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School started recently, and our oldest daughter began her senior year of high school. It is likely going to be the most intense nine months of her academic career to date: figuring out what college to apply to, applying, anxiously awaiting news about where she’s accepted, and making a final choice of where to attend. Not to mention keeping up with what will surely be a challenging academic course load, and extracurricular activities, and babysitting, and some crumb of social life that is a necessary part of being a healthy person.

There’s so much talk about the manic culture that has arisen around the college admissions process. Do you think it’s maybe because post-high school plans are the only thing that people want to talk to 17-year-olds about?

I’m not excluding myself from that observation, believe me. I’m just as guilty. I signed up to work at registration for seniors this week, and I know full well that I will be scrabbling for alternative conversation topics when my daughter’s friends roll up and say hello.

I think we slip into the college questions because these babies, these children we have known since the first day of kindergarten, whose faces we may have wiped when their moms were busy elsewhere on the playground, whose sweaters we buttoned when we drove them on a second grade field trip to the science museum, and who charmed us with their home-choreographed hip hop dance moves in the fifth grade talent show, are now men with Adam’s apples and deep voices, or women with enviable figures and a hairstyle we can’t even understand, let alone emulate. They are grown ups, these babies, and we panic, and we say, “Uh, uh, uh, so how’s the college search going for ya?” because it’s right there in the front of our lizard brains.

We veteran adults need to stop and get a grip. All we’re doing is emphasizing their fear that the only thing that matters when you are 17 is where you go to college, and that choosing a college will set the direction for the rest of their lives and leaves no margin for error. Oh, and guess what? Some kids don’t go to college. Imagine how these questions land for them. It’s enough to give anyone a nervous tic.

If, like so many parents I’ve talked to, you wish that kids could retain some chill, just a little sense of calm and faith that things will work out for them after high school, it starts by not repeatedly asking them if they have a top choice school yet.

We ask with good intentions, and maybe a vain sense that they’ll mention our alma mater so we can do a little alumni PR. But unless we’ve done the math and figured out that our need to know these things outweighs the incremental weight it adds to the mental burden of a kid who is not even old enough to vote, I’d suggest we all avoid the following questions for the next little while.

  • So have you figured out where you’re applying yet?
  • What school are you most interested in?
  • What do you plan to major in?
  • What schools have you visited yet? What do you think? Have you visited [INSERT YOUR ALMA MATER HERE]? You really should.
  • Which AP classes are you taking? Follow up question: None? Wow, or So many? Wow.
  • Have you taken the SATs yet? What about the subject SATs? Which ones? Did you take the ACTs? Is it true you have to take both the SATs and the ACTs? (I trust that you are not then asking them for their scores. You wouldn’t. Would you?)

Here’s an alternative set of questions to try:

  • What was your favorite thing you did over the summer?
  • Have you read anything good lately?
  • So, the [INSERT SPORTS TEAM NAME HERE.] Do they have a shot this year?
  • I finished Breaking Bad and OITNB. What should I watch on Netflix next?
  • What was the last song you downloaded? Should I listen to it or would my kids be embarrassed? (If the answer is yes, definitely download it.)
  • What concert are you looking forward to this fall? (If they say none, I trust you, fellow music lovers of a certain age, to set them on the right path. If anyone should be going to concerts, it is the people whose natural body clocks don’t let them fall asleep before 2 a.m.)

Pretty simple. ABCAnything But College. If a high school senior you know wants to talk to you about college, they’ll probably bring it up. They’ve been known to. At which point, go to town with your follow up questions.

But if we want these high school seniors to maintain their sanity in the coming months, let’s start by not making them crazy.

Nancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Toast, The Rumpus, and numerous humor anthologies. She teaches in the Professional Writing program at UCBerkeley Extension, and writes about the years between being hip and breaking one at MidlifeMixtape.com.

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