Surely you've witnessed, and winced, at the following spectacle: at the grocery checkout, one mom spills out to another mom her tale of woe and disappointment that her daughter failed to get accepted Early Decision to her first choice. The unfairness! The arbitrariness! The insidious biases working against her daughter! And her daughter stands right there, contorted in an agony of shame and fury. The worst is when the other mom casts pitying looks upon the daughter and offers (with smug under-statement) that her son received the relieving news that he'd been admitted to his first choice, AND with a full scholarship! This really happens! (I was stunned when a parent asked me if I was satisfied with the college my son was going to, having gained Early Decision admission. Why would I EVER be unhappy with my child's dream being realized? My son's college choice somehow fell short of this parent's prestige standards?!)
With the grueling college app ordeal behind them, you'd think high school seniors could revel in relief. But no. They cross the finish line, heaving and gasping, only to be pummeled by nosy parents who besiege them with inane, intrusive college questions:
"So what colleges did you apply to? Have you gotten into any of them yet?
"What's your first choice?"
"I know two students who went there; they both transferred out after one semester."
"I have a junior who might apply there as a safety. What kind of test scores did you get? How many times did you take the test to get those scores? Did you have to have tutoring?"
"I heard the valedictorian from the next town, who got a perfect SAT score and performed at Carnegie Hall is also applying there! I wonder what that does to your prospects..."
"So what's your safety? What if you don't get into your safety? Ya gonna take a gap year?"
Seriously, where do we get off prying into such personal, private affairs? Remember when you were expecting a baby, and how folks incessantly pried into the gender and name of your baby (which you would NEVER reveal for fear you'd hear "ugh! I've known three guys with that name, all three were consummate jerks!") And folks besieged you with questions: "Are you in labor yet?!" "When are you going into the hospital?!" And all you wanted was to savor a little pre-baby peace...
How would we feel if teens took the liberty of asking US in the checkout line of our local grocery store such probing questions about OUR life phase as:
"So how's your marriage holding up, now that you don't have to stay together for the kids?"
"Has the college savings account that you started 18 years ago accumulated all the funds you need for tuition, room and board?"
"You must be at least 50 now; doesn't this mean you have to get frequent prostate, colonoscopy and menopausal exams? Have you gotten your AARP membership card yet?"
There are many ways of understanding why we plague seniors with annoying college questions:
1) We adults are at a loss about how to engage teens in lively, authentic conversation. The subject of college is a lazy default for bridging the generational divide. ("You're a teen... hmm -- I can't ask you about your work or your spouse or your kids, but we do have education in common: I'll ask about your college search...") Surely we can call up our creative socializing energies here to talk about movies, politics, sports, Netflix series, favorite order-out food, ANYTHING but the "ground zero" of high school seniors' greatest angst.
2) We have the shameful urge to "size people up" on the basis of labels, as though a teen's personal value and life promise is captured by the prestige of the college they will attend: is this senior a Mercedes or a Geo Prism? A Tiffany or a Dollar Store? And if the prying adult hasn't heard of the college, the teen feels s/he has been banished to the hinterlands of the adult's GPS of respect (e.g. "Huh. Never heard of that one...where is that? Ottawa or something?"). Don't you hate being sized up on the basis of a single facet of your existence? You know, the cocktail party encounter when you're answering a guest's question "What do you do?" and you detect the guest's sights casting over your shoulder in search of a more impressive party guest to go talk to...)
3) We're being competitive, scouting out our child's rivals in the college sweepstakes? E.g. "I hope Joan isn't applying to the same college that Amy is, or Amy won't have a prayer." Or "if Ryan thinks he can get into 'Z University' then surely my kid could too." Yuck! Shame on us.
4) We're Schadenfreude-gloaters, soliciting disclosure about the college app status of others as a means to brag about our own senior's brilliant array of stellar college offers. "Eg; oh dear, you're still waiting, on tenterhooks! Oh our Elliott? WE are thrilled: he got in Early Decision to the joint MIT, Juilliard, Wharton, Engineering, Creative Arts, Entrepreneurial triple doctoral program!"
5) We mistakenly equate parenting prowess with prestige of children's college attendance. Perhaps a better indicator would be the degree to which Seniors are authentically true to themselves in their interactions and life decisions, and enjoy spending free time, being and talking companionably with us, their family.
Teens are given a bum rap as ill-mannered oafs, but frankly, in this context, we adults are the inconsiderate ones, coarsely posing invasive questions while our teens respond with commendable and gracious restraint. (One collateral advantage, however, is that we make teens' college departure ever so much easier with our tedious, annoying intrusiveness!) We've socialized our teens so well that they feel unjustified setting reasonable limits with adults. Alright, so maybe we shouldn't coach them to respond with rude conversation-stoppers such as " I'm sorry, Mr. Putz, perhaps after ALL your years on this planet, you don't realize that grown-ups' compulsive college questions trigger a projectile vomiting reflex... I'd hate to ruin your swell looking orthopedic shoes... oh they aren't?" Or "I've applied to The Canadian Institute of Aluminum Siding and Screen Door Repair... great security in that line of work..."
So how about, instead, we take time to address the situation in an openhearted, forthright way with our Seniors, and with each other?
8 To-Do's Instead
1)Talk with your teen about the "Ground-Hog Day" of persistent adult badgering about the college application process. Share, in the name of companionable compassion, any amusing anecdotes of your being bothered by tedious intrusive questioning into personal matters.
2)Apologize for any past public breaches of your teens' privacy you already committed.
3) Convey your desire, going forward, to guard their privacy and follow their lead on how to handle college questions. For example, would they like you to preserve their privacy by generically responding as follows? "I'll let you know how it turns out in the end, but for now, I promised Charlie I would not talk about his college application process to others, to honor his request for privacy; I hope you understand..."
4) If you need your own social support through the college process, obtain permission from your teen to be able to confide in one or a few select friends whom you'll swear to strictures of confidentiality.
5) Help your teen prepare a generic, respectful, self-protective response to nosy college questions... such as the conspicuously vague "I applied to several places, I'm sure I'll be really happy at whichever college I wind up going to." And if this is followed up with a pointedly persistent "Yes, but which colleges exactly are you applying?" perhaps offering "I'll let you know how it turns out" or "Sorry, but I've taken a vow of abstinence from discussing college apps along with the rest of my class of 2014. "
6) Forge a school-wide moratorium on college questions. Let teens incubate their own dreams and plans in a protective cocoon of privacy, free of unwelcomed judgment. Start a school crusade; afix bumper-stickers, sport wrist-bands and tee-shirts that proclaim: "Take a Vow of ABSTINENCE! From asking annoying college questions!" This moratorium on college-speak should encompass ALL high school students, not only seniors. Why? Because it is precisely this parental college-application obsession that ratchets up student anxiety to such an all-consuming pitch that they become automatons, trudging joylessly through their teen years in robotic adherence to programmed, college-resume-enhancing strictures.
7) Replace buzz-kill college-speak with playful, probing discussions about funny events, global affairs, favorite bands, embarrassing mistakes, frustrating challenges, recurrent dreams--anything real, authentic and refreshing for teens.
8) Focus your energies on NOW, on knowing and loving your children as they are today. Teens flourish most openheartedly and earnestly when YOU are most openhearted and earnest, when YOU are agenda-free, interrogation-free, spontaneous, playful, and fully present in the present moment. Learn who your teen is right now, what you treasure and love most fiercely about this child... who is way-too-soon to be released to the universe.