucial than ever that we share these moments. Looking together at her future is so exciting but so scary, with so many things unknown, that sometimes we both need to retreat into a shared past. Because no matter where she goes to college, or what path her life will take after that, she'll always have a spot on my couch, and her "Little Mermaid" ice-cream bowl.