Having worked in admission for a very long time I have heard parents say lots of different things. Parents want to be supportive, helpful and guiding but there are times when parents cross-communicate. It is not their intention, they mean for the best, but they may not know that they are sometimes saying two very different things, causing confusion and anxiety in their children.
Here is a simple example – “I want my son/daughter to be independent.” But then take away that independence by making all the decisions the child faces. One can easily see how confusing this may be for the student and most likely both parent and child are not clear on how confusing this is, particularly in a culture where children need to respect their parents. The student will perhaps not make the connection, but if they do, may not be able to state the contradiction presented to them. If they do say something, the parent will most likely reply that their child is not respecting their wishes. This only compounds the problem, taking “voice” away from the student and even further taking away the independence and confidence they are trying to build as budding adults.
There are times when parents use a statement like “I want to apply to…” or “I need to register for…” Again, it is all about the wording. But the wording suggests that the parents want to take control of the situation. I noticed a very curious example during a recent conversation, first with a student then together with his mother. During our conversation the young man stated that his parents respected his choices and decisions. But during our joint meeting, the mother spoke the whole time.
As an Educational Consultant, I see it too. Families seek me out because I have been in the business for a long time. They often come to me because they don’t understand or are confused by the education system in America. But once they hire me, all of a sudden they are professionals in the field giving their advice on how to apply, the schools they want to apply to and more. While understanding the anxiety the admission process creates, and having years of experience, it still confuses me. However, as an adult and living in Asia for many years, deflecting this cross communication is easier for me than for a student. As in the case above, reminding the mother of who was actually applying to university was easier from my side than perhaps from her son.
I understand that parents are well meaning in the spirit of what they say and have the best hopes for their children. But consistently communicating effectively is something that takes a bit of introspection. If parents take away their child’s ability to make decisions, how will they grow into responsible adults? The fear of failure often is the underpinning of this cross-communication. Parents don’t want their children to suffer the pain associated with making a wrong decision, but at the same time take away the power that failure presents – the power to learn and grow.
Colleges and universities see this all the time: parents who with the best intentions try to influence a school. Recently a college rep mentioned that a parent asked for a special tour of some facilities and asked to meet with professors from a specific department while visiting the school. Unfortunately, it was exam time; no professors were available to meet. The parent had a bit of a tantrum in the admission office, which was embarrassing for all involved, especially the student.
As a parent, I also know the fear of potential disaster that my child may confront. It scares the heck out of me. But I also know that if I don’t let my 17 year old make bad decisions, she won’t have the chance to learn from her mistakes. In my daughter I see many of the same qualities and attributes that I had at her age. There is no question that I want to step in, take control – yes, TAKE CONTROL. But I also know that by doing so, I disempower her.
The most important point here is that we all want our children to be successful, happy, and particularly when leaving home, safe. But it is important to be able to build a trusting relationship, one developed by open communication. Relinquishing control, as our children grow older, is a challenge. But our children are growing up and need to learn how to make choices – even bad ones.
When working with students I remind them they need to figure out ways of negotiating with their parents. Developing strategies and communication skills that can effectively bridge the gap and allow both sides to be heard is important in all areas of life. Please be aware that I am not suggesting students are always right and parents are always wrong. But it seems that all too often scenarios develop where communication completely breaks down or is one sided. Sometimes it just takes both sides being open-minded and letting go.