Every psychologist knows that there are certain times of the year when the phone starts ringing like mad. Winter holidays are one of those times when people’s hopes for idyllic family reunions often meets the reality of your uncle who drinks too much, your siblings who reliably don’t show up or your mother who thinks you married “down.” Most of us in the mental health profession stay close to our offices between Christmas and New Years, anticipating teary, disappointed calls from adults who find, once again, that their Norman Rockwell visions have turned into Edvard Munch’s The Scream. For decades, this was the toughest time of year for both patients (well, many people actually) and therapists, when old hurts, disappointments and wounds unexpectedly reappeared, often taking center stage.
But times have changed and we have a new contender for the emotionally toughest time of year - and that is March - when college acceptances and rejections come in. What is profoundly different about this difficult time from what I described above is that, for the most part, it is unnecessary and fabricated not out of real trauma, but manufactured trauma. My phone rings this morning at 8AM (right after mail delivery) and a sobbing mother relates how her son was just rejected from “ the only school we wanted.” The first thing to note of course is the “we.” I’m assuming it’s her son who is going to college and not the whole family. But like many of these phone calls, the bleeding between the needs of the high schooler and the needs of the parents, practically needs a tourniquet. Parents are beside themselves about rejections that are incidental to their children; children are beside themselves about disappointing their parents. The normal level of excitement and disappointment that one would expect at this point is so out of proportion to the reality of what it means to go to Wisconsin instead of Michigan, Georgetown instead of Princeton, Santa Cruz instead of UCLA or Sonoma State instead of San Jose State as to defy easy explanation. So here’s my best shot at what is really going on during March Madness.
First of all, we’ve come to believe that where our children go to college will have a profound impact on how their lives turn out. There are companies that “guarantee” admission to a prestigious college if you start working with them while your child is still a toddler. Many schools begin college preparation in 6th grade and even more in 9th. This emphasis lets our children (and ourselves) know early and regularly that high school and even childhood are staging areas for something that will happen years, even decades later. In fact, both childhood and adolescence have a whole bunch of requirements of their own that have nothing to do with where your child ultimately goes to college. Long before that happens, they need to show self-control, get interested in themselves and the world, know how to talk and work with other people and reflect on their future selves. Premature focus on college takes away much needed time from the tasks and skills that kids need to master in order to go on and be successful college students, and then successful adults.
So does the college that your child goes to matter? Yes, of course. But not necessarily in the way we’ve become accustomed to thinking about it. Colleges and universities matter when they fit well with the needs, interests and temperament of your child. The child who thrives in a big social setting is unlikely to do well in a small rural school. The child who loves structure, may struggle with a school where there are few requirements. College is a match, not a prize. We have our eye on the wrong ball when we care most about the “ranking” of the college our child goes to. Academically talented kids, for the most part, go to competitive schools. But these handful of top schools can fill their classes many times over with bright kids. No kid should feel like a failure (another typical March phone call - a crying youngster who won’t get out of bed saying “I did everything right and it was for nothing.”) It is a tragedy to have high performing kids feel like failures when they don’t get into the toughest schools. It is equally a tragedy to marginalize kids who go to community colleges. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” said Yogi Berra. Few of us have walked a straight and narrow path to “success.” Many of us have changed focus, schools and careers. We should know better. There are few individual things that will determine our life’s trajectory. Life is simply more complex than that. No school guarantees success in life and no school eliminates it.
Instead of crying over rejections, we should be celebrating acceptances with our kids in March. Of course going to a high-ranking school may carry potential advantages. But an Ivy League study showed that there were no ultimate differences in workplace success or satisfaction among students who were accepted to Ivy League schools and attended and those who were accepted but didn’t go there. Ultimately it is your child’s life. The best guarantees of success for our children - not at the end of the grading period, not when they get into college - but twenty years down the line when they move into their adult lives, have to do with real involvement with learning (not just going through the motions,) a good emotional foundation and good values. Their college acceptances have nothing, or little, to do with your parenting. This is about your child. And they should feel good about moving towards one of the greatest transitions in their lives. Wherever your kid gets into college this month, go out and celebrate. This is how you share without bleeding.