Independence Day – A Note to Parents

One of my current clients is a girl I’ve known since she was 11 years old.  We first met when she moved her horse into the boarding barn where my gelding lives.  She’s currently a rising senior in high school with a near-perfect GPA, a better-than-average ACT score, and aspirations of doing something in the psychology field.  In the time I’ve known her, I’ve watched her grow from an awkward kid on a very steady older Thoroughbred to a fearless competitor in Level 3 jumpers on a very challenging Trakhener mare she’s trained herself.  Meanwhile, our conversations about what she’s doing in school have changed from the trials of middle school life to discussing what AP courses will most benefit her as she transitions to college.

My student and her tricky Trakhener mare at a schooling show a few winters ago. She’s fearless when it comes to jumping, but the college search understandably causes her some moments of fear. (Photo credit: Jim Stafford)

To say that I have a vested interest in this particular client of mine would (obviously) be an understatement.  And while I pride myself on a high level of professionalism and I’m largely able to keep personal feelings and emotions away from the advice I give to the students who seek my counsel, this time I have to admit that it’s different.  This client has opened my eyes to the parent side of the college search equation.

I’d say this new viewpoint has been a good thing, however – and here’s why:

Anyone who has read books on parenting recently is probably familiar with many of the terms that colleges and other educational organizations have attached to the parents of this generation of “Millenial” students.  Admittedly, when I was a college admission counselor, my coworkers and I used them to describe parents who were so intent on getting their child into the right educational situation that they sometimes made it very challenging for us to do our jobs.  Words like “helicopter parent,” “tiger mom,” and even “Blackhawk” were (and still are!) the words we used to describe parents who turned the art of the college admission process into an “Us vs. Them” war, wherein “Us” was the student and family and “Them” was the college.  And back in my admission days, when confronted by one of those dreaded Blackhawks that not only hovered intently around each and every facet of his or her child’s life, but had also mastered the sneak attack on an unsuspecting college admission counselor (a.k.a. me), all I wanted was for that parent to give their child the space and independence to seize control of their own college search process.

Let’s fast-forward to last March, shall we?

That was when I took my student to the Detroit National College Fair.  There we were, in a situation that was very familiar to me (indeed, I’d worked that fair in years past) and one that would be a great experience for my student because many of the schools she is interested in were in attendance.  Yet when I turned to look at her, I saw absolute trepidation cross her face.  We’re talking deer-in-the-headlights “Oh good lord, what is happening?!” panic.

Forgive my shock, but all I could think was that this is the very same kid who points her horse at four foot fences without batting an eyelash.  This girl has ridden out some hairy bucks that would have put many a talented rider on the ground – myself included – and stuck to the tack in situations that I’m not even sure Olympians would have managed to come out of.  There’s not a fearful bone in her entire body – or so I thought.

Suddenly I realized exactly where all of those helicopter parents had been coming from.  Since we were in my element (and in a room with many people whom I’ve known for years), it would have been ever so easy for me to step up to the tables for the schools she was interested in, ask all of the pointed questions she needed answers to, get her barcode scanned so she could be added to school mailing lists, and handle the entire situation so smoothly that she never would have had to say a single word.  And had it not been for all of my previous experience with students and parents in the exact same situation, I probably would have done it, too.  But that’s what separates the educational consultants from the parents – and when I let that experience take over, the coolest thing happened:

The confident kid who jumps four-foot oxers returned.

I confess, I may have helped start the process – but I didn’t hover in true helicopter fashion (much as the emotionally-invested part of me may have wanted to).  Instead, I led my student up to the first table, introduced her to the representative behind it, and stepped back.  We repeated the exercise at several other tables that night and then walked out of the fair with a lot of good information and a newly-found sense of confidence for her.  It’s that confidence she’s going to carry with her into her campus visits and later on when she moves into that first-year dormitory – which is what I have to remind myself every time I think about hovering and helping her too much with this process.

So parents, that’s my advice to you as we wrap up the weekend following America’s Independence Day:  Help and support your kids as much as you can, but not so much that you stifle their independence in this process.  Remember, these are the kids that you’ve been paying for riding lessons for since they were just starting out on ponies and they’ve now grown into young adults who steer 1,200 pound horses around freakishly high jump courses or through the most intricate dressage tests or execute high speed reining patterns.  Compared to all of that, choosing a college should be a breeze!

(And if you or your student needs outside support during this process, contact me.  I’m happy to help!)

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