Transcript

Outlook: Mom, Not College-Bound Kid, Feels the Stress

Susan Coll
Author of "Acceptance"
Monday, March 5, 2007; 12:00 PM

Author Susan Coll was online Monday, March 5, at noon ET to talk about her Sunday Outlook article about her real-life descent into the college-admittance madness of her own comic novel, "Acceptance" -- even as her son remained seemingly impervious to the stress.

Helicopter Parenting: Spiraling Out of Control (Post, March 4)

The transcript follows.

Susan Coll: Hi Everyone. I've thoroughly enjoyed corresponding with some of you via e-mail, and already have had more than a few suggestions that we helicopter parents all just relax and have a drink!

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think this is a generational thing? I mean, are affluent Baby Boomer parents more extreme than, say, affluent Generation X parents? Are they equally nutty about raising kids?

Susan Coll: I think this is an excellent question, and one I set out to answer myself. My impression is that while we Baby Boomers frequently are blamed for creating this hysteria, I think we in fact are responding to a lot of changes in society that make us behave the way we do -- traffic, demographics and technology were some of the factors I mentioned in the piece -- but I see the next, younger generation of parents behaving pretty much the same way. I guess we can leave this to the sociologists to answer more fully.

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Washington: Hello Ms. Coll. I am very interested in the smoke/fire ratio. Are college admissions that much more competitive (are there more college bound graduating seniors per school slot?) Or is there a shift in the approach to it that is difficult/foolish to ignore? Have you found any demographics one way or the other?

Susan Coll: I don't have the numbers at hand, but there definitely are more college bound seniors for a mostly static amount of slots. Also, as this has all become more competitive for a variety of reasons -- many of them good I think -- there are more students who look good on paper. Having a 4.0 isn't really that big of a deal anymore, especially with weighted GPAs.

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Bethesda, Md.: What do you think your son will end up doing?

Susan Coll: Ha! That's a good question, one that surely will involve a family meeting. I'm impressed by his dedication in researching gap-year options. I'm fully in support of the idea in theory, but -- and I don't think he'll really mind my saying this -- the spring semester of his senior year has been something of a gap year, so perhaps Costa Rica can wait for junior year abroad.

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Bethesda, Md.: Reading your article made me feel like an unfit parent, as my husband and I pretty much left our kids (and their guidance counselors) to their own devices in choosing and applying to colleges. We did make college visits and regularly talked about their quests -- big school, small school, urban/suburban, great band for the saxophonist, but that's about it. But the oldest two are happily through the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis, while the youngest is a junior at Penn, so we must have done okay. Or maybe we were just lucky, but no one seems to have been harmed by our largely "hands-off" approach. P.S. -- Our kids went to Whitman, about the most intense place around, but they also seemed to get the help they needed without our direct intervention.

Susan Coll: Certainly that's a success story! We are lucky to have schools, such as Whitman, with good counselors and resources. Of course it's a double-edged sword with so much competition and the resources of a large public school system. Not all school systems are so lucky and it's good to remember this is a nice problem to have.

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Washington: Nice piece and thanks for taking our questions. My child just started elementary school and I'm afraid my husband is becoming a helicopter parent -- do you have any advice for how to deal with this? Thanks.

Susan Coll: I suppose it's inevitable to have to do a little more "helicoptering" when children are young and need supervision. It's probably a question of where one draws the line -- certainly it seems unnecessary and counter-productive to drive a second-grader to overachieve, and elementary school does seem the one time it's not really necessary to worry so much about results. Of course, I'm speaking to you as a mother and comic novelist, not as any sort of expert!

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Washington: Have you by any chance read "Excellence Without a Soul" by former Dean of Harvard Harry Lewis? It is quite interesting and discusses the impact to colleges and the educations they offer of phenomena like helicopter parenting and over-programmed kids ... you might find it interesting because it gets at what the (disappointing) end result is from some of these things and the impact to society.

Susan Coll: I haven't read that but will take a look. There are some good books out there that I came across as I thought about this piece: "The Over-Scheduled Child" by Alvin Rosenfeld addresses hyper-parenting directly; there's a book coming out in a month or two called "Even June Cleaver Would Forget The Juice Box" -- that author blames a lot of the problem of stressed-out parents on driving, pointing out that June Cleaver didn't have to drive any carpools.

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Southern Maryland: As I prepare to select a high school for my child, I think colleges and high schools must realize the financial and emotional investment that parents are making. I will spend more on my child's education than I did to purchase my house. I am preparing to not have vacations, few new clothes, dinners out, lavish gifts (more than $100), no flat screen/plasma TV, new cars, etc., for another eight to ten years. Truthfully, many parents are making real sacrifices to do their best for their children regardless of their income. When you listen to the media -- which has preached gloom and doom for the past two decades about education, the No Child Left Behind Act, SOLs, HSA, and other mandatory state testing -- no wonder parents are acting this way.

Susan Coll: Yes, the costs are mind-boggling. As for the doom and gloom, I think there really are two different school systems in this country, and that's something we "helicopter" parents tend to forget -- that we are lucky to have schools that are functioning well. There certainly are far worse problems for public schools to have to contend with than too much competition to get into Harvard.

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Washington: Note to Bethesda Parents -- on the contrary, you are the model that should be emulated: Provide wisdom in areas where experience helps and disappear on the mechanics.

Susan Coll: I think this is well-said.

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Chicago: I was disappointed to read yet another article in The Post lamenting the stress and agony that the college application process generates among Whitman students and their parents. Why is so much column space devoted to this topic? Is it because so many Washington Post journalists live in Bethesda and send their kids to Whitman?

Regardless of the reason, this and other articles (like " Overachieving Students Hear Another Message: Lighten Up") give a disproportionate amount of publicity to a school that is far from representative of the majority of public high schools in the region. It also sheds undeserved attention on -- and legitimizes the anxieties of -- a relatively small group of people, one that places the highest importance on superficial status symbols. (For an explanation of why top-ranked colleges aren't all they're cracked up to be, see the excellent article published recently in the New York Times on Loren Pope " A Fighter for Colleges That Have Everything But Status".)

As a Whitman graduate (Class of 1997) I remember the panic among a certain segment of students and parents surrounding the admissions season. In fact, this panic often started far earlier -- as early as the freshman year for some. What I also remember is that a good number of us didn't face that pressure from our parents or from ourselves. We went to local public schools, smaller and less recognized private schools, or took time off to (gasp!) travel the world. I myself took a leave of absence in my freshman year of college in order to backpack around Mexico. As a result, I speak Spanish fluently, have held some great jobs that I got through my international experience, and currently am getting my Ph.D at a fantastic (and highly-ranked!) school.

So, two points. First, to The Post: please stop giving these panicky parents and their overburdened children so much attention. Instead, let's talk more about the vast majority of D.C.-area students who either don't have enough support to consider going to college, or are perfectly happy to go to non-Ivy League yet excellent and inexpensive public colleges. Second, to Ms. Coll: I'm glad for you that you've "stopped hovering," and I hope for your and your son's sake that he does indeed go off to Costa Rica. I wish more Whitman parents would encourage their kids to pursue alternative paths. Maybe then we wouldn't have to worry about a new generation of "helicopter parents."

Susan Coll: I don't actually disagree with this entirely, but I do think that these anxieties are more widespread than it might seem -- it's not just parents in very affluent communities that are driving themselves and their kids hard. Consider the success of tutoring companies in middle-class communities both in Washington and around the country. Part of what I set out to explore in this piece is whether we are all just kind of nuts, or whether there are structural changes in society that make us behave differently.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for such a great column. I have a child who will be entering middle school in the fall and I'm trying so hard to resist the temptation to be a helicopter parent. But it's so hard -- everyone else does it, and they make you feel as though you don't care enough about your child if you don't do it too. I'm also constantly amazed at the prestige-college thing here in Washington -- My husband and I are products of small Western state colleges and seem to have made it okay here. But we used to get strange looks when we were younger from our acquaintances who went to the elite schools, and now we're encountering the same thing among other parents who can't seem to comprehend how we're even functioning members of society without the benefit of that kind of education. And when I suggest that my children might end up going anywhere other than the elite schools, I'm treated like some sort of uncaring pariah. This message is entirely too long, but your column really hit home for me.

Susan Coll: Thanks so much. It was listening to these sorts of conversations over a period of years that inspired a comic novel. A lot of these people who name-drop schools will find themselves surprised at how hard it has become to get in these days. I firmly believe that our kids will get a good education wherever it is they wind up. Again, the fact that I believe this -- truly -- and still was behaving like a nut was part of what inspired the essay.

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Washington State: I think a lot of the reason parents become helicopters is because of the overemphasis on performance and grades in the lower grades in schools. I never had homework, did have lots of recess and never received a grade until I hit high school (a 7-12 school), and that seems to have worked okay. My kids got grades starting in kindergarten (they're finishing college now) and the teachers expected me to get upset with S (satisfactory) grades. And the reason they weren't E (excellent) was because they hadn't done some brain-dead assignment because we'd gone ice skating. Please, elementary school is not the time to obsess about grades ... it just breeds helicopter parents.

Susan Coll: I couldn't agree more. I once had a teacher complain that one of my kids wasn't properly punctuating his homework, and my response was that he was too busy kicking a soccer ball to worry about periods at the ends of sentences in third grade!

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Bethesda, Md.: I just looked up your book on Amazon, and found out you wrote "Rockville Pike"! I liked that book a lot, and I'll be sure to look for this one. Was this book based on your experiences at Whitman? I ask because I noticed in the blurb there's a character named "AP Harry" and I immediately thought of "AP Frank" in Alexandra Robbins's book "The Overachievers."

Susan Coll: Thanks so much for that! AP Harry wasn't based on anyone in particular, but two of my kids were at Whitman the year that Alexandra Robbins was researching her book -- in fact my daughter was on the school newspaper that she tracked -- so inevitably we observed some of the same events. There was a story in the school newspaper about AP Frank and I couldn't resist the nickname.

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Austin, Texas: Susan, I really try hard not to be a helicopter parent to my two kids, ages 13 and 11. They are in competitive schools, doing quite well and I have left their grades up to them. I find myself, however, trying to convince my husband that how they do in school really is important -- that the grades they get now for high school credit can impact their college choices later. We have such a generational gap -- things just weren't that complicated when we were in high school. Dad seems to think the kids will end up where they end up and that is that. I think you have to have a map to get where you want to go. Am I crazy?

Susan Coll: Keep in mind that I'm answering this as a mother who has survived the process (no small feat!) and not as any sort of expert, but if your kids are doing well in a competitive school I think you've answered your own question. There are so many good schools out there when it comes to college, and they will be fine. That's what I told myself anyway, and so far it's proven true.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Re the smoke/fire question: I advise students in our school re: college applications. There are lots of college spaces available, but everyone applies to the same "select" schools. Also, the ease of online applications, plus undue panic, has caused many students to apply to many more colleges than necessary. I remind students that they can attend only one college.

Susan Coll: That's exactly right. One thing that I didn't mention in the essay when I referred to technology being an enabler is the common application, and also the ease (relative ease!) of online applications. Thanks for mentioning this.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The answer is that the parents are nuts. They are trying to live their dreams through their kids.

Susan Coll: That's one way to view it, and surely some of that is true. But I've also become more forgiving on this subject, even as I've viewed some people drive their kids really hard in ways I don't fully agree with -- I do think that everyone just wants their kids to succeed, and that it's not entirely malevolent.

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Beltway Insider: I refuse to helicopter-parent (at least on things like grades, although I do want to know where my kids are going, and with whom). So guess what my 14-year-old daughter tells me: "I know you don't care about my grades because you think I'm stupid." Moms just can't win!

Susan Coll: Very funny! Yes, it's a fine balance!

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New York: Hi Susan -- in the article you said there are a static number of spots in the country's universities, but doesn't each school take more students each year? What did you mean when you wrote that? Thanks!

Susan Coll: Hi. No, actually most schools do not adjust the number of slots each year. Certainly the class sizes fluctuate and I can't tell you off-hand how much they have changed through the years, but they don't adjust the sizes of freshmen classes each year. In fact some schools have gotten themselves into trouble because they underestimated the number of kids who would accept slots and they've had to, in some cases, rent rooms in nearby hotels or apartments when dorms became too crowded. This is what happens to the fictitious liberal arts college in my novel.

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Bethesda, Md.: I have daughters in Pyle and Whitman. My Pyle daughter really wants to handle her own homework, wants me to stay out of her binder, etc. She'd rather get an 85 on a test that is her 85, than have a 95 with assists from me (drilling her in the car, etc.). I have found that the teachers at Pyle actually instruct parents to search their binders at night and check for all their work -- one even told us at a meeting that if your child has no homework, you can drive to school and check the homework boards. So it's definitely been my experience that the school talks one way (relax, parents) and acts another. Also, the kids who get the recognition (names posted in the hallway for all A's, acceptance to Ivy Leagues, etc.) are the ones who didn't relax ... I believe academic achievement is very much the religion at MCPS.

Susan Coll: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I was the sort of parent who backed off and didn't look in the binder, but at some point you start to feel like you aren't doing your job if you don't look in the binder or log on to Edline. All I can say is that each of my kids had a different style of managing this and I responded accordingly, and they all were fine in the end.

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Southern Maryland Follow-up: I live in the other world of schools -- I don't have a Walt Whitman or anything close to it as a neighborhood school. I don't helicopter my child, but I am well aware of the consequences of not mastering SOLs and HSAs and the SAT or ACT. Making sure that a quality education is possible and available takes as much work or more than parents who are in the better school systems.

Susan Coll: Yes, it's true. I think, as I mentioned earlier, that it's easy to forget this is a problem many of us are lucky to have. I think that at some point we parents in extremely affluent schools begin to feel entitled, which was the "road rage" theory I suggested in the essay.

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"My husband and I pretty much left our kids (and their guidance counselors) to their own devices in choosing and applying to colleges": That's how my parents were and throughout my entire life I continuously find myself better-prepared for facing challenges than peers whose parents did a lot for them. My parents gave me the self-sufficiency lessons so they didn't have to to a lot for us. Learning to take care of ourselves moved us forward in life and also gave us survival skills we use every day in the workplace.

Susan Coll: Yes, I agree there was a lot to be said for not having hovering parents myself. Yet I do believe that a lot of us are hovering because things structurally are different these days. Also, of course, there's the question of how much hovering is really hovering!

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Boston: Rightly or wrongly, my parents paid for my tuition but didn't helicopter. Now as a adult I see a lot of my peers whose parents seemed to do "too much" for them. These folks don't seemed to have mastered basic concepts like when your electric bill is due on the 5th, you pay it on or before the 5th. They seem genuinely surprised to have bad credit and have others view them as irresponsible.

Susan Coll: This comment makes me think of the advice on the college board Web site. Collegeboard.com actually offers a checklist to see if you are a "helicopter parent" and they suggest teaching your children autonomy -- teaching them to pay bills, balance a checkbook, do laundry, etc. Because I can't help but see the comedy in any situation, I thought it was kind of amusing that there also are links alongside the advice on how to help your child gain an edge in the college admissions process by seeking out volunteer opportunities, etc.

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Bethesda, Md.: I hope this isn't too personal, but are you a single mom or do you have a partner/spouse? The reason I ask is it must be at least doubly harder as a single parent to be a helicopter parent. Or do you find in your research that single parents don't do it as much simply because they don't have the time and it thus places lower on the priority list?

Susan Coll: I'm not a single mom but I thought I wouldn't implicate my husband in any of this! Good point, though -- at some level you can only do what you can do. And in truth my pronouncement about not participating in travel soccer was a reaction to the reality of our schedules. Not only was it too much, but it simply was not possible.

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North Potomac, Md.: I'm the mother of two sons in highly competitive high and middle schools who is trying to teach her kids to take responsibility for their own lives and for the consequences of their actions. But I wonder if I'm putting them at a disadvantage by not spending hours a night "helping" them with their homework or calling their teachers should they -- oh, the horror -- get a "C" on an assignment or test, in true helicopter parenting fashion. Also, the effect of this hyper-competitiveness on kids who aren't quite focused enough to dedicate their lives to basketball at age 8 or mature enough to handle calculus in 10th grade is not often discussed. Without such intensity at a young age, they are hopelessly behind by time they get to high school at 14! Finally, it is clear to me that a lot of the helicopter parents who have spent time and money on their kids' tutors, coaches, travel teams, etc. are expecting a big payoff when it comes to college. They are planning on scholarships and grants to relieve them of much of the responsibility of paying for the kids' educations. What pressure to put on a 16-year old! Thanks for the article.

Susan Coll: I agree it's too much pressure to put on a 16-year-old. There are so many good schools out there -- schools that are happy to have kids with Cs on the transcript! And there's more scholarship money out there than one might think, even for kids with the occasional C.

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North Potomac, Md.: Just wanted to let you know that this chat has made me feel less alone! I'm an advocate of "let them make their mistakes and learn to fix things when they're young" school of parenting, so I find these helicopter parents hard to take.

Susan Coll: Thank you -- that's nice to hear. I do think some of this conversation about helicoptering is tongue-in-cheek. There's helicoptering and then there's ... Black Hawk. Although I've been told that Apache would have been the better analogy!

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Herndon, Va.: Hi Susan -- how much is this college craze about money? (Another stressor to be sure!) My son is a B-minus junior and very low key about the whole college process. We gets lots of e-mails and mailings from places I never have heard of that act like he is "perfect for their school." The costs are about $30,000-$50,000 per year. The competitive schools over here in Virginia are the ones with lower tuition, which are good -- Virginia, William and Mary, Madison, Virginia Tech.

Susan Coll: I'm not completely sure I understand the question, but you raise an interesting point about how aggressively schools market themselves these days. My son gets e-mails weekly, or so it seems, from one school in Virginia that says his application essentially is complete and all he has to do is hit "send." He's never expressed any interest in this school.

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Bethesda, Md.: I like the idea you presented that in some way "helicoptering" happens because in the suburbs we lead very planned lives, and this is a (somewhat unhealthy) extension of the planning. Especially in the D.C. area, where the affluent often live in spread-out planned communities, community interaction doesn't happen naturally: parents start organizing play dates, signing their kids up for sports teams, and getting them involved in other extracurriculars probably at first just to get them interacting with other kids. But then kids have to be driven to each scheduled activity, and if you're going to get your kid involved in activities, they might as well be the "best" ones, and maybe you should research them a bit more carefully, or get involved yourself. I think it's natural that as parents need to become more involved in their younger children's lives, they're unsure of when to step back as the kids get older.

Susan Coll: Yes, pretty much every expert I've spoken to on the subject and every book I've read mentions sprawl as being part of the problem. I don't think it would feel quite so extreme if the kids could take the metro or ride their bikes to half of these activities.

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Westminster, Md.: I wish the parents who are working and worrying themselves into a frazzle over their kids' prospects would have shown some foresight when they eagerly were implementing corporate plans for off-shoring, outsourcing, and de-skilling the jobs that now would be awaiting their children. No wonder there's so much competition for name-brand schooling, with so few appropriate jobs waiting for college grads.

Susan Coll: I did speak to one psychologist who said that these sorts of perceptions and fears of diminishing resources are a big part of what drives the frenzy.

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Susan Coll: Thanks so much everyone. I've really enjoyed your questions. Let's all relax and have that drink! Big-picture-wise, the kids all are fine!

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