Category Archives: Education

Not Writing Because I am a Writer: Self-Doubt as Self Story

Why, you may ask, have I not been writing posts for this blog as frequently as I once did?

When I started this blog in 2014, I wrote one post a week. Every Thursday; very disciplined.  Then once every two weeks. Now it has slipped further. My friend Caroline asked me why I am writing less often.

Because I am now a fully accredited writer, I told her. A writer who is enrolled in a Master’s degree program in Writing at a highly regarded university. And the more I write, the more I doubt myself. 

Which I think is something many women have long excelled at. Self-doubt.

I don’t think it I am alone in specializing in self-doubt.

I wrote once about visiting a law school professor during his (always “his” back then) office hours to question my grade on a final exam. I thought it was too high! Can you imagine, I suggested he’d made a mistake in giving me an “A” because I didn’t think I deserved it. The professor politely confirmed that his grade was correct and shooed me out of his office.

Some of us never learn. We think every good “grade” in whatever field we are in must be a mistake on the part of the grade-giver.

That close cousin of self-doubt, self-comparison, has also been visiting me lately. You may share the same unwelcome cousin, those thoughts that compel us to compare ourselves to others.

Though you haven’t asked, I will tell you that I have been getting (unexpectedly IMHO) excellent grades in the writing course I am taking this semester. In “Contemporary American Writers” we read both fiction and non-fiction written by a diverse group of American (duh) writers and then write Critical Response papers analyzing their work from the perspective of a writing craft technique such as character development, point of view or structure.

True Confession:  I had to google the term “Critical Response.”  It did not help when our young adult son told me that he learned how to write a Critical Response when he was in middle school. When I was in middle school, it was then called “junior high” which tells you (a) how long ago it was that I was in junior high and (b) that I never learned to write a Critical Response paper.

But I do now!  I received a very good grade on the first one I wrote. And an even better one on the second.

Does this mean I am a good writer? Or simply a person who is good at following the professors’s directions? Both? Neither? Or someone perennially plagued with self-doubt.

The doubt factor has even crept into my reading for pleasure. I am a rabid reader. The kind of person known to read the back of Kleenex boxes when nothing else is available and is desperate for the printed word.

In the greatest of ironies, now that I am learning to read like a writer, I am enjoying it less! I read a few paragraphs in a much-anticipated novel or a favorite mystery and then start to think:

  • wait, isn’t this too much back story?
  • shouldn’t there be a scene here instead of summary?
  • did the author just make a mistake in her point of view?

Sometimes I want to go back to my old self who was not consciously aware of the distinctions between “alliteration,” “anaphora” and “assonance.”

Perhaps I have also mislaid my writer’s “voice.”

At a meeting of my amazing DC women’s writers group earlier this week, my writer pals unanimously concluded that while my writing has improved (they credit the classes I’ve been taking),  I seem to have lost some of my writer’s voice.

I’m not as snarky, not as sarcastic, not as candid, not as clever. Not as much me. Perhaps because every time I sit down to write I am too damn careful to use every bit of writerly craft I’ve been learning correctly.

Too much focus on craft = loss of authentic voice?

The supportive women in my group reassured me that I will – someday – recover my original voice. That once I get beyond this “wow, look what I learned today” phase of my writing career (which is, by the way, annoying the heck out of my husband), that the craft part will come more naturally and the authentic me part of it will return.

Will I also outgrow the “self-doubt” part as well? Or will I always be that person double-checking the transcript to see if my grade is correct?

I vote for the latter. Self-doubt is not easily outgrown. Look at this way: like many women, I will always –  effortlessly – get an “A” in self-doubt.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Blogging, Books, Communications, Education, Female Friends, Law School, Reading, Second Careers, Women, Writing

Boomer Learning From Millennials: Lessons From a Fiction Writing Class

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do know who Beyoncé is; I want to state that from the outset. I may not be familiar with all of her songs or videos – but yes, I know what she looks like and that she is a famous singer/songwriter.

What I did not know was that a recent politically themed skit I saw on TV ( a funny, IMO, take on Mr. Tangerine Man) on “Saturday Night Live” was meant to be a parody of her Lemonade video.

Missing out on current cultural references? Yup, it happens often as we get older. But so – thankfully – does an appreciation for the different perspectives that come from being able to study with people of different ages.

There are eleven students in the “Techniques of Writing Fiction” class I am taking this fall at JHU. Perhaps half are under the age 35. The very nice young man who sits to my left in class listened to me patiently the other night as I fumbled to describe the SNL skit. He turned to me and said, “Oh, you mean the skit that was the parody of the Lemonade video?”

I laughed, pretending that I had known all along about Beyoncé and the video reference. I’d like the younger students in my class to think I am culturally au courant but I’m sure they recognize that I am not.

But I do enjoy being around the 20 and 30-somethings because of the perspectives they have. Not only their outlooks on life, but how through the lens of their experiences and age (or lack thereof?), they offer up unexpected interpretations of the stories we read for our class homework.

Last week one of the assigned readings was the classic “But the One on the Right” by Dorothy Parker, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1929 (and no, I was not alive in 1929.)

It’s an interior monologue of a woman of a certain age who is purposefully seated by her hostess at a formal dinner party with the intent to entertain the known-to-be boring man to her left.  “We can stick him next to Mrs. Parker – she talks enough for two.”

The dull dinner companion likes to discuss each course of food as it is served. Yes, they both like soup. The fish course is fine too. He and Mrs. Parker disagree on the potatoes, but return again to a shared admiration of cucumbers. All the while Mrs. Parker is gulping down wine and wondering how more enjoyable the evening might be if she only she could talk instead with the seemingly more attractive man seated on her other side, who ignores her throughout the multi-course meal.

I won’t ruin the end of the story for you; it is well-worth reading.

I laughed aloud at the Dorothy Parker story, enchanted by her writing. The droll inner thoughts of a sophisticated older woman who implies she’d rather be happily cleaning her bureau drawers at home than be forced to be out in polite but terribly dull company. It rang true to me, having been at many parties stuck with an uninspiring conversational companion. Or two.

One of my younger classmates did not find the story the least bit humorous. To my surprise, she saw the narrator as a lonely and sad older woman.

Another homework assignment was to read a more contemporary, prize-winning writer, an Egyptian-born, Sudanese author named Leila Aboulela, who writes about identity, migration and Islamic spirituality. In her story titled “The Museum,” a young Muslim woman from a well-born but now struggling family in Khartoum comes to very cold Northern Scotland to study statistics in an unexpectedly rigorous graduate school program. Anxious about doing well in her studies, she falls under the unwilling spell of a smart but unpolished Scottish fellow grad student who is attracted by her exotic background.

Again, I won’t ruin the story for you; it also is beautifully written.

I was captivated by Ms. Aboulela’s main character, Shadia. Her straddling of two cultures reminded me of my own days in a small, 100 person graduate student program, half of us, like me, from the U.S. and half of us from other countries. I probably was not as culturally sensitive as I might have been to my own foreign student classmates back in the 1970’s.  Maybe filtered through those memories is why I found Shadia such a sympathetic character.

A younger student in our class totally disagreed with me. She thought Shadia came across as arrogant and selfish.

Is it odd that I find these classroom discussions so exhilarating?

We read the same words, the same stories, the same fiction, yet each of us interprets meaning so differently. In my suburban home-town book club, we also read and share thoughts about what we read, but we are a group of similar-aged women of similar backgrounds. Our discussions are, dare I say it, not quite as exhilarating.

Kudos really to the younger students in my fiction grad school class who are opening my eyes to what I am reading, who force me to pay attention, to acknowledge that what I perhaps think is the correct understanding of a story may not be the only way of understanding it. Diversity, differences, making me think about what I am reading – and what I am hearing from others. A good lesson to apply to the rest of life. Perspectives should always enlarge, not narrow, as we get older. I may even get to like Beyoncé yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Book Club, Books, Communications, Education, Reading, Women, Writing

Say “No” to an Admission Offer from a Highly Selective College?

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Sometimes I cringe when I re-read some of my older Blog posts. And sometimes I think I was spot on.

Early April is here – and with it, I’m moving beyond the March Madness of basketball (that final game where the underdog team Villanova beat UNC at the buzzer was well worth staying up late for) – and again observing the annual “madness” that the college acceptance season has become.

I wrote a Blog post in April, 2015 expressing my thoughts on what really matters when making a college choice.

Here is what I said then  – I think it rings as true today as it did a year ago ———>

 

———> Yes, it is a ridiculous and harmful obsession that some parents, shared at times by their teens, have with getting accepted to an elite, highly selective college.

And yes, “getting in” can become the narrowest of goals in the madness of this college admission season.

But – can I be honest here?

I think it really DOES matter where a student goes to college.

But probably not for the reasons you think.

1st – Attending a college with a well-known brand name DOES open future doors.

I agree 150% that fit matters far more than brand name. Yet brand name can help, especially in the post-college years – – let’s not kid ourselves.

When I applied for internships and jobs, every interviewer I met labeled me (rightly or wrongly) as smart based upon the school from which I had graduated.

“You went to Smith? My (daughter/wife/sister/niece/cousin) went to Smith. You must be smart.”

The name of my college opened doors – got me interviews, introduced me to well-connected alums.

Here’s the key though: It was up to me to achieve once I got in that door.

So if your teen pushes for a brand name school, he understands its’ name will always be on his resume. He’s right; that name alone may ease his path to jobs and graduate schools. But he has to do the work once he gets there.

2nd – Going to a college that offers a diverse and intellectually stimulating community in which to live DOES matter.

Much of the learning in college comes from outside the classroom – which is why it is important to attend a college where you will be surrounded by people you will learn from.

And, assuming a student, is open to new ideas, because this is really what college is about, isn’t it? –  she will not learn as much from people who look like her, think like her and grew up near her than she would from people who are dissimilar.

Diversity DOES matter – because highly selective schools usually can and do offer more financial aid, a student may find a truly diverse student community, in terms of background, beliefs, ethnicity, race and social class in a more selective school.

3rd –  and most important to me  – Where a student goes to college DOES matter to that student’s Mental Health.

Parents and their teens must discuss the topic of college student mental health – before the student sets foot on campus next fall.

The absurd stress of the college admission process is but a harbinger of things to come. If a student gets accepted to the dream elite school of her choice, the prize is an entrance ticket into an even more stressful academic environment.

Highly selective schools function as pressure cookers, packed with intensely focused kids driven to succeed and achieve, to get that A, to find the best internship, to land a prestigious job after graduation or get into a top medical school.

And the impact of all of that stress?

An increasingly deleterious impact on the mental health of college students. More students than ever, according to recent studies, report feeling anxious, depressed and/or stressed.

The University of Pennsylvania, seeking its own answers after a series of student suicides,  wants to change its own campus culture of  self-described “destructive perfectionism” – – a culture sadly familiar to many at similar top colleges where driven students put immense pressure on themselves to achieve and then think they have failed themselves (and perhaps their parents) if they don’t meet their often overly ambitious goals.

So step back a minute.

If accepted to a highly selective school, congratulations – and yes, it’s true that its’ name brand will be a helpful lifetime credential and alumni connection.

And yes, a top college often offers the most intellectually intriguing and diverse community in which to study and make forever friends.

But perhaps – if your student gets accepted by the most tippy-top, elite of schools, because of his perfect grades, mega test scores, impossibly impressive list of awards, achievements and leadership positions, even if your son or daughter is the kind of student who could barely find time to floss in high school, given how busy he or she was –

Perhaps your student should do the unexpected –  and  consider saying “no, thank you” to that most elite of colleges?

What if your student instead considered instead a college with a culture that is not one of  “destructive perfectionism” – but instead one that will support as well as challenge a student.

Here’s the plan:

  • Colleges themselves must take the first step to lessen the pressure to be perfect in order to be accepted.
  • Parents should dial down their own expectations.
  • Students should put their own mental health first (and second, and third) – and start rethinking about college (and high school) as places in which to enjoy learning, to thrive in instead of being driven into a frenzy of unrealistic achievement goals.

Then the only March Madness will be the games we watch on T.V.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1st Job, College, College, Education, Mental Health, Parenting, Raising Kids, Young Adult Mental Health

“The Last French Fry”: A Meeting of the Minds and Palates for Valentine’s Day

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I had another post all ready to go for today, but then realized that Valentines’ Day is this Sunday. Luckily, the wonderful women in my DC writers’ group liked a recent essay I wrote about the meeting of the minds and palates that led to my long marriage. They urged me to share it with the readers of my blog. So I’m posting it here. WARNING: It’s very food-centric and may pique your appetite; perhaps you should eat a delicious snack of your choice before reading it.

The Last French Fry

 

I blame my parents for my love of fried food

My Mom died when I was 28 and my Dad is now 93 years old and no longer eats fried food, with or without his false teeth in place. Except when we travel from DC to visit him in Connecticut. Then for old times’ sake, even though we all acknowledge it is not half as good as it once was, a fact which does not deter us, we drive to our favorite place, Rawleys, the old hot dog stand with the wooden booths on the Post Road where locals patiently stand in long lines to eat deep-fried hot dogs. We order with “the works” for my Dad, with “light mustard and onions” for me and with “chili and onions” for my husband. And two large orders of French fries, please.

I always fight over who gets the last French fry.

It is not that I am overly-attached to French fries. It is that I never used to eat the last French fry. For many years I meticulously avoided eating the last of anything, the last cookie on the plate, the last slice of pizza, the last chip in the bag.

My Mom told me that eating the last of anything meant I would become an old maid. A spinster. Unlikely to wed. She shared this bit (among many others) of folk wisdom of unknown origin with me when I was in my vulnerable teens and I took it quite to heart. It was not likely I would be without a husband since I was, from age 13 on, perhaps due to my large breasts, never without a boyfriend in tow. But I studiously refused to eat the last of any food item. Just in case.

When I met Jim, my husband-to-be, at a mixer in our dorm’s courtyard on the first night of international relations grad school, I tried to impress him with my sophisticated tastes.

I pretended to knowledge of foreign films I did not have and acted like I understood his position on the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. I did not want to let on that I regularly watched low-brow shows on TV to relax, read murder mysteries set in cozy British villages for the same reason and relished all fried foods. He thought he had met an intellectual, highly cultured young woman raised in an upscale suburban town. The part about the upscale suburban town was true.

On one of our first dates he set about to impress me with his high-brow interests. He took me to the Brattle Street theatre in Cambridge to see one of his favorite films – the painfully long, classic black & white 1938 Russian drama “Alexander Nevsky” which told the stirring tale of a 13th century battle on the icy steppes of Siberia. As giant horses and costumed Cossacks galloped on the screen, I feigned interest and glanced frequently yet discreetly, I hoped, at my watch.

After the film finally ended, he steered me to a Cambridge cafe he had found earlier that day. For all of Jim’s lofty talk about Eastern European politics and his multiple language abilities, he did not know how to read restaurant menus very well.

Only after we sat down did he discover that the menu he had seen outside the restaurant had been for lunch only. When the waiter handed us dinner menus with their significantly higher prices, I saw him wince. It was then I learned he was a scholarship student from a working class family.

The lunch menu he could afford; the dinner menu was well beyond his budget. I offered to go 50/50 on the check, an arrangement well suited to my 1970’s era feminist policies. And thus our long-term dating and dining relationship was born.

We both liked talking about international affairs (I acknowledged to his delight that he had the more in-depth knowledge), but when it came to eating ethnic cuisine, our palates were on equal footing. It had not gone unnoticed by me that ethnic cuisine offered many varieties of fried food. Somehow it was less guilt-inducing to indulge in fried food if it originated in another country.

As we continued to date through our first year of grad school, we frequented inexpensive restaurants of every ethnic stripe in the Boston area – Greek, Mexican, Sushi, Szechuan and Thai. When those became too tame for us, we ventured further out to Armenian neighborhoods to sample lahmajuns, to Korean communities to eat kimchi and to an Indonesian café to taste nasi goreng.

One of the reasons that Jim liked me, or liked eating with me, which was almost the same thing, given how often we dined out or carried in, was that I talked far too much. I talked more than I ate. He figured this out early on and took advantage of my garrulousness.

While I was busy chatting, he would nod his head, appear to be listening closely to me, but actually was aiming his fork at my plate of half-eaten Kung Pao Chicken, spearing a piece or two or three as I blabbed on. It was only after we had been together for about six months that I realized half of my dinner was regularly disappearing into his mouth. By that time, I was so besotted with him that I didn’t care.

When Jim was introduced to my Mom, she fell in love with him too. In part because he was an adventurous eater, but more so because he was always willing to share his dessert with her. When we visited them in Connecticut, my parents took us to their favorite French restaurant where Jim enjoyed moules Biarritz and the restaurant’s signature, Grand Marnier soufflé (order 25 minutes in advance please) for the first time.

Jim impressed both my Dad and Mom as a thoughtful person and a well-mannered eater. However, when he asked the waiter for mayonnaise to put on his tongue sandwich during a lunch at my parents’ mostly-Jewish country club, my Dad’s eyebrows raised high with disapproval.

It took us nearly four years to gain my Dad’s approval, and to realize that despite our religious and socioeconomic differences, our shared food palate would unite us forever. After we got engaged, my Mom gladly set about finding a caterer who would offer a menu to suit the tastes of both our families.

The ceremony was set for 12:30 p.m. rather than noon, because, according to another bit of obscure folk wisdom courtesy of my Mom, it was luckier to marry when the hands of the clock were on the upswing. On a lovely day in late May in the backyard of my family’s house, we toasted with Greek metaxa whiskey sours, dined under a big striped yellow tent on spanakopitas, gazpacho andaluz and coulibiac of salmon and then danced the Jewish hora and the Macedonian horo in circles around the dance floor.

There was nary a French fry in sight at our wedding reception. But then I didn’t have to worry about biting into that last fry anymore. And, luckily, 37 years later I still don’t.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Education, Husbands, Jewish, Marriage, Men vs Women, Midlife, Relationships, Talking, Women

Why Colleges May Offer “Parent Only” Dorms by 2025

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Why are we, parents in the U.S., a decade ago and still now, so ridiculously over-invested in where our offspring go to college?

Nearly ten years ago our daughter spent her spring college semester studying in Florence, Italy. Beautiful Firenze! My husband and I visited her in early March.

From my albeit brief experience as a world traveler, I can confidently tell you that parents in other countries may not be quite as invested in their kids’ college acceptance outcomes as we are.

Wrapping scarves around our necks in Florentine fashion to walk around the city every morning, my husband would ask for “caffe macchiato” and I said “prego” to every shopkeeper.  I’m sure we did not fool anyone into thinking we were Italians, but we liked to pretend that we were.

Being on vacation for a week that March distracted me from what was really on my mind. Waiting for college admission news for our younger child back home, then a senior in high school.

So while I was standing in line to get in to see the statue of David, admiring the crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and discovering the varied delights of crostini and ribollita,  inside my head I was partially back at home waiting for the mail to arrive.

This was in the day before email notifications of college admissions so I was visualizing thick envelopes (yes!) and thin letters (no) –  and worrying.

Whenever we travel, my Detroit-born husband likes to point out what kinds of cars the locals drive. He has gotten me in that habit, too. On our Italy trip that March it struck me what the cars I saw did NOT have.

Not a single car had a college sticker on its’ bumper or rear window!

How was that possible?

And in the other parts of Tuscany that we toured in our tiny rental car, we did not spot a car window or bumper sticker that said “Universita degli Studi di Firenze” or “di Siena” or “di Pisa”.

I remember thinking, if only we could never leave Italy, where there did not seem to be a parental obsession with where their children went to college. Unlike back home where parents wore college identifying caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts and drove cars sporting omnipresent rear window and bumper stickers as if we were the ones enrolled in college instead of our kids.

Our vacation ended, as all vacations (sadly) do, and we had to return to the land of overly-abundant college affiliation indicia.

Why do so many of us point with such pride to our kids’ Higher Ed affiliations in what we drive and wear as if we were the ones who actually did the hard work to get admitted?

Earlier this fall – prior to my recent Fabulous Fibula Fracture  – I had started to volunteer with a terrific college access organization which helps first-generation kids apply to, find financing for, get accepted by and once there, stay in college.

I can’t wait until my ankle is healed enough so I can hobble on back to it.

In this program I work directly with high school seniors. Not that I have anything against parents –  heck, I am one – but having been through the college admission process 2x, I would not want to deal with any parent who behaved as I did.

Thinking back to those past Octobers and Novembers when we were in the absolute thick of the college admission process, when the “C” word was like a curse word at our dining room table, I know that I was not at my best and highest self.

Those fall days when my kids snapped at me if I asked innocent questions such as “Good morning” or “How are you?”  – which my children wisely recognized as Mom code for “Have you finished your applications yet?”

The tension in our house was palpable. Luckily, my kids were accepted at great colleges because of what they, not me, accomplished.

This fall of 2015 the media reminds us that parents are even more involved (if that is possible) with their kids’ college choices. If this over-involvement trend continues, where might it lead to in another decade?

I see the future:

By the year 2025 The National Association of Over-Involved High School Pre-College Parents  (“NAOIHSPCP”) will have successfully lobbied for and won the right to be College Co-Attendees!

  • New “parent-only-variants” of the SAT and ACT will be adapted so parents will be able to submit their own corollary college applications.
  • Parents will be required to write their own “Why I Am Unique and Have Passion So You Should Admit Me” essays.
  • And by the 2025 colleges will have created specially configured dorms so parents may live on campus near their offspring.

Satirical, maybe – but really, if this hyper-pride-in-where-my-kid-goes-to-college trend continues on its current trajectory, perhaps Parent-Only dorms will be the Next Big Thing?

Take it from someone who’s been there, done that -> Rip up your NAOIHSPCP membership card now while your pre-college child is still talking to you.

Remember: Your kid is the one going to college, not you. Repeat as many times as necessary. And one small bumper sticker per family only, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under College, College, Education, Family, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Travel

Anxious Teens and College Kids? – Don’t Put All The Blame on Parents

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When our son was five or six years old we signed him up, as we did with his older sister, for a recreational league soccer team. Soccer is the Big Saturday Thing to do around here and while he was more of a Lego kid than a ball sports kid, we thought he should at least give soccer a try.

After all my husband was (is) quite the athlete, a nine-letter-man in high school. He hoped his stronger genes would outweigh my total lack of eye-hand coordination.

Hope springs eternal in parenting expectations.

On the first day of soccer practice our son wandered out onto the field and studied the trees and the landscape on the sidelines while the other kids ran around chasing the ball.

At next Saturday’s game, our son’s primary interest was again in the natural world around him. He didn’t seem to notice where the ball was – or indeed that there was a ball on the field.

Before the next Saturday rolled around, I asked him if he was enjoying learning the game of soccer. He admitted that he was not.

Is there anything about soccer that you like? anything at all?”

He replied –  “Yes, I like the orange sections at half-time.”

And that was the end of our son’s brief soccer career. (and the early confirmation of his life-long interest in biology, chemistry and cooking.)

This little life lesson from two decades ago taught me as nothing else has that our kids are not bendable, pre-cooked pretzels who we can shape according to our parental expectations.

So when I read the recent out-pouring of articles on overly-involved parents pushing their teens and college students into directions that their parents think are best for them, no matter what their kids think, I have to ask.

Has parenting changed that much since our son moved off the soccer field?

The cover of a recent New York Times book review featured no less than three books placing blame on parental shoulders:

  • “How to Raise an Adult – Break Free of the Over-Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success”
  • “The Prime of Life – A History of Modern Adulthood”
  • “Why Grow Up? – Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age”

Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to agree that “over-parenting” (short-hand for extreme parental interference/guidance a/k/a helicoptering) –  that done by a (I believe, very) small number of parents with “elite only” college admission as a laser-like focus end goal, can and does cause psychological harm to their teens.

But I doubt that parents bear as much blame for college student emotional distress as these authors and the media would have us believe.

“Expectational Anxiety” Has Many Sources.

Teens and young adults breathe in an air of “expectational anxiety” created by multiple sources.

This aura of great expectations can burden all kids; even those with the most independence-encouraging of parents feel its’ weight.

Kids as young as middle school age breathe in the “college is critical” message  – whispered by their eager-beaver classmates, from their high school teachers and counselors who remind them that college is just around the corner so grades really, really matter, they see ads for “get the highest score here” test prep companies, they hear the stories about how hard it is to get into the “right” college and how important it is to go to the best one you can – that college choice will make or break you for the rest of your life!! – from older siblings and friends.

Add in kid savvy about the economy, their awareness that the highest paying jobs are the most coveted, that tuition skyrockets unreasonably each year, and their status at the recipient end of the anxiety-producing mountains of  marketing and promotional materials that colleges and universities distribute with alarming frequency.

Top this all off with the explicit ridiculously high expectations set by college admission offices, the frequent lists and rankings of “top” colleges and purportedly “helpful” college advising websites that frequently use the word “Ivy” in their brand names.

Yes, teens and college students feel the weight of anxiety-producing expectations on their own shoulders, no matter what their parents may say or do – or not say or do.

Therefore a request: Mr. or Ms. Media, can you stop putting the blame so much on parents as a large, undifferentiated group?  Sure, a few parents qualify as micro-managers, helicoptering and over-controlling; these parents must be out there since you write about them so much – – but most parents of teens and college students are not like that – instead they try as hard as they can NOT to pressure their kids, to support them on their way to independent adulthood, to let them make informed choices of their own.

So would you just back off and aim your pointed pen at the many other culprits (see list above) that release this expectational anxiety into the air our kids and college students breathe. Parents do not deserve the blame being heaped on them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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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