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Fostering Independence

Fostering Independence

I’m not a parenting expert and I have no training in child psychology, but as a person who gives advice to college applicants on how to succeed, the topic of raising responsible and and self-reliant adolescents seems appropriate. I see too many 15 to 17 year olds who are eager to attend the best colleges, but who have never been allowed to make a single mistake or take an independent decision. These children are “packaged” by the time they apply to college and colleges are not interested in perfectly packaged students. They are interested in students who can handle life’s realities.

So in addition to ensuring your child’s good health, unlimited opportunities and world-class education, here is a list of some things parents can do, which I think will help their kids when applying to college.

  1. Let them fail – you have heard this one before and it applies here too. Writing college application essays requires tremendous introspection about what matters to the student and what has shaped him/her into the person they are. A student who has only ever experienced success will not understand the value of that success when they have to write about it. When achievement is the norm, students lack perspective and empathy, both of which facilitate the process and progress of introspection. I ask all new clients to fill in a questionaire and one of the questions is “Describe a time when you failed or experienced a significant challenge.” It is disheartening that students typically leave this question blank.
  2. Give them freedom to explore and make decisions – they may not make the right decisions, but they will learn about the process of decision-making. With an adult always telling kids what to do–whether it’s choosing a sport or deciding how to spend a summer holiday – kids never learn to trust their own instincts. Their thought process may be wrong, and you can try to guide them, but make it a learning experience, not an ‘I-told-you-so’ experience.
  3. Let them go – I am surprised that so many parents are ready to send their children half-way around the world to study, but they will not let them out of their sight in their own home town. I know it can be risky to send children out alone, but choose a safe option and limit the initial exposure (for your child’s safety and for your own peace of mind). This will teach your child valuable life skills and, more importantly, build his/her confidence about being self-sufficient. A dose of reality in a public bus will do kids more good than any fancy trip to a tropical resort or extra violin class.
All of these these ideas for fostering independence are basically doing the same thing – letting kids grow up. A parent who watches every move, or worse yet, clears the path of obstacles, is doing more harm than good when it comes to college admissions.
Parents often ask me if an internship or summer programs at prestigious universities will give their child an advantage in the admissions process. My view is that these activities do not give kids a direct advantage, but they do provide an indirect boost by forcing the student to do something new, get out of his/her comfort zone and ultimately become independent.
The next time your college-bound child gets an opportunity to take a risk or try a different path, encourage him/her. Instead of lamenting their departure from the family, enjoy the satisfaction that comes from knowing you gave them the tools to handle anything that might come their way.
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