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Lawnmowers and Snowplows

When I was a high school principal, a parent of a senior came up to me and asked, “Did you really tell my son he should turn down his college admission offers and go be a professional musician instead?” I smiled and said that yes, that was my advice to him. She shook her head and said she had not believed her son when he told her. Part of my advice may have been because in my next life I’d love to be a professional musician, but most of it was based on my knowledge of him, his abilities, and his dreams. We both laugh about it now, as that choice has worked out pretty well for him. Phew!

My point is, there are many paths to a successful adulthood, and college, particularly the name of the college, is not the only determinant of our children’s future success. Two of my friends who I would call extraordinarily successful did not go to college at all. And there is ample evidence that, for people who go to college, the name of the college they attend has little to nothing to do with their future success (see Frank Bruni’s – Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be; Challenge Success White Paper – Why College Engagement Matters More that Selectivity). As Jason Gay stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “College is college – some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.”

So why in the world do so many of us care so much, stress so much, and do all sorts of things to get our children into the most prestigious college possible? Why would parents risk their integrity, and their children’s integrity, by cheating in the college admissions process? Most of us would never even consider something that extreme, but it does represent the anxiety that plagues many parents and students, especially in a community that values education so highly and that is populated by so many highly successful college educated adults. In the wake of recent events, I have heard several stories of college students and graduates who called their parents and asked them if they pulled strings to get them into college. That’s a heartbreaking question on many levels, and it speaks to the culture that we live in, the pressure we put on ourselves and our children, and our perceptions about the whimsical nature of the college admission process, especially at the most “elite” schools – based not on substance but on luck, or fate, or a thumb on a scale. We have to do something about this. I hope this recent cheating and admissions scandal can be a catalyst and help pull us back from this insanity.

Our message to ourselves and to our kids about college should be simple: It’s going to be OK.

There are a lot of things in parenting that matter way more than where our children go to college. Are we raising children who are hard workers, who can overcome adversity, who are kind, who are passionate about something, who will be good parents and partners and friends, who strive to improve, who are confident in their own self-worth, who are ethical, who are healthy, and who know they are loved?

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who will be speaking at Mira Costa this Sunday afternoon and Monday night (sign up here), writes in her book How to Raise an Adult, “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?” I’ve heard this parenting technique called lawnmower parenting – blazing a path in front of our kids so that not a single blade of grass gets in their way. (In the north they call it snowplow parenting. I love southern California!)

And as we have seen, this approach is dangerous not only to children but to their parents as well. Lythcott-Haims adds, “Not only does overparenting hurt our children; it harms us, too. Parents today are scared, not to mention exhausted, anxious, and depressed.” I’ve seen it. It’s real. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it’s not just something we can flip a switch and change.

My youngest son is a sophomore in high school. I find it hard not to ask about his grades, and I don’t like it when his grades are lower than they I think they should be. But I’m working on it. Maybe I write these blog entries to remind myself to practice what I preach. BUT IT’S NOT EASY! I try to focus even more on what he loves to do, his friends, his challenges, and what he’s trying to get better at. Or just to talk about what he loves – movies, food, golf, video games, e-sports, or good things happening in this world.

What’s especially challenging for our parents is that many of us are talking the right talk, but our kids don’t believe it. They have accepted the false elite college premise, and they work each other up about it relentlessly. That’s why cheating is an epidemic in schools today. The cheating in today’s high schools isn’t from the Bluto Blutarsky’s of the world who are trying to improve their 0.00 GPA. They are A and B students wanting all A’s. Challenge Success has written a White Paper on that too – Cheat or Be Cheated – which examines the culture of cheating. Jason Gay adds in his article, “Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world more valuable than your integrity – and you can’t buy your integrity back.”

I write this for parents because it starts with us. Although we shake our head when we hear about the parents who paid big money, lied, or cheated to get their children into college, the factors that led to those behaviors are all around us every day. I encourage you to listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims and/or read her book, then talk about it all with your friends and fellow parents. Let’s shut down the lawnmowers and let our children fend more for themselves, practice self-advocacy, overcome problems, and even experience failure.

As for us, you know that we here in MBUSD are working on this too. We are striving to make our schools healthier places for our students. We are making changes to the amount and types of homework we are assigning; we now end the first semester in high school before winter break, allowing for a true break; we have Link Crew and WEB programs, both designed to welcome new students to a school; we cap AP classes for students at four; we have the “office hours” schedule at Mira Costa, making Wednesdays a unique day at the high school; and we are encouraging our students to be mindful in a variety of ways. And we’re still working on it.

We are all in this together.

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