Move Over Millennials! It’s Trivia Night and the Baby Boomers Have Arrived

craft beer

Why should millennials have all the fun?

I have recently been feeling decidedly not on trend so I talked with my friend, Martha. Our same age, millennial daughters both live in Big Cities where they always seem to be doing cool-sounding social activities on weeknights with their friends. What could we – two semi-retired but hardly retiring, women do to power up our “with-it” quotient?

Participate in “Barre to the Bar” – where you go from exercise to drinking? Our hips are no longer that flexible.

Join a Kickball team? Knees not so great either.

Trivia Night?  Now that’s a possibility.  Martha had been to a Trivia Night with her daughter in Chicago, it was fun, she said. We’re smart, we read newspapers, the old-fashioned print kind, we keep up with culture. We can do this. And we could even force  ask our husbands to join us.

Which is how Martha, her husband Rob, my husband JP and I found ourselves last night at a Tuesday Trivia Night in a local brew pub.

When we walked in, I scanned the room, yes, as expected, everyone else was of Millennial age. They didn’t even look up when we walked by them, so busy were they with their craft beers and their iPhones. The four of us settled in a quiet corner and asked for the Trivia Night score sheets. Rounds of questions in three categories.

Our first task (after ordering our own craft beers) was to come up with a team name. I suggested “The Geriatrics” but was overruled. We could be these kids’ parents, not their grandparents, I was told.  So we went back to our roots, to the 60’s – when we were growing up, of course none of us ever smoked (or even inhaled) marijuana, but the name “Purple Haze” seemed fitting nonetheless.

Promptly at 8 p.m. the M.C. started. 1st question – recent action movies. Not fans. We were sunk. 2nd question – the name of a Jay Z song. We know he is a rapper, but little else.

Then came a question on sitcoms; Martha correctly guessed the words to the first line of the song Phoebe sang in the intro to “Friends”. In the category of science, JP (who was pre-med before he discovered that blood was involved) knew right away that “Kelvin” was the name of the absolute temperature scale.

We were on a roll.

The six millennials sitting at the next table turned their heads to size us up for the first time. We were competition. YES!

Next round: international governments. We knew the name of the man who was prime minister of Israel in 1974 and again in 1992.  An unfair advantage since we were alive in 1974 and the millennials were not – but really… under what rock was the team living that came up with the answer of Yasser Arafat?

Geography”.  The names of the largest lakes on four continents. Hello, Lake Titicaca? (I was a Latin American studies major in college. Finally, that came in handy.)

We were in 5th place at half-time. The table of six millennials, in 4th place, huddled over their beers.

We slipped a bit on another current music question, then rebounded with correct answers to a sports award question (relief pitcher) and to a question about “Taxi” (a TV show that lasted from 1978 to 1983 before most of the young adults in the room were born.) Thank you, Tony Danza.

The tension mounted – we were now in 2nd place among the nine teams, one spot behind guess who, the millennial sextet at the next table. We heard them grumbling as they hunched down in concentration.

Last question –  category – the U.S. Economy –  and a tough, possibly trick,  question.

“In 27 of the 50 states, which state government employee earns the highest salary?”

We put our heads together. Not governors, they don’t make a lot. So think – what is it that 27 states have in common that the other 23 do not?

My husband and Rob jumped at it  – “football” – big state school football!  – where the head coaches get paid (IMHO) far more than they should.

That was it, we got the final answer right!  The six adjacent unhappy millennials did not. “Purple Haze”, the four baby boomers in the corner, WON on their first night out as a Trivia Team.

We cheered for ourselves since no one else did. An odd silence settled over the room. Were they all waiting for us to leave? We paid the bill, gratefully accepted our “one free beer on your next visit” coupons and left the bar.

The four of us stood outside – here it was, a weeknight, already 10 p.m., yet we were still wide awake, alert – and triumphant.

But at what cost?

Perhaps we had intruded onto sacred millennial turf with our lucky, first-time team victory. Rest assured, millennials, we don’t plan to embrace any of your other questionable habits – we will keep our landlines, ignore cross-fit and instagram is so not our thing.

Truce? Can we at least agree that the appeal of Trivia Night cuts across generations?

See you next Tuesday night, millennials. Study up.








Filed under Adult Kids, Baby Boomers, College, daughters, Empty Nest, Female Friends, Husbands, Moms, Retirement, Semi-Retired, Women

That Dad Instinct

A Stack of White Disposable Diapers Isolated on a Black Background


I had planned to write for Father’s Day about my still wise-cracking, 100%-with-it-yet-92-year-old Dad, but then my husband, JP, piped up, only part in jest (I think):

“What about me? I’m the father of our children. You watched me, not him, becoming a Dad. Why don’t you talk about my fathering skills instead of reaching into your childhood memories?”

O.K., I’ll give it a try. But fair warning, JP, be careful what you wish for…

My husband and I didn’t rush into parenthood. We waited five years after our marriage, which caused JP’s “born in the old country” Aunt Dora to wring her hands and lament that we were not trying hard enough to have a baby. Which was true.

It was also true that we had no prior baby care experience.  Caught in a pinch without a babysitter one night, some slightly older friends asked us to watch their 6 month old. After tearing through several sets of those pesky little disposable diaper tabs, we sent the baby home bound up in bright blue masking tape. The baby’s mom thought our inability to fasten a diaper was hilarious; I thought we needed help.

So when I got pregnant, I said, “let’s take a class.” JP was reluctant; his approach, as always, let’s wing it, we’ll figure it out as we go. Look at our forebears he said, they managed parenting just fine without taking any classes.

I signed up for a “childbirth education” class at the hospital and dragged him along.

Where he did little to distinguish himself.  Unless you call not taking the class at all seriously a point of distinction.  JP knew I was pregnant (non-spoiler alert: he was there when that happened), but even though I was 8 months pregnant when the class began, he had not yet realized that a live human being was going to emerge at the end of the process.

I, on the other hand, had no plans to stay pregnant forever and listened most intently to what the childbirth education teacher said —  while my husband  snickered on the edge of the room as the teacher demonstrated labor breathing techniques.

All of us (except for you-know-who) diligently practiced, chanting aloud:

“hah, hah, woo” – “pant, pant, blow” – “hee, hee, who.”

Let’s just say it was fortunate I had to have a C-section with our first child.

On the supply side, JP was equally clueless. When the teacher asked the class how many diapers to expect a newborn baby would go through in a single day –

Hands shot up in the air.

My husband said: “Four? Six?”

When the teacher said – “10, possibly 12 or 14, maybe even more, diapers per day in the first few weeks” – I thought my husband might faint.

He almost did faint before the baby was born. He got very light-headed, I was later told, while they were prepping me for the C-section, and the nurses made him leave the room. Many months later I learned that the kind person stroking my forehead during the operation was not my loving husband, but a nurse, and that my woozy spouse had been sitting it out on a bench in the hall.

So not an optimal beginning. But I was to be surprised.

JP got the hang of the Dad thing very quickly, perhaps – dare I say this now that our kids are adults? –  – he latched onto early Dadhood with an easy self-confidence.

Thinking back on this, I wonder if this was because I was (am) a worrier and he was (is) not.

  • The baby had a fever, I was convinced she had appendicitis. He assumed it was a just a fever.
  • The baby wouldn’t eat. I thought she was getting sick. He said she wasn’t hungry.
  • The baby had colic. I went into high-panic mode. He just swooped her under his arm, and rocked her around the living room to very loud music (Donna Summer’s disco songs were an early favorite) and that would quiet her down.

And then as baby #2 came along and our kids grew older, JP continued to go with the flow – from kindergarten field trips to coaching basketball to college visits to beaming father of the bride.

How did my husband learn to be such a great Dad?

Not from books. As always the believer in finding the answers in books, I had stacks of them piled on my night table  (Dr. Spock, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leach).

JP wouldn’t touch them.

Not from his Dad. Like mine, a great guy, but old school, 1950’s traditional model, the kind of Dad, who, while caring and loving, went off to work in the morning, expected to come home later in the day to find dinner on the table (it was) and left the less pleasant tasks of parenthood to their wives (who did not complain.)

Could it be that my husband was simply born with natural great Dad instincts?

But I won’t be getting him a “Father’s Day” card or setting up a BBQ in our backyard or buying him a nifty new gadget. Because as JP likes to remind me, he is not my Dad.  He is, however, proof, that to be a great Dad, you don’t need to take a class, read baby books or have a role model. You can just be present, stay involved and figure it out as you go along.

Our kids got very lucky. Hope yours did too.





Filed under Baby Boomers, Family, Husbands, Marriage, Men vs Women, Midlife, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Women

Parenting at the Deep End of the Pool


Last week a friend asked me  – who’s your audience, Nancy? Who do you write for?

I promptly responded, rather flippantly  – “Me! I’m my best audience.” And then realized that while I write because my brain and heart tell me to do so, it is connecting with readers that is often the highlight of my day.

So when a reader sent me a private message via my Blog’s new-ish Facebook page, I was touched that my words resonated with her. And after I responded, I thought why not share a bit – since she and I are certainly not alone in our concerns.

Many parents worry when their older kids struggle  – for whatever reason – on their way into independent adulthood (or not.)  And parenting at the deep end of the pool can feel lonely.

This mom, let’s call her, Sarah, said she felt both “terrified” and “relieved’ after reading about my experiences as a mom of a young adult son with mental health challenges in essays I’ve written for the Washington Post and Kveller.

Sarah explained:

“Terrified because you articulated what I know but try to forget – there are no solutions or answers, even for those of us who run our lives by checking off items on a “to do” list. Yet I was relieved that someone could put into words so eloquently my world…I have no perspective, no understanding, no peace…How did you find your perspective and peace? How did you rebuild your life?…Whatever I am doing, I always hear a voice that nags and penetrates –  (that) the most important person in your life (your child), the one who matters the most is filled with pain and despair. How do you quiet that voice?’

Wow. Sarah captures it, don’t you think? She describes that nagging inner voice so well.

“How do you quiet that voice?”

Part of my response to Sarah:

“Dear Sarah –

Glad you reached out to me; not glad, of course, that you, too, have a child that also struggles with mental illness but glad to connect. There are many of us and we should be sharing our strategies and support with each other.

Your question prompted me to reflect, how did I get to this place? How do I quiet that same nagging voice of concern that our child is in frequent inner pain?

1st – I go on defense. I know, and I mean, I know, that my husband and I were (still are) wonderful parents to our challenged child. We have many warm memories of family visits to museums, to parks, to plays, to concerts, hiking trips, historical sites. More trips to the library that I can count, cooking classes, drama, tae kwon do, camps. We listened, cared, advocated; we found therapists, groups, programs, coaching; we researched medications, theories, techniques. You name it, we tried it.  Perhaps it’s a parental defense mechanism, but I can’t fault my husband or myself for lack of effort – or lack of love.

2nd –  As I came to accept that we were not the cause of our child’s issues, I realized that the only thing under our control is that we can care. But parents cannot cure our child’s pain. This recognition lifted a burden from my heart and off my shoulders.

3rd –  In our child’s situation, and yours may differ, our child sometimes does, but more often does not want, to fully engage in the difficult process of getting stronger. And we cannot do this on our child’s behalf. We tried, oh how we tried, it didn’t work. As my own therapist once told me – your kid has to want to change more than you want your kid to change. A mantra to repeat as needed.

4th – When my thoughts go to our child being in a dark place,  I remember times when our child is not in that place. That there are periods of resilience, and strength, frequent valleys followed by peaks of joy and that sometimes life does settle down into a more stable rhythm. Because if I spent all my time worried about my child, feeling the pain as if it were my own, then two of us, not one of us, would be deeply unhappy – and rationally (and when my husband complains that sometimes I am “too practical”, this is where it comes in handy.) that makes no sense.

5th  – If I ever said that I was at peace, then let me take that back!  I’m not. My husband isn’t either. There is no peace to be had when you are a parent of a child who continues to struggle into adulthood. But there is a perspective that emerges over time from the knowledge that you have done all you can.

When I find myself in a calm and beautiful pace, like wandering through an art museum, or taking a long walk with a close friend, or sitting on the beach late in the afternoon as the sun is ebbing away, and I reflect that our child is not able just now to have similar experiences, I stop to think – my job as a parent is to enjoy it for the both of us.

Hoping this helps, Sarah. Stay in touch, Nancy W.”

*And perhaps my thoughts on this difficult subject will mean something to you too? If not, did help me to write this out;  sometimes I am my own best audience!






Filed under Adult Kids, Blogging, Books, Communications, Husbands, Letting Go, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Midlife, Parenting, Raising Kids, Social Media, Women, Writing, Young Adult Mental Health

The Perks of More Candles on the Cake – Getting Older Gets Better

iStock_000012608221_Double Birthday Candles

It’s my Birthday this week.

And I am firmly of the belief that it is far better to have a birthday than not – Right?

Which is why I have never understood why some people, unfortunately, it seems this happens more with women than men, speak only in whispers about their age.  Try to evade it when questioned.  Or say coyly – I’m 55 plus – or of a “certain age” – or 60-something.

Why would you want to hide your easiest achievement, something you accomplished just by showing up year after year?

So say it loud, say it proud, I am soon to be 63.

And judging by how my 62nd year has been, I expect 63 will have even more of the perks that getting older has to offer.

Perks you say?  Perks??  You may wonder if I’ve lost it. Tell me, Nancy, just where are the perks in the as-we-age bodily aches and pains? Do you find  benefits in the illness of friends or family? Is there an upside that only you have discovered to death and grieving?

No, of course, not, I’m right there with all of you who experience the many woes that accompany the aging process. I don’t mean to minimize them at all.

But in the past year,  I have found, rather surprisingly, for I am definitely not at all a Pollyanna-sort-of-person, that there are some wonderful aspects about getting on in years. Unexpected Perks! –  that balance out the less fun parts.

I count at least 10 Perks– Here’s my List:

1.  The older I get,the less I care what others think of me. Very liberating.

2. If I start a book, I no longer have to finish it. If it doesn’t wow me, I can put it down and move on to the next good read. No guilt.

3. I’ve given up bristling when someone calls me “ma’am.”

4. Resentments? Old hurts? Not so much. It uses up less energy to leave slights in the past.

5. I’m just as opinionated as ever, but I am trying hard to mute my critic voice. If a friend happens to think that wearing a certain tight blue dress that shows her every figure flaw is an appropriate look, then fine for her. My lips are zipped.

6. I still care about my appearance. I do slather on skin cream every night that promises to “rejuvenate, renew and restore” even though I know it won’t. But I have made a few concessions. I am no longer a prisoner to my blow dryer. And recently I tried a radical experiment and actually left the house to do an errand without wearing any mascara!! And life went on.

7. I know that not everyone I meet will like me  -or “get me” – and that even if they do, they will probably like my husband more. Fine.

8. I don’t expect my adult kids to live their lives in ways that will make me happy. I did my best as a parent, they’ve now grown and flown (mostly) and their jobs are to find their own paths, not to follow mine.

9. I still worry a great deal – mostly about things I cannot control (like my family’s health; curious, because I rarely worry about mine) – but I try to worry about only one thing at a time. This is progress for me.

10. I’ve started to say “I love you” more frequently. I’ve always said it to my husband, kids and family. But as I get older I realize that I love lots of other people to whom I am not related.  It’s good to love your friends, too, and to tell them so. Aging has made me more affectionate. Who knew?


Back to #1 for a second – while it is true that the older I get, the less I care about what others think of me – the reverse has also occurred. The more candles on the cake, the more I care about what I think about me.

As my standards for others relax, my self standards ratchet up. I expect more of me than I ever did.  I’m in charge, I set the rules of how I live my life from now on. And I’m pretty demanding!

Turning 63 = Liberating, Terrifying, Exhilarating. Carpe Diem!


Filed under Adult Kids, Aging, Baby Boomers, Books, Empty Nest, Family, Female Friends, friendship, Men vs Women, Semi-Retired, Women

Find a Career that Makes Your Eyes Light Up: Advice for Recent and Not-So-Recent Graduates

bowl of candy on desk

So, is there anything about law firm life that you miss?” asked my old friend, Tom, a big deal partner at a DC law firm.

We stood chatting late in the evening at a wedding reception a few weeks ago. Guests gathered by the dessert table; I was debating between the little parfait glasses filled with chocolate mousse or the fruit tarts. Or both.

No, not really,” I responded without giving his question much thought, my mind more focused on the tiny red velvet cupcakes as another option.

Tom tried again, “Really? Nothing at all about practicing law that you miss?”

O.K., so we were having a real conversation here, not just a polite inquiry among haven’t-seen-you-for-awhile old friends.

I countered, “Well, I did like advising clients. I always liked telling people what to do.”  I laughed,  “And I liked the paycheck. So did our mortgage company.”

Pause for a moment of silence while I recalled the thrill of my first sizeable law firm paycheck.

I also liked the candy. I miss that.” I told him.

You miss what?” Tom asked, with a puzzled look on his face.

(perhaps they didn’t have as much candy at Tom’s law firm as they did at mine?)

So I explained. “You know, the candy in the bowls that people kept on their desks.”

Every afternoon around 4:00 p.m. I would take a break and do a “power walk” around our law firm’s small office, stopping for brief chats with colleagues and staff and to select my daily rewards for making it through most of the work day. Susan could always be counted on to have a seasonal assortment, candy corn, turkey-shaped chocolates or peeps. Ned specialized in mints. David shared Tootsie roll pops.

The thing is that I don’t really even like candy.

Likely, though, that Tom doesn’t rely on candy as a work-day incentive. He is the kind of lawyer who loves what he does. I did not.

I thought of my conversation with Tom the other day while reading an essay by novelist Jonathan Odell, offering excellent, if unexpected, advice for graduates titled –  “Never Get Good At What You Hate.”

Odell, who left a successful corporate career at midlife to become a writer, reasons that if you do become good at a job that you don’t much like, then you will be asked to do more of it. And the more you do of it, the more you will be asked to do, and the more unhappy you will grow.

I recognized myself in his essay. I, too was very good at a career I didn’t much like. I didn’t hate it – I just didn’t love it. And what made it harder for me was being surrounded by colleagues who really loved being lawyers.

How could I tell?

Their eyes lit up when they talked about a new project, they relished a tough legal debate, they eagerly worked those long hours –  all because they had found that love for the law that bypassed me.

My law firm colleagues, Tom and my Dad, too, (now age 92, still practicing law at a firm he founded) – – they all share that gut level passion for the law that I lacked.

Over my lawyering years it became increasingly obvious that I was getting very good at what I didn’t like to do. It made me feel like an imposter, and while I hoped that no one around me noticed – I am sure that they did.

After 33 years of working hard, becoming a partner, earning the respect of my terrific clients –  it was only through the “luck” of having a defective heart valve go seriously awry 2x, that I was involuntarily de-lawyered.  I suddenly had all the time in the world to consider what I really wanted to do – return to my childhood passion, writing that does not involve any legalese.

Which makes me (if not my mortgage company) very, very, very happy. My eyes now light up (so my husband and friends tell me) when I talk about my latest writing projects.

I offer this cautionary tale for recent and not-so-recent graduates to ponder. And a question: how can you possibly know at age 22 or 25 – or at 58 or 62 what you will really like to do if you haven’t had the chance to do it?

Try this test with a few close friends. Let them sit in front of you. Then tell them about a few different work/life paths you’ve been considering.

Which one will make the work day go so fast that you won’t need candy as a mid-afternoon reward?

Which one will make your eyes light up?






Filed under 1st Job, Adult Kids, Baby Boomers, Careers, College, friendship, Law firm life, Lawyers, Midlife, New Grad, Semi-Retired, Women in the Workplace

Love, Marriage and Social Media


One of the best parts of reaching a “certain age” is that you get invited to weddings all over again. This time around – it is to the weddings of our friends’ how-did-they-grow-up-so-fast adult kids.

After an in-depth analysis based on my recent attendance at a grand total of two weddings this spring, I can confidently state that some things about nuptials remain the same. But some have changed. And for the better.

Let me explain.

Last Saturday we drove from DC to Brooklyn to attend the wedding of the son of my best pal from law school. The ceremony was at 4 p.m. in a darkly beautiful, historic gothic church in Brooklyn Heights followed by a reception in Prospect Park.

One step inside the Park’s Picnic House and I knew this was a millennial-designed reception.  No assigned seating, no name cards, no receiving line, no formality. Instead a group of very happy friends and family members clustered around a drinks’ table featuring a curated selection of local craft beer and personalized mixed drinks.

AND in a prominent place a boldly lettered sign providing the following social media instructions for guests:


For Instagram, please use #GroomLastNameBrideLastName

Social media instructions are very 2015. But some things about weddings – thankfully – REMAIN THE SAME since I was a May bride 37 years ago.

1. A wedding always involves a happy couple.

And as guests, we get to bask in the reflected glow of their happiness, watching as they recite their vows and pledge their troth. (whatever that is, they still pledge it.) And vows they still say, even if they leave out the part about “obey” (I did, too, to my husband’s lasting regret.)

2. After the ceremony comes the reception – and hors d’oeuvres will be served.

I am a huge fan of tiny appetizers.  While you may be among those wedding guests whose first priority is to get your first drink, or to offer congratulations to the bride and groom, my first reception task is to determine from which door the waiters carrying the fresh trays of hors d’oeuvres will emerge.

On Saturday night, I lucked into an excellent reception location, about eight to ten feet from the swinging door so that all of the waiters had to pass right by me as they entered with trays of miniature potato pancakes topped with chives and sour cream, petite crab cakes and tiny goat cheese tarts.

(pro tip: please do not block me, if I get to the spot closest to the appetizer entry door. I can be fiercely hors d’oeuvres-protective.

3. There will be sentimental toasts.

The bride’s sister on Saturday night charmingly told a story about her younger sister in pigtails. The groom’s sister welcomed the bride into her family. And the best man embarrassed the groom with a reference to tray stealing from the college cafeteria. Guests applauded, champagne was served.


But some things about weddings  – thankfully – HAVE evolved.


1.No one blinks an eye if the happy couple are from entirely different backgrounds. 

33 members of my husband’s extended Macedonian-American family traveled from Michigan to Connecticut to see us get married by a rabbi under a chuppah; that was unusual in 1978, although my parents and relatives did a lovely job of welcoming my husband’s family.

Now in May, 2015, inter-everything marriages are the norm and differences in heritage are celebrated.

Early in the evening of Saturday night’s reception, the bride, the Korean-American daughter of immigrants, and the groom, whose forebears served as officers in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, both donned Korean wedding attire for a paebaek ceremony where they sought and received blessings from both sets of parents. After they bowed to their elders and drank ceremonial wine, their parents tossed chestnuts (symbolizing boys) and dates (symbolizing girls) in the air which the bride tried to catch in the apron of her dress to signify how many children she and her new spouse will have.

All of the wedding guests crowded around the paebaek ceremony, applauding and cheering –   I did spot my friend, the mother of the groom, flinch slightly when as it was announced that the newlyweds should expect 6 male and 8 female children.

2. No bouquet was tossed nor garter was thrown.

Saturday night’s couple, both medical residents at a major hospital, did not partake in these antiquated traditions. No one seemed to miss them. It was clear to everyone that this was a marriage of equals, of two young adults who take joy in each other’s accomplishments, yet intend to support each other in times which are sure to come when disappointments will outnumber successes.

3. Love is even sweeter the older you get.

When I was making the rounds of the weddings of friends in the late ’70’s and ’80’s , a wedding was pretty much a party. A chance to dress up, to eat the aforementioned hors d’oeuvres, to dance the night away. Now – after years of seeing our friends through divorces, second marriages, more divorces, the deaths of spouses and of elderly parents, I leap at the chance to go to weddings.  Purely happy events come less frequently as we get older, so any opportunity to share in the happiness of our friends in the glow of young love is particularly treasured.

To all of my friends whose adult kids are not yet in serious relationships, may I say with all due respect: HURRY UP.

I am not getting any younger and though I tweet with aplomb, if you want me to become an instagram expert too, I had better start learning now.


Filed under Adult Kids, Aging, Aging Parents, Baby Boomers, Family, Female Friends, friendship, Husbands, Marriage, Moms, Raising Kids, Women

“Going for the ‘Wow” Factor in College Admissions – From 2001 To 2015



I often think I am a prescient person. Then sometimes I find proof.

While cleaning a long-forgotten shelf this week, I came across an old folder containing copies of my early published essays.  In my lawyering days I wrote occasional freelance essays, satirical or poignant, or both, on subjects that captured my attention as a parent and was thrilled when I saw them in print.

On May 8, 2001 – 14 years ago!! – if you were reading the Washington Post, you would have seen my article on page C4:


Going for the ‘Wow’ Factor”

by Nancy L. Wolf – May 8, 2001

“Recently the University of California proposed to eliminate the SAT as a requirement for admission to college. I have another bold proposal to add to the debate on the college admission process: Start mandatory college counseling in the sixth grade.

What I have learned as the parent of a high school junior is that we have waited far too long to prepare our child for the rigors of the college admission process.

We thought we were ahead of the game. We knew she needed high SAT scores, excellent grades, evidence of as many advanced placement or honors-level courses as she could squeeze into a semester, and leadership in extracurricular activities. But apparently that is no longer sufficient. As the parents of juniors were informed at a recent college night at our daughter’s school, our children must also possess some great distinction, a unique talent or accomplishment to offer to their prospective college.

It is, of course, a little late, to develop a “wow” factor when your daughter is already a high school junior.

On the way home from college night, our daughter berated us for not thinking ahead. If only we had signed her up for advanced pottery classes when she was six or taught her how to fly fish when she was eight, she might have been en route to a national ranking or regional award in the talent of her choice. How could we have been so unenlightened as parents not to know to plan ahead for the college admission process.

Take a look at the Web sites of various selective colleges. Sure, they boast of the high SAT scores and grade point averages of their recently admitted classes. But they point with even more pride to the distinctive, unusual and frankly, sometimes odd accomplishments of next fall’s incoming class. Unfortunately our daughter is unable to contribute to this new diversity.

She is not a tiger trainer, nor a commercial fisherman, nor a champion cricket player. She does not milk cows at dawn on our family farm in Nebraska, or host her own cable television show, or regularly swim across the English Channel. She has not been a master junior golfer, has never been awarded a patent for her own invention and did not win a national Hula-Hoop championship. She is, simply put, a terrific kid. How devastating to find out after all these years that this is just not going to be good enough.

One of the speakers at college night was an admission officer at a university proud of its highly selective admissions standards. He shared with us the profile of a recent applicant – a young woman, first in her family to go to college, a nationally ranked pianist, the winner of numerous math awards, the captain of the tennis team, the highest of scores and grades, who had tutored young children in Chinese.

The other parents in the audience at college night were awed at her accomplishments. I could only wonder – when did she have time to floss?

With all that she packed into her day, so busy was she fashioning her pre-college resume, that she barely had time to say hello to her parents, much less to spend an hour of downtime watching MTV. I suppose that when she gets into that highly selective college of her choice, she can learn to floss there.

Yet, the admissions officer was dismissive of her achievements. He told us that she was too “well-rounded”. What his university was looking for was that special something, that oomph that no one else had. That “wow” factor that only admission officers know when they see it.

The stress on our high schoolers is palpable.

These kids worry that they must begin studying analogies for the verbal part of the SAT I well before they even know what an analogy is.  Now added to the anxiety about grades, scores and accelerated classes, they must also devote hours, beginning at a very young age, to development of their “wow” factor. That one singular talent that will help an applicant stand out from the highly qualified crowd.

The speaker at college night was dismissive as well of the accomplishments of another applicant whose admission folder he shared with us, someone he said was a “borderline” candidate, despite his extremely high SAT scores, grades and records of challenging classes. This young man, the admission officer, told us had been the class president, editor of the newspaper and captain of a varsity team. But, he said, his university gets many of these kinds of applicants – too much leadership! – these days. We parents all slumped in our chairs, racking our brains at this late date for that elusive “wow” factor.

Now I see that we have played this all wrong. As parents,  we could have helped give our daughter the “wow” factor she so desperately needs. But unfortunately, my husband is not a senator and I am not a Supreme Court justice. There are no science buildings at any of the colleges we plan to visit that have been endowed by any of our blood relatives. We have nothing to offer our daughter in the way of distinctiveness. We, too, are normal.

So I propose that mandatory pre-college counseling begin in the sixth grade. No wait, perhaps that is too late; first grade would be better. A sign-up sheet can be passed around in every school with “wow” factors to choose from. Each first grader will meet with the college counselor to decide on what “wow” factor will be his or her special area of expertise. Elementary and middle schools would hire special tutors for afternoon “wow” factor classes.

By the time each child gets into high school, that will be one less thing to stress about. Every kid will have his or her own “wow” factor.

But wait, won’t that make it less distinctive if every child has one? There, that will be our daughter’s “wow” factor – she will be the “normal” one! No one has a “normal” for a “wow” factor these days – she’s in!”


(post script from May 14, 2015)

Our daughter graduated in 2006 from an amazing liberal arts college which somehow overlooked her lack of a single “wow” factor, and instead had the wisdom to recognize that having a terrific, well-rounded, smart and thoughtful young woman on their campus would be an excellent fit for both of them. Would that be the outcome in 2015? Perhaps not, the college admission process has gotten even more frantic since 2001.  The pressure on teens and college kids to be distinctive, to excel, to be perfect has reached epic proportions. How can we  – as parents – push the pendulum back to the not so far off good ol’ days when being a terrific, well-rounded kid was actually a sought after quality? For the sake of our kids’ mental health, we must take steps to do this.)

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