Do you hover low to the ground, micromanaging your collegebound kids from a helicopter pilot seat directly overhead?
Or, in contrast to so-called helicopter parents, do you assume your not-quite-yet-launched kids need so little oversight you become what parenting educator Michael Popkin calls a satellite parent? (Hint: Your kids complain you’re so far in outer space not even the longest-distance phone plan reaches you.)
Then again, you might think your chosen distance is just right-even if your kids (not to mention their guidance counselors and prospective college admissions officers) wildly disagree. To identify an air zone both can share, take the following quiz.
1. MEET THE PARENTS (COLLEGE-PREP VERSION):
Your high schooler and the school guidance counselor set a meeting to discuss college possibilities. Because such decisions affect family dynamics (not to mention finances), the school invites the parents, too. You:
A. Assume this means you’re welcome to attend every meeting, then wonder why the guidance counselor isn’t ecstatic when you announce where we’re applying, even as you hand over a professionally assembled press kit for your kid (including resume and DVD) and your handpicked list of superelite schools. Haven’t you just saved everybody a lot of work?
B. Blow off the appointment. “It’s your education, not mine. If you’re mature enough to go to college, you’re mature enough to make decisions without me.”
C. R.S.V.P. and listen like a fly on the wall. Voice opinions in moderation: The focus should be your child, not you.
ANSWER: The royal “we’re applying” (A) sets off an automatic “you’re flying too low for comfort” warning signal. Your child’s applying, not you. But being totally hands off (B) risks shutting the door at a time your child needs to know you’re available to talk through possibilities. To find a balance (C), Judy Hingle, career connections specialist with the Fairfax County (Va.) public schools and former director of professional development at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, suggests imagining you’re looking for a job, and your family is advising you. “A light bulb should go on,” she says, about the difference between helping and meddling, as well as between letting your child have space and sending the message you’re just not into his future.
2. WELCOME TO REALITY:
Your high schooler has identified schools whose programs fit her interests and whose admissions profile is a good match. You look at her list and:
A. Hit the roof. “Don’t tell me you’re not good enough for an Ivy!” you fume. “These schools aren’t good enough for you!”
B. Shrug. “All those school brochures look the same to me.”
C. Are impressed by a list that shows thoughtful self-evaluation, with a range of schools based not on high status but on interests and academic record.
ANSWER: Helicopter parents may fly low to the ground, but their expectations (A) can be overly high, while satellites (B) distance themselves from the application process. Popkin, author most recently of Taming the Spirited Child, comments, “If you have a child who is self-motivated, that’s one thing; but most kids need a certain amount” of parental involvement to explore evolving choices. A realistic parent (C) looks objectively at the student’s academic record-including what it might look like through the lens of each school, suggests Holly Thompson, a Palo Alto (Calif.) secondary-school teacher and college parent who has also been a high school counselor and college admissions officer. “There’s this myth if you do something to grab the attention of an admissions officer, it will help your child get in. It would probably be more useful to look at the statistics for that college and see” how it matches your child’s record.
3. THE COLLEGE OF WHOSE DREAMS?
Time to visit campuses. Your role is to:
A. Plan the itinerary, cramming in as many schools as possible. At each one, inundate both student guide and admissions officer with questions you know your son won’t think to ask, meanwhile furiously taking mental notes so you can spell out pluses and minuses.
B. Beg off the trip; it would mean missing your weekend golf game.
C. Offer to go, but don’t insist if he prefers doing it himself. If you do go, allow your son to tell you what he thinks before sharing your thoughts.
ANSWER: You’ll get no extra credit (A) for monopolizing the tour guide but will probably succeed in embarrassing your child. And before talking up or trashing a school too much, remind yourself: “Who’s going to college in September?” Still, visiting campuses as a family can be an opportunity to bond and just have fun together. So rather than excuse yourself (B), why not add a golf match to the mix? However you arrange the trip (C), let your kids do the talking, says Hingle. “You’re the listener, the sounding board, not the decider.”
4. COACHING 101(TEST PREP VERSION)
It’s junior year, the start of SAT/ACT season. Though it’s still early in the year, you:
A. Worry. True, your child has taken test-prep courses since middle school, but is that enough? Should you hire a tutor? These tests are do-or-die!
B. Tune out. It’s just another test.
C. Talk to your child about schools he’s considering and the tests they require or recommend. Use that as a guide to discuss whether he needs, or wants, help preparing and what would work best.
ANSWER: For middle schoolers and high school sophomores, pursuing interests is a better use of time than SAT review courses (A), parenting experts agree. But ignoring the tests (B) may not be realistic, given that most colleges require or recommend the SAT or ACT. Nonetheless, think about review courses (C) “only once you know what areas you need to strengthen, if at all,” says Thompson. The only universal bottom line: Keep track of test registration deadlines!
5. ADVICE WITHOUT CONSENT: LET ME ASSAY YOUR ESSAY!
Application deadlines loom. Your daughter has completed the essay. Your job is to:
A. Rewrite it according to what you think the college wants to hear: not that she’s another aspiring theater major but a practical-minded future nursing home administrator!
B. Say, “Finally!”
C. Offer congratulations; ask if she’d like you to proofread.
ANSWER: Proofreading (C) is a fine idea, and some adult feedback is par for the course. So is breathing a sigh of relief (B)-just leave out the nonsupportive digs. At the opposite extreme (A), “admissions officers can spot an essay written by a hired gun,” says Katy Rinehart, who spent 14 years as an admissions officer at Hampshire College and is now director of college guidance at Moorestown (N.J.) Friends School. Case in point: The parents’ intervention in the real-life case above (A) resulted in a rejection.
6. IF THE DEADLINES DON’T KILL YOU,WILL THE REJECTIONS?
It’s April: Two target schools said yes and two reach schools said no, while your child’s No. 1 choice offered a place on the wait list. Your reaction:
A. You can’t let your child be disappointed like that! The school screwed up! You place calls to everyone on the wait-list school staff you can think of to lobby on your child’s behalf.
B. “You didn’t get in where you wanted? Get used to rejection, kid. This is life.”
C. Help your child recognize that even though she may feel disappointed, she still has options, and life does go on.
ANSWER: The impulse to protect our children from pain (A) may be understandable, says Rinehart, but “I don’t know of a single admissions decision that has been changed because of an angry parent call.” What parents can do is present a model of how to handle disappointment: not with blame and outrage (A) or school of hard-knocks cynicism (B) but with a measured overview (C) of what happened and what comes next.
7. DOLLARS AND CENTS,OR THE MONEY MIND MELD
And now comes news of each school’s financial package-or lack thereof. You start crunching the numbers and declare:
A. “We can afford any of these schools. If we’re paying, we choose the school-not your first choice but ours.”
B. “Which school’s cheapest? We have our beach house to keep up!”
C. “Let’s look at the numbers together, so we can talk about the pros and cons of each school and each financial option.”
ANSWER: “When seniors get to April and say their parents won’t pay a school’s tuition,” says Thompson, the former admissions officer, “I think: Why didn’t they have this conversation last fall?” Discussions should include budget parameters (B); who’s paying (or not) for what (A); availability of scholarships or financial aid; and how location (near vs. far) affects transportation costs. That will make (C) part of an ongoing conversation that teaches your child about financial planning, family decision making, and fiscal responsibility.
8. IT DEPENDS ON HOW YOU DEFINE GOODBYE:
Your child is in his new dorm room; it’s time for you to:
A. Move into your new house, minutes from campus. You’d miss him too much, and worry too much, if you were farther away!
B. Turn your son’s room into your den.
C. Do the math: College semesters are shorter than those of most high schools; add up Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer breaks, plus long weekends, and you’ll have lots of chances to be together.
ANSWER: Separation anxiety is understandable, but if you’re not able to tolerate time and distance apart (A), how can you teach your kids to do so? Yet transitions take time, and an abrupt makeover of your child’s room sends the message he really can’t come home again. A middle ground (C) means understanding that dropping kids off at college is not the same as dropping out of each other’s lives, points out Mike Riera, head of Redwood Day School in Oakland, Calif., and author of Staying Connected to Your Teenager.
9. ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE CELLPHONE RINGS:
Your daughter’s being away at college hasn’t made such a difference. Especially since:
A. You’re her personal alarm clock, calling every morning to wake her for class. And E-mail makes it easier than ever to edit her papers or help her decide which dress to buy!
B. “I didn’t see her that much when she lived here, either.”
C. You stay in touch via E-mail and cellphone, at least once a week-more, depending on what’s happening at home or on campus.
ANSWER: Daily calls and E-mails don’t necessarily constitute helicopter parenting, Riera comments; frequency of checking in depends on family communication style-as well as the need to keep in touch in an illness or emergency (C). But when calls and E-mails cross the line (A) into micromanaging or vicariously living your kids’ lives, you risk creating a codependency, he warns: “Students have to have some mystery in their lives.” Disconnecting altogether (B) may save cellphone bills, but you lose something more important: your relationship.
10. TO BUTT IN OR NOT TO BUTT IN:
My son sounded so blue on the phone. Maybe I should:
A. Head to his college to fix the problem. Should we think about transferring to another school?
B. Remind him he’s the one who wanted to leave home.
C. Wait and see; give him time to find his way before barging in.
ANSWER: “When your kid has a problem in college,” says Riera, “90 percent of the time the right response is, ‘I’m not sure what the answer is, but you’re resourceful, and I think you’ll work it out.'” (C) That doesn’t mean you should ignore his mood (B) any more than you should initiate a quick-fix transfer (A). “Growing pains of first semester almost certainly pass,” Riera advises. But listen up for the 10 percent chance that something is amiss-an undiagnosed illness, for instance, or an unhealthy binge-drinking scene-when you really may need to call the resident adviser to see what’s going on. As too many campus incidents have shown, a pattern of erratic, risky, or unexplained behavior-whether by your child’s friends or your child himself-can be an important red flag, a cause for both scrutiny and concern.