Spiraling Out of Control

By Susan Coll
Sunday, March 4, 2007

A recent e-mail from Amazon.com made my heart start racing. My order had been shipped, it said, and "Living Abroad in Costa Rica" would arrive any day. I had never heard of this book. Had someone hacked into my computer? I thought of identity theft, credit card fraud -- and then of my 17-year-old son, who was deep into high school senioritis. He confessed to placing the order, defensively reminding me that I allow him to buy books with impunity as part of a mostly unsuccessful campaign to encourage him to read. He didn't seem to get that my concern had shifted from the $12.74 on my credit card to his college plans for next fall.

After shepherding three kids through demanding schools, countless extracurricular activities and then the Byzantine college admissions process, I feel like I could use a gap year in Costa Rica myself. While the impulse to engage in a world with more urgent concerns than front-loading résumés and fine-tuning test scores is one that in theory I applaud. The irony here, however, is that my mellow, guitar-strumming kid has remained miraculously impervious to the pressure that surrounds him. He's the first to point out that his last years of high school, and the stressful endgame of applying to college, have taken a toll not on him, but on me.

I consider myself a relaxed -- and by way of comparison, even something of a slacker -- parent. As long as my kids showed an interest in learning and made a genuine effort to succeed, I didn't obsess about their grades. The culture of overachievement at their notoriously competitive Montgomery County school set the bar too high, and I felt that my job was to tamp things down, to assure them that there was life outside the Ivy League.

Still, the process of helping my son apply to college this fall left me unhinged. I had just finished writing a novel satirizing the hysteria of the college admissions process, yet there I was, poring over guidebooks and compulsively checking the rankings, notwithstanding the fact that these mostly irrelevant numbers served as the basis of a central joke in my narrative. I found myself up late at night, scrutinizing an online program that visually plotted my son's likelihood of acceptance at any given school, then hovering over him, chasing him out the door waving teacher recommendation forms, shoving requests for transcripts through the slit in the car window as he tried to drive away. I had become my own lunatic protagonist, only more tightly wound than any character I'd been able to invent.

The way we parent these days in middle- and upper-middle-class America has become ripe not just for parody, but for frequently ugly debate. We are portrayed as a generation of meddling, micromanaging and over-scheduling parents who are so hyper-involved in our children's lives that we have earned our own lexicon. We are so-called helicopter parents, and some of us have even crossed the line to Black Hawk -- swooping and attacking, seemingly oblivious to the privileges enjoyed by our kids.

Stories of extreme parenting and our overachieving, overscheduled kids are so ubiquitous that it's hard to shock anymore, or to separate the issues from the hype. It seems that there's a new angle each week: Kids are loading up on too many AP classes, they are cultivating passions to impress college admissions officers, they are exhausted, and yet they are competing for bragging rights over who is the most stressed. Math tutor Anthony Maida tells me that he frequently works until 11 p.m. to accommodate kids in Montgomery County whose extracurricular activities keep them busy as late as 9, by which time they are too tired to absorb information. He tutors one girl who has taken the SAT four times already -- and she's only in 8th grade. Her parents want her to get a perfect score.

As remarkable as the persistence of these sorts of stories is the absence of any consensus about where this is coming from and who is to blame. Posturing on the subject begins to sound a bit like the "mommy wars," with everyone rushing to defend their choices. But as with debates about whether mothers who work are somehow harming their kids, we glide right over the structural changes in society that have created a new culture of child-rearing, and some of the ways we respond are not entirely within our control. In other words, there may be something in the water supply that is turning us into nuts.

How much hovering does it take to qualify as a helicopter parent, and how many extracurriculars does it take to land you in the realm of the clinically extreme? It seems that at least part of the answer has to do with sprawl. Our suburban existence and our car-centric culture means that a disproportionate amount of time and energy is devoted to each activity: The joy of watching your kid kick a soccer ball is eclipsed by the dread of an I-270 commute to the Germantown SoccerPlex; the drum lesson becomes a logistical nightmare of rush-hour traffic and no place to park. And then, when lacrosse practice runs late, the already fragile scaffolding collapses as someone is stranded at a flute lesson, and dinner becomes an afterthought around the time that stomachs begin to growl.

Even with a conscious plan to not hyper-parent, it seemed I was always in the car, as my kids did stints in just about every activity imaginable, including ballet, gymnastics, soccer, ice hockey, street hockey, lacrosse, baseball, rugby, football, tennis, golf and racquetball. They have played violin, clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, flute, double bass, guitar, drums and piano, as well as a lot of novelty instruments, including a lap guitar and a didgeridoo. Something had to give, and travel soccer was among the earliest casualties: In what felt like a true moment of reckoning, I sat my kids down and explained that while there was much that this family could provide in the way of support, love and even some of the finer luxuries of life, a ride up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Sunday mornings was not on offer.

Even though I'd insist that their participation in these myriad activities did not involve crude calculations about how their lives would translate onto a college application, it's hard to ignore the daunting numbers. Schools are receiving more applications than ever for a mostly static number of slots. Not only is the demographic bubble coming to a head, but kids are now counterintuitively hedging their bets by applying to even more schools -- as many as 15 or 20. University of Vermont had a 36.6 percent increase in applicants last year, according to the College Board Web site, while Boston College's early applications rose 20 percent and its regular ones went up 15 percent. Pretty much every selective college reported an increase in the number of rejections.

If helicopter parenting is a disease, then perhaps technology can be viewed as a toxin, or at least an enabler. Nowadays, there are software programs that provide real-time information about how many students from your kid's senior class have applied to any given school, plotting them on a scattergram according to their scores and grades. It's a bit like studying the Racing Form, and just as addictive. If 56 students with the same general profile are applying to one school, it takes a lot of magical thinking to assume that your child can count on it for safety. With a graduating class of more than 450, it's hard for your child to be original in college choices, but with new technology, you, as a parent, can stay up all night, trying on his behalf.

Even more potentially corrosive is Edline -- a hovering tool extraordinaire now used by Montgomery County schools. We are, on the one hand, mocked for being overly involved parents, and then given a code to log onto a Web site to view every test, quiz and piece of graded homework. We can watch every recalibration of our child's grade-point average, then e-mail the teachers to complain. Gone are the days when a kid could lose a physics test, then make up for the bad grade on the next go-around with no harm done -- and no parent the wiser. Edline feels a bit like spying (although compared with the proposal to tag truants with ankle bracelets in Prince George's County, it's probably relatively benign).

Conducting a sociological study based on nothing but anecdotal evidence gleaned over the years at bus stops, grocery store aisles and dinner parties in one of the most affluent suburbs of America, I'm in the preliminary stages of adding a new term to our lexicon. A sub-genre of helicopter and Black Hawk parenting, some of our less-attractive behavior sometimes seems like displaced road rage. As long as our frustrations are channeled in the direction of improving our kids' lives, my theory goes, all complaints about schools and teachers and curriculum, no matter how minute, are considered socially acceptable. That's what I found myself thinking a few weeks ago as I listened to one young mother disparage her highly regarded neighborhood elementary school for not focusing enough resources on her child's particular grade level, while another parent chimed in with complaints about recess rules at her kids' private school. Undoubtedly their concerns were legitimate, but what I really found myself thinking was that maybe someone had just cut each of them off on the Beltway, and they'd been too polite to respond.

For better or worse, I'm mostly finished hovering, and my kids now drive themselves. I've found that there are more amusing pastimes than plotting my kids' futures on a scattergram, and consequently I have more time to read. "Living Abroad in Costa Rica" is proving pretty compelling. Perhaps when I inform my son that his parents may be joining him on a gap year -- and that incidentally, he'll have to find a way to pay -- college may start looking pretty good.


Susan Coll is the author of "Acceptance" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a comic novel about college admissions.

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