The college admission scandal marked a new low in the annals of unethical parental behavior. The lying and scheming of the wealthy and well-connected to secure a college acceptance for their child both sickened and appalled. As an educator, counselor and parent, I too felt disbelief and revulsion, but it also gave me pause: in what ways am I over-involved with my own two teenagers? How will I act when they apply to college? Of what excess will I be guilty, intentional or not? Will I step over the line in my desire to do what is best for them? Will I be able to separate my own opinions and expectations from those of my children? Will I fall prey to “competitive parenting” and the societal hype around college admission? Will I have the presence of mind to listen attentively to the messages my children are sending, and to allow authenticity to prevail? How will I know if I have become that “helicopter parent” at whom everyone rolls their eyes? Will I be stuck to my children like Velcro or act like a snowplow, clearing their way of any obstacles or challenges?
Over my two decades as a school counselor, I have honed the ability to identify these behaviors in others, but I wonder if I will recognize them in myself? As a preventative measure, I reached out to colleagues in high school counseling and college admission to create a self-assessment. I asked them for their serious, silly, and salient clues to an over-involved parent. Here are their responses:
I might be a helicopter parent if…
- I start a conversation with, “I am not one of those helicopter parents, but…”
- I read my child's emails and respond to them.
- I fill out the visit form for my kid in the admission office lobby.
- I unintentionally enter my email when I fill out my child’s application.
- my question during the information session begins with, “My son would like to know if..."
- my child is only considering universities at least 2000 miles away from me.
- my child's Common Application lists his birthdate as 10/21/1972.
- I would like to see the residence hall I will be staying in.
- I rub every statue on a college campus for "good luck," even if it's not a tradition to do so.
- I have been banned from contributing to College Confidential.
- I buy a sticker from every college tour "just in case!"
- I consider changing my child's name to something that sounds like the college's founder.
- I call colleges when my student is in sixth grade to ask advice on course schedules and extracurriculars.
- I have accidentally signed my child's name on a document at work because it's become a habit.
- I have any admission office's phone number saved in my contacts.
- I text my child a talking point during their interview.
- I post on Facebook, "We submitted our college applications!"
- my child’s college essay sounds like it was written by a 45-year-old.
- I call the admission office pretending to be my child and get their login information for the portal to find out “my” decision.
- I create a “more important title" for a volunteer group my daughter is on so it sounds better for college applications.
- I hand out my business cards at the college fair on behalf of my son because he is too busy and couldn't attend.
- I am more concerned than my child is about that "dreaded" B-.
- I hand-write thank you notes to admission officers in obvious dad language and sign it from my son even though no 17-year-old boy writes like that.
- I ask for advance notice of the admission decisions to "mentally prepare" my child.
- the phrase, "This is their decision!" is immediately followed by, "But I think they really want..."
- my child receives an admission decision from a college he didn’t know he applied to.
- the college counselor recognizes my number...on their cell phone...on Christmas morning.
- colleges mistakenly address all mailing flyers to me, and not my child.
- every sentence my child says in college counseling meetings starts with "well, my dad wants me to..."
- I spend more time on Google Docs working on my child's college essay than my child does.
- I have an excel file listing all the people who might write recommendations on my child's behalf.
- I've directed my child into the extracurricular activities most preferred by elite colleges since they could walk.
- I show up uninvited to meetings my student has scheduled with their college counselor.
- I don't allow my student to take any ownership of their college process.
- I ask more questions on a campus tour than my student.
- I compare college lists/decisions at cocktail parties with other parents.
- I buy a college sweatshirt in my size.
The Landing Pad
Did you find yourself feeling a little uneasy as you read this list? Did some of these warning signs hit a bit too close to home? I would like to think I will not engage in any of these behaviors, but admission to college—and the perceived grandiosity of our child’s next step—can do funny things to people. I already find myself saying, “I could take care of this one small thing for my son” or “it would make my daughter’s life easier if I just…” It can be a challenge to distinguish between supportive parenting and helicoptering, as the ultimate intentions are the same. If you think you are tending more towards the later, don’t worry, it is not too late to stop the blades from whirling, and to bring the college search and application experience in for a smooth landing.
Here is a reading list to occupy your time while your child is in theircollege interview or busy writing their college essay:
If you are thinking, “Who has time to read a whole book?,” the Making Caring Common Project
at Harvard Graduate School of Education (where I serve as the college admission program manager) has the answer. The recently released report, Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process
offers seven guideposts for parents to approach this experience in an ethical, student-focused manner. Recommendations address everything from authenticity and excessive achievement pressure, to promoting equity and modeling gratitude.
While I know I will not attempt to lie, cheat or buy my children’s way into college, I need to remember that it is their journey. I will empower them to own it, with me in a supporting role. We love our kids and want the best for them. This is exactly why we, as parents, need to continually step back and check our innate urge to protect and provide. Instead, let us not fly for them, or over them—but with them.
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project