Note: this article also appears on my blog at www.uni-versed.com
I’m not totally sure exactly at which point during my eldest son’s university application process, he started avoiding me. Whenever he saw me, he would swiftly and deftly pivot and change direction. On a good day he was taciturn. On a bad day he wouldn’t leave his room.
I, on the other hand, sought him everywhere, all the time. I wanted to know what he was thinking (he wasn’t) and what he planned to do about it (nothing). It didn’t matter whether he was studying, eating, or relaxing. I had questions and I wanted clear answers. Did he realize how important this stage of his life was?
He did. Which is why he was frozen with anxiety to start with.
As parents, we approach the university application process with our pre-set ideas, hopes and dreams. We ALL want what’s best for our children. We ALL want them to succeed. We ALL want them to be happy. And while we ALL know our children sometimes better than they know themselves, we don’t always know what is necessarily better FOR them. Pretending that we do only makes matters worse.
My worry about my son choosing the right course and university for him were pushing me into the driver’s seat. Instead of accompanying him on his journey, I wanted to lead him on it. Naturally, he rebuked. This was, after all, his car.
Luckily for both of us, when a well-meaning therapist suggested I get out of my son’s way to let him figure things out, I listened. I apologized to my son for my overbearing behaviour, and offered my help only when, and if, he needed it. I offered to be a sounding board rather than a brick wall. Tacitly, what I was promising was to trust him. The latter, I profess, was easier said than done. But at the end, it was either trusting him or losing my so-far (at least until before the application process) excellent relationship with him.
Now, as an admissions consultant, I encounter many different types of parents. They range from those who insist on driving, like I did, to those who are not even in the car. They all come from a good place: they love their children and they want the best for them. They are doing what they believe is best for their children, whether that be to coddle (even suffocate) them or to give them too wide a berth.
It is not the job of the consultant to parent the students, nor to tell the parents how to parent them. It is, however, our duty to share what we have seen to have worked in the past, and continues to work, with other families.
Every child is different and needs a different amount of support. But what they all need is someone to listen to them, to respect their opinions, and to provide a nurturing environment where they can feel safe, physically and mentally.
So here are four things I learned along the way as both, a parent, and a consultant:
- Hang around, but give them the space they need. Let your child know you’re there for them but if they are happy to figure things out on their own let them! This is the first stage of adulthood. They are asking for autonomy. Decision-making is a learned skill, the more they do it, the better they get at it. Your advice and your experience are extremely valuable, but they are their own story and you are yours.
- Challenge their ideas, not them. It is our duty as parents to question our children’s ideas, not to prove ourselves right, but to help them clarify their own thinking. Try to keep an open mind, if they can convince you of their choices, then just maybe they know what they’re doing. But if you make it personal, or if you make it about yourself, you might find them turning away from you.
- Respect their time. I have to say this is one of the best pieces of advice I have come across and I have to thank Brennan Barnard and Rick Clark for the tip. You and your children both lead busy lives. Rather than catch them off-guard while they are at the dinner table or just chilling, schedule a regular time with your child, suitable to both of you, where you can discuss their application, ask them what they’re thinking, how you can help, and maybe offer some of your learnings along the way. Any time you get an idea, don’t just say it out loud, rather write it down and bring it to the meeting. Chances are your child will be more open to discussion in general and more receptive to your ideas if you have respected their boundaries.
- Respect their final choices. Help your child to get to know themselves and understand their options and choices. But if, after all the time and attention you have given them, you still cannot trust them, maybe it’s best not to send them.
In case you’re wondering what eventually happened with my son, he is graduating this summer from the University of Edinburgh. His choice of degree—Acoustics and Music Technology—made me extremely nervous at the time, but that’s the subject of another post. I had made a promise to trust him and I stuck by my guns. Since then, I have also accompanied another son on his journey to University College London and am now helping my youngest through his own application process adventure. I am just grateful that I don’t have to send the dogs to university.