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Advice to Parents: Give Your Kids Space to Grow

College dean says parents' daily involvement in undergrad life hampers independence

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Courtesy Lee Coffin / Alamy

Since 1990 I’ve been an admissions officer, working among teenagers, and I see a profound shift from those Stone Age days. Some of it’s obvious. The reliance on social media, the way they’re plugged in all the time. But a newer element is parental involvement and the propensity for students to reach back home, sometimes multiple times a day, in ways I don’t recognize. ​

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​A degree of independence used to be the norm. You might call home once a week and reverse the charges. Now I’m seeing three, four or five calls home every day, and who knows how many texts in between. Parents have become a day-to-day presence in undergraduate life in a way that wasn’t true 10 years ago, and certainly not 20 or 30 years ago. This is part of a larger parenting dynamic that’s twinned around a growing anxiety for success. My sister teaches high school in Connecticut, and she told a 10th-grade English class recently that she doesn’t give everybody A’s. Sure enough, she had kids standing at her desk asking why they got a B+. She said, “You’re in the honors English class, and you didn’t use capital letters on proper nouns.” Some teachers give A’s because parents get involved if they don’t. But who does that help? All those A’s become harder to sort out for college admissions. ​

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​I became a dean when I was 32 years old. Back then, I had a hard time looking parents in the face, but I’m now the graybeard who can speak a little truth here, and I want to say to parents: Stop it! Let your children wander forward, trip when they trip, dust themselves off, and learn from that, and stop putting on your superperson cape and swinging into action to fight their fight. It’s everything from writing the college applications to emailing us and calling us to try and steer the application through the process. When decisions come out, you wouldn’t believe the calls and letters and emails we get from parents — it’s rarely from the student themselves — trying to play referee or advocate. The push to make things happen is worse today than ever. This isn’t helping your children. ​

Let your children wander forward, trip when they trip, dust themselves off, and learn from that.

​I had a really bad interaction pre-pandemic. It was the spring of 2019, and a sophomore in high school raised his hand at an admissions workshop and said, “My mother tells me that college admission is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that if I blow it, I’m on a different path and won’t be successful.” All the other kids nodded as he said it. I said, “How does that make you feel?” He responded, “It makes me feel nervous that I’m going to fail and my parents will be disappointed.” It was really poignant. I hadn’t really heard a student express it quite so clearly. ​

​My Don Quixote dream is that we somehow get to a place where it’s enough for teenagers to be who they are, and maybe that starts with parents easing off. Like, We raised you well. You know how to take the training wheels off. Now, go. This adventure you’re on may not be sunny every day. You’ll have moments when you’re frustrated or lonely or disappointed or get a B, God forbid. We’re here for you. We love you. 

Lee Coffin is the Dean of Admissions for Dartmouth College

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