“This is your last act of parenting.” – Michael Thompson
The mother two seats down from me was the picture of nervous tension, with hunched shoulders and lips pressed together, an open spiral notebook and pen resting on her left leg which was tightly crossed over her right. Like many if not all of the 250-300 parents sitting on the edge of pews in the chapel of my son’s school, I could sympathize. We were there for the opening session of “Upper Parent Kickoff” (“Upper” being Andover’s nomenclature for “Junior”), the formal beginning of the college counseling process. I figured my experience with admissions committees at Stoneleigh-Burnham and with my college’s Alumni Admission Program gave me a major advantage, and in some ways they do. But I badly (and inexplicably) underestimated how strongly I wanted everything to work out for my son in the end, and to my surprise kept having to stop my right foot from jiggling up and down.
Michael Thompson, a noted expert in adolescent psychology, internationally respected consultant, and author of multiple books, was there to speak to us about what it’s like to navigate the process from the twin perspectives of parents and students. Most students, Mr. Thompson declared, want three things: connection, recognition, and mastery. The process of applying to colleges and choosing which one to attend is very much intertwined with these three basic needs, and as such can be seen more as a process of self-definition than a process of simply figuring out where you’re going to spend your next four years. This is particularly true since “finding the right fit” is far more than just a catch-phrase. The role of gut instinct in choosing a college is genuinely important, since the number one factor in determining success in college is how well a student feels they fit in and what friendships they make. Listening and nodding, I felt a little better about the mental image I carry around of myself at 17, visiting Middlebury and thinking, “The students are so nice! I think I’ll go here!”
Of course, at Stoneleigh-Burnham, as at all good schools, this process of seeking connection, recognition and mastery begins long before January of one’s Junior year. Indeed, one could argue persuasively that it begins even before students arrive to register for 7th grade. Do they connect with our school while visiting? Do we realize what they have to offer? Are we perspicacious enough to recognize their skills and talents and willing to push them beyond where they are now? One Friday, one of the 7th graders confessed to me that when she came here, she was incredibly nervous that there wouldn’t be anyone here like her. “But now,” she said, “I can relax, because I’ve found those people.” Just a few days before, those students who had been in class on a “snow day” and had worked on skits had asked me if they could perform them. The first group sparkled, with uncanny timing, subtle shifts in tone and mood, and genuine interplay that brought out the best in each actor. I smiled to myself, thinking of the wonderful surprise that awaits the audience for this May’s Theatre 7 play, and how many sincere and heartfelt compliments they will receive. Meanwhile, one student who looked me square in the eye in the first week of classes and said, “Don’t just tell me I’m good. Tell me how to get better.” now regularly eyes me as I cross the room to check on her work and sighs with mock despair, “You’re going to ask me more questions, aren’t you?!” Connection, competence and confidence, the three main elements of self-esteem in girls according to JoAnn Deak, relate quite strongly to Michael Thompson’s trio of connection, recognition, and mastery, and these themes are woven through all we do.
As high school students prepare to set out on their own – and, as Michael Thompson emphasized, even for kids who are boarding students, college represents a new level of independence and autonomy – one of their biggest hopes is that the right college will make that connection, give them that recognition, and help them develop that mastery. As parents, our role – honed through years of practice – is primarily to love them and believe in them. The major theme of Upper Parent Kickoff, mentioned first by Michael Thompson, reinforced by a student panel, and re-reinforced during group sessions with college counselors, was “Trust your children. Give them the support they need – but on their terms. Let them drive the process.” Equally important, we need to keep in mind the words of one college-bound girl attending one of Mr. Thompson’s workshops: “At the end of this process, I will still be me.”
I remember congratulating my sister-in-law on the high school graduation of her younger son. “It doesn’t feel like a time for congratulations,” she said. “Now he’s going to leave us.” I responded, “I know. It’s totally different from when we left our parents and went off to college. We were grown up and ready to be independent.” “Exactly,” she said, with the same twinkle in her eye I had. “It was right for us, but they’re ripping our hearts out.” There is nothing like the sheer, stunning, uncomplicated depth and power we experience through our unconditional and life-transforming love for our children. Realistically, college does mark the formal break between childhood and adulthood. For parents then, even boarding parents, watching their children apply to and enroll in college is in many ways the last act of parenting. For students, on the other hand, it is in many ways the first act of adulthood. The give and take of these dynamics can complicate the process tremendously if we don’t keep an eye on what really matters – that we want our kids to be happy, independent, and truly who they were meant to be.
By the end of Mr. Thompson’s talk, the mom two seats down from me had unclenched herself and relaxed, smiling and nodding at different stories and ideas. Her notebook still lay on her lap, blank, the pen untouched. Soaring highs and gut-wrenching lows may well await us through the next year and a half. But if we love our children and they love us, if we trust our children and they trust in us, we will definitely get through it together.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean