Parents behaving badly …


It’s a tough tightrope out there, and well-intentioned parents are often hurting more than they’re helping.

Parents behaving badly – it happens all the time in the college admissions process. Striving for balance is key.

Moms and dads on both ends of the parental spectrum often make a mess of things: hovering parents who control every step of the process, simultaneously sheltering and smothering their children, and at the other extreme, the overly laissez-faire, “You’re on your own, figure it out,” parent.

It isn’t impossible to get it right, but parents need to have a clear understanding of their children’s threshold for independence.

There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates the damage caused by helicopter parents, but what I’m seeing more frequently – and is of some concern – is a pendulum swing to the other side, where parents choose not to be involved.

I often talk with parents who proudly proclaim, “I’m not going to be a helicopter parent; I’m stepping out of the picture entirely.”

But that is not always what their child needs. Many parents fall flat because they don’t have an accurate understanding of what’s involved in the process, and they fail to grasp their own child’s capabilities.

Here’s a fairly typical case scenario: I receive a phone call from a mom or dad where they briefly describe their child’s academic standing. I’m told, “We haven’t done a thing about college. We’re lost, please help us.” But then they walk away, absolving themselves of any responsibility or role in their child’s research and selection of a college.

The process can be overwhelming, even for those who start early and stay engaged. Pushing it all toward the child who hasn’t thought much about college and who already feels overburdened and stressed out isn’t fair. The parents think they’re doing the right thing by empowering them; but all too often their children aren’t ready to tackle this assignment on their own.

Parents need to understand the complexities of the college admissions process. There are colleges to be researched, campuses to be visited, applications to be completed, essays to be written, letters of recommendation to be requested – and don’t forget about the pressure of standardized tests.

For students who have been coddled since pre-school, this is not the time to tell them to fly solo. They need parental guidance, support and most of all encouragement.

Most importantly, parents need to evaluate where their child needs assistance. If you haven’t had this conversation with your child, ask them what areas they’re anxious about and how they’d like you to help.

Don’t assume that because it has been a few decades since you applied to college that your experience is irrelevant. It’s a learning process for everyone.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions