Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers

College Dreams – for parents of younger kids

I was recently asked to give a talk to parents, most of them with kids ages 5-16.  They asked for my observations of college and graduate students who struggle with college and career issues.  They were interested in identifying what they could do, as parents, to help their own children develop positive characteristics and behaviors to successfully navigate college and young adulthood.

We must first acknowledge that our children are growing up in very unique times and are very influenced by the times. In “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge, she writes “Like it or not, when you were born dictates the culture you will experience.  This includes the highs and lows of pop culture, as well as world events, social trends, economic realities, behavioral norms, and ways of seeing the world.  As in the words of a prescient Arab proverb, ‘Men resemble the times more than they resemble their fathers.’ ”

But that doesn’t mean we parents cannot influence their worldview at all.  We just need to be very conscious and deliberate about what we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do (which communicates what we believe and value) and what we guide them towards experiencing and thinking.

Before we begin, let’s evaluate our own knowledge (or lack of) and beliefs about college and success.  The following facts are based on research by Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me”.  Did you know that…

1)   75% of college freshman hope to earn an advanced degree?

2)   12% of college freshman want to be an doctor? Only 1% actually become one?

3)   In 1999, teens predicted they would be earning a salary of $75,000 at the age of 30? Yet the average income of a 30 year old in 1999 was $27,000?

4)   Even if you have a perfect SAT score and apply to Harvard, you only have a 50% chance of getting in?

5)   About 10% of applicants to Ivy League schools are admitted?

6)   The average GPA of admitted students at San Diego State is 3.5 and have SAT scores at the 67th percentile.  Not long ago, it was called a “party” school.

We need to be careful with what we’re communicating to our kids.  All the hard work, extracurricular activities, pressure and sleep-deprived nights will not guarantee college acceptance.  And college acceptance does not guarantee the good life (and not only in a recession – which most pundits think is going to feel like we’re in one for awhile, even if we don’t technically call it a recession).

There’s no arguing with the reality that life is much more difficult today than in 20-30 years ago.  From “Generation Me”…

“This is the scenario for young people today: To get a decent job, you must have a college degree, preferably from a good school.  It is harder to get into a good college, and more expensive to pay for it.  Once you get in and graduate, it is difficult to get into a graduate school and sometimes even more difficult to find a job.  Once you find a job, corporate downsizing and restructuring create the constant threat of layoffs.  By the time you’re in your thirties, career pressures are compounded by the demands of raising children when both of you have to work to pay the bills.”

“And although materialism has increased…that’s not why things are so financially depressing now.  These days, even the essentials are astronomically expensive: housing, health care, day care, and education costs have all far outstripped inflation.”

“ ‘You need a college degree to just be where blue-color people the same age were 20 or 30 years ago,’ says sociologist James Cote.’ “

Given these facts, we need to prepare our kids for a challenging, difficult future.  Going to a good college isn’t going to be enough. More than ever, parents need to play a big role in shaping their kids hearts, minds and souls.  (For those of you spiritually inclined, this is one of those ‘God-sized’ situations that I heartily recommend you ask for His help).

By the way, it’s not unreasonable to consider that your teen may not need to go to college.  For those who have strong mechanical skills working with their hands, they might be better off learning a skilled trade.  In America today, these skills are in high demand.  Think about how much some electricians, plumbers and fix-it folks charge you.  They could probably charge you even more and you’d pay for it.

Here are the types of traits I see in kids who struggle in college and post-graduate life:

  1. Not able to handle challenges, disappointment, failure.
  2. Not comfortable with venturing into the unknown and learning and trying new things.
  3. Not able to articulate likes and dislikes, preferences; Not able to articulate the core reason for their own feelings and opinions.
  4. Don’t want to plan ahead or take responsibility.  Would rather defer to parents or procrastinate until forced to decide or act.
  5. Uncomfortable and generally unwilling to ask for information and/or help from adults.
  6. Unwilling to work hard or strive to do great work; just try to get by.
  7. Selfish and self-serving; unconcerned about the needs and feelings of others.

No parents want their kids to exhibit these unproductive behaviors and attitudes.  Instead, there are positive characteristics that we must strive to help them develop:

1. Resilience – the world is rapidly changing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top jobs in demand today didn’t exist six years ago; and today’s student will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38. Jobs today are not the hot jobs of the future. Recent events demonstrate this too.  Our kids need to be prepared for this new reality.  Young adults are stunned at how cold and cruel the world is.  In “Quarterlife Crisis” by Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins, one subject, Joanna, says, “College doesn’t prepare you for the real world emotionally…the environment in my first job was sterile, not nurturing and full of people who didn’t care about my welfare or happiness or well-being.”  What can parents do…

  • Allow their kids to try many things – even things they won’t be good at.  Allow them to experience failure.  Walk and talk them through it.  And love them all the way through it.
  • Talk about times that you experienced failure and made mistakes when you were a kid.  Tell them that you aren’t perfect.  Let them know that they don’t have to be perfect.
  • Don’t communicate that there’s only one perfect career for them.  Don’t get too enthusiastic about any specific thing they say “they want to be when they grow up”.  You may mislead them into thinking that they’ll let you down if they change their mind.  Instead, tell them that you’ll love them whatever they do.
  • Be careful not to say things like, “Do whatever makes you happy”; or “Follow your passion”; or “You can be anything you want to be”.  These are all phrases that aren’t very helpful because they are difficult to understand and near impossible to fulfill.

2. Curiousity, Inquisitiveness and Enjoys Exploring – When a child has a desire to gather information and have new experiences, they will be equipped to learn about all that college and young adulthood have to offer.  It’s a time to understand how the world works and how one shall fit in it.  Too many college students focus too early and are devastated when they find out that their chosen path isn’t what they planned.

  • Encourage them to try new things.  To do it on their own.
  • Get them to sleep more so that they have the energy and capacity to explore.  Tired kids don’t want to venture out and learn new things.  In “Nurture Shock”, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “90% of American parents think their child is getting enough sleep.  The kids themselves say otherwise: 60% of high schoolers report extreme daytime sleepiness.  A quarter admit their grades have dropped because of it.  Depending on what study you look at, anywhere from 20 to 33% are falling asleep in class at least once a week…It is an overlooked fact that children – from elementary school through high school – get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago.”
  • Also from “Nurture Shock”, “the performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader.  Which is another way of saying that a slightly-sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a mere fourth-grader.”

3. Self-awareness – When kids know what they like, don’t like and why will help them identify and pursue interests and avoid things that don’t make sense – especially things peers or parents push them to do.  It’s amazing how many young people I meet who have no sense of who they are and what turns them on and off.

  • Ask open questions and listen.  Help them assess experiences and get to the essence of their feelings: “What do you like/dislike?  Tell me more about that.  What’s do you think is at the core of that feeling?”  Be silent and let them think about it.  Don’t rush it.  Do not push them to answer if they’re not in the mood.  Just re-visit at a later time when they feel like talking.
  • Don’t answer for them.  Don’t assume that you know – even if they’ve answered it before.  They are experiencing new things all the time and they are changing and discovering new things.  So let them change their answers if they want to.  Tell them that it’s normal and OK to change their mind.

4. Proactive and self-reliant – One goal that most parents share is for their children to be independent and able to take care of themselves by the time they leave for college.  Some parents struggle to achieve this goal because they want to “help” their children and unwittingly create kids who cannot handle tough situations and not able to plan and think on their own.

  • Teach your child how to plan and take action.  Don’t do it for them.
  • Encourage your child to take action in gathering information and resolving issues.  Don’t do it for them.
  • Don’t over-praise (advice from “Nurture Shock”):  your child become risk averse and concerned with image maintenance because they are afraid that you stop praising them.
  • Don’t over-reward (advice from “Nurture Shock”): they will not develop persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear (which could easily happen in college or on their 1st job).

5. Comfortable with adult relationships and conversations – Many students and young adults today make decisions independently or in the counsel of just their same-aged friends.  They are uncomfortable talking to adults from whose wisdom and perspective they could benefit.

  • Connect them with other adults and possible mentors.
  • Let them shadow your friends who have different jobs.
  • Role play the conversation you’d like them to have with other adults so that they can learn what a good conversation would sound like.
  • Tell them stories of how such conversations made a difference in your life.  Or  perhaps tell them that you wished you had done it when you were their age.

6. Strong work ethic, high standards and continuous learning – Performance is one of the major career assets that will help your child be marketable and employable throughout his/her life.

  • Grades are a by-product of having this attitude, not the goal.  Otherwise students believe that just getting good grades will lead to a college of their choice or a guaranteed job. In today’s competitive world, students with the best grades are not necessarily the most employable or most prepared for the work world.
  • Reinforce these positive attitudes and behaviors when they exhibit them.  Be specific about exactly what you saw them do and why it was an example of the attitude or behavior.  This specificity will enable them to clearly understand what you’re praising.

7. Compassion, generosity, purpose or meaning outside one’s self – Many young people are unhappy with their lives.  They aren’t fulfilled.  They aren’t happy.  Life is too hard.  Many have been set up to believe that life is supposed to be something it’s not.  Be careful with what you’re encouraging them to believe – given what you say and don’t say around them.

  • Life and work isn’t all about personal fulfillment, self-focus and satisfying selfish desires.
  • A job may not satisfy one’s every need and desire.

Remember that your child is not you.  Their life is not your life.  And their timetable is not your timetable.

I have received guidance from many experienced parents who tell me “Your relationship with your child is paramount.  Never do or say anything that endangers that relationship and trust.”

For me personally, I am not concerned about what college they go to or even if they go to college.  I am concerned about their character:  Their ability to independently handle and manage uncertainty, change and challenges; their self-awareness and clarity of purpose, beliefs and values; their willingness to explore, learn and ask others (especially elders) for help and perspective; their self-confidence and desire to deliver high quality work, results and strive to continually learn and improve; their compassion and desire to help others.  With these traits, I am pretty confident that they’ll be fine – no matter what the world throws at them.

I hope that my thoughts helped you think a little differently about your role and responsibility as parents of kids in the 21st century.  It’s a daunting task, but I am confident that you have the tools, mind and heart to succeed.  Just make sure that you are crystal clear on how you will define success and what it really looks like.

Category: Tips for Parents