Q: Our family has been pretty fried with the college applications. My son isn’t taking it as seriously as he should, and we’re worried he won’t get in anywhere. He stays up late but can’t seem to get anything done. He is wasting time. My husband is upset because he really wants him to go to a good school, because he never did well in school. I had high hopes for him, but my nagging him isn’t getting us anywhere. I wonder if other parents are stressed too. I also wonder if you could write about how parents work hard for their kids and then they don’t appreciate what we do in helping them be successful.

A: The agony of late-night procrastination ... the stress of meeting the deadlines. This time of year is, for many, about processing college applications and writing the perfect “essay.” Trying to make the right decision — if there is such a thing when it comes to choosing the college that will be the “best” fit — can be pretty stressful. The right location, academics, faculty considerations and semester- abroad programs are typically parts of the selection process. Yet, there are more nuanced factors that each young person, like your son, is likely thinking about in terms of fitting in. I remember well the experiences with my own children and how they contrasted due to their very different temperaments and interests. Accompanying my daughter on a number of college tours, I observed how clear she was about liking or disliking the school very early in each campus tour. The difference with my son was that he knew before any tours that he wanted to have easy access to water and good snowboarding, so he decided during his high school senior year, after just one college visit, on the school he wanted to attend. Fortunately, they each managed to settle into an academic program that worked pretty well.

As you addressed, we all have certain dreams for our children, often influenced by our own childhood. As long as we remain conscious of that, managing to remain quiet unless consulted, our own expectations shouldn’t get in the way. Perhaps what we planned for college and/or our career did not work out, which, it sounds, might be the case for your husband. Thus it may be that you both are looking for vicarious resolution through your son’s choices, overlooking his needs in favor of your own. Are you encouraging him to follow a path that satisfies that? Whether you genuinely want “what’s best” for him, the outcome of your expectations can be disappointment, and sometimes anger. Some parents view their children as extensions of themselves, representing how well they parented, believing others will judge them accordingly. If their children don’t make the honor roll, or the varsity soccer team, it reflects negatively on them, or if they do achieve those goals, the news is proudly shared, with the belief they’re absolved of any parenting missteps.

Your child’s choice for college, as well as his acceptances and rejections, can be taken to heart. Consider whether the plan for him to attend a “good school” is his decision or your own unfulfilled dream. One parent shared his experience at his son’s sports award banquet: “I’m embarrassed to admit I was upset watching other players getting awards, and being talked about for their great athletic skills, when my son didn’t stand out to make me feel proud.” Another parent admitted she had unfulfilled dreams for her daughter, expecting she would be a high honors student, because that parent regretted she never did well in school. She anticipated her daughter would attend an ivy league college with scholarships, yet instead she decided to take a gap year and eventually go to a state school. This mom realized she was distressed by the choice that was significantly different from what she imagined. However, after graduation, she noticed that despite her disappointment, her daughter appeared happy with her choice. Isn’t that what matters most?

Disengaging from our children’s respective decisions, celebrating their achievements, while understanding our expectations for them, helps us to let go. That is our most important challenge: accepting who our child is rather than trying to shape him into someone we wish he would be. Early on, we can begin expecting our child to satisfy our expectations. One mom, extremely popular in school, expected the same for her daughter. Observing her daughter with only one or two good friends, she believed something was wrong, that she wouldn’t succeed in life. To her, being “successful” meant having numerous friends, being popular. Mom, being an extrovert, very sociable and adaptable, clashed with her daughter’s temperament: more of an introvert, slow to warm up, less adaptable.

Of course we want what’s best for our child, causing us to sometimes grapple with choices they make that are contrary to what we expect. We have expectations of what he should do, how he should behave, with the pride that that brings. Our support and unconditional acceptance are what matter most. Our own unfulfilled dreams can haunt us, causing us to nudge our child in a direction that we hope consummates those dreams. Stepping back, we can then see his path is not ours, that he is unique, with his own choices to make. We can either celebrate our independent child, who is shaping his own course, or we can be chronically disappointed in who he is. Our children have a great deal to teach us when we are open to learning from them. They simply want us to listen and accept the unique story within them. How things play out with college choices and the next leg of your son’s journey demands your support. This is a time of great change, transitioning from the security of home base to the outside world. Hopefully, as parents, we’ve done our job well, modeling the values that will sustain them, ensuring they are caring stewards of the earth, compassionate community builders, and thoughtful leaders. As they transition into this next chapter, it will seem they no longer need us, yet it’s important to remember they simply need us in different ways.

“Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” — Henry David Thoreau

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