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Blocking Bulldozers

By Scott White

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Balance is tough, especially when it comes to boundaries with our children. As a college counselor, I tried hard to minimize my involvement in my own daughter’s college process. Yes, I supported her by taking her on multiple overnight college tours. But ultimately, it was her search, her choice.

One of my proudest moments as a parent was when she was being interviewed by our local paper about a scholarship she had won. She was asked, since her father was an experienced college counselor, whether I had helped her in the process. She remarked, “He left me alone.”

As college admission counseling professionals, we know the ways that parents handle their children’s challenges pervade the life of the child and have particular relevance in the college admission process.

Counselor Michael Thompson noted in Independent School that, for many parents, the college admission process “is the culmination of their child rearing, the end of the parental curriculum… the main testing ground of fears about incomplete or inadequate child rearing…”

The frantic involvement of many parents in the process is an attempt to assuage parental anxiety. Did I do a good job? Did I do everything the child needed? Did I prepare the child? Will this child have a good and productive life?

Additionally, we have a name brand problem in this country, where parents feel social pressure to get their kids into a recognized school. Said Thompson: “What comes closest to getting graded as parents: the status of the college to which the child is admitted.”

It’s amazing to me that otherwise laissez-fare parents can become so controlling during the college search and application process.

We are all familiar with the term “helicopter parent,” coined in 1990 by Jim Fay, a parenting and educational consultant, and Foster W. Cline, MD, a psychiatrist, in Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility.

We all know those parents who hover over a child in a way that runs counter to the parent's responsibility to raise a child to independence. The term is so pervasive that we even hear parents refer to themselves this way!

Author of How to Raise an Adult Julie Lythcott-Haims lists four cultural events or shifts which led to helicoptering behaviors:

  • The 1981 abduction of Adam Walsh led to America’s Most Wanted and photos of missing children on milk boxes
  • The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk led to led to No Child Left Behind, and, most recently, Race to the Top, along with more publications and documentaries on the subjects of educational reform and global competition
  • The self-esteem movement
  • The parent-joined play date.

There have been many articles showing that this level of parental involvement has intensified, finding its way into every environment, from preschool classrooms to college campuses.

Anne Walker, one of the nation’s top golf coaches, noted on the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) Development Zone’sTM Resource Center that in the sports arena she’s witnessed a shift from helicopter parents, to Velcro parents, to bulldozer parents, who push problems out of the way for their children so they never experience discomfort, hardship, or failure.

This is a whole new level of interference and much, much worse. Helicopter parents prevent a child from dealing with things like loneliness, self-sufficiency, and taking risks. Bulldozer parents prevent children with dealing with obstacles and setbacks. Helicopter parents prevent kids from growing up. Bulldozer parents prevent them from developing character.

This has led to a rise in children who are fragile, not self-reliant, more fearful, and less independent.

In the ‘80s, we saw students who were much less frequently alone/unsupervised and had fewer opportunities to take risks. During that era, renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson noted that this is also antithetical to the needs of a developing adolescent. Through this period of storm and stress, “If an adolescent fails to work on one’s own identity formation, it would result in role diffusion, alienation and a lasting sense of isolation and confusion,” said Erikson.

James Marcia, a clinical and developmental psychologist, expanded on Erikson’s work, noting that students who don’t experience the traumas of identity development simply “foreclose” the crisis to a point in life where the consequences can be much greater.

As we progress through the 2000s, we are seeing a chain reaction of those children having children—burgeoning adults who are less likely to take responsibility and more likely to seek others to blame for their shortcomings.

Research has continued to prove that these intense parenting styles are harming our children. In a 2016 issue of the Journal of Child and Family Studies, Kayla Reed and other researchers noted that children with helicopter parents showed low levels of self-efficacy and the ability to handle some tougher life tasks and decisions. As a result, they had higher levels of anxiety and depression.

The same journal also noted in an earlier article by Holly H. Schiffrin and other researchers that “parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent.” The study lists three elements that must be present for people to be happy: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to other people.

We in the college admission community must do our best to make this process one that encourages student growth. Our job is to support students, not direct them. As counselors, we need to provide students the tools to make their own decisions rather than controlling the process.

We know our role, but how do we work with parents who don’t know theirs? Rather than jumping out of the bulldozer’s path, we need to jump into it and give some frank and simple advice to parents. Tips adapted from a 2014 Huffington Post article by Michigan State University professor Karl Gude include:

  • Don’t bully your children. If you are threatening to revoke something—money, love, etc.—you could be doing permanent damage to their development and your relationship.
  • Don’t meddle too much in their lives while they’re in high school or after they graduate. Only give your 2 cents when they ask. This way they can learn independently and learn when to ask for help.
  • Respect and trust your children. They are becoming adults. It helps them grow when you treat them as such.
  • Support them when they fail… never say, “I told you so.” Sometimes children have to learn lessons for themselves. Failure is part of growth. Expect it and be there for them.

There are also many things you can do in your daily work to curb bulldozing and support a student-led search and application process:

  • Provide regular and thorough information to parents. Both high schools and colleges can provide “parent portals” about academic and financial issues. Having organized resources may alleviate some of their anxiety. (FERPA requires that students approve parent access on the college level.)
  • Offer parent orientations and workshops to educate parents about their proper role in assisting students. Many colleges are now separating parents from students during orientation to focus on this vital issue.
  • Provide dual enrollment opportunities with less parental involvement and access. (I started programs at two high schools where students attend community college full time for the second semester. I told parents I would answer questions, but all requests for action needed to be initiated by students.)
  • Use organizational tools like Next Tier or Naviance to help keep students organized without parental input.
  • When advising parents, suggest a single night each week to discuss any college issues as a family. Ask them not to discuss it outside these set times.

Perhaps most important is to be firm, fair, and consistent in all interactions with students and parents. It may not be a quick fix, but being knowledgeable and patient models to parents how they should behave.

Scott WhiteScott White is a retired college admission counselor who has worked on both sides of the desk at public and independent schools. He currently serves as interim guidance counselor at Morris County School of Technology (NJ).

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