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Parent Edition: How to Send Your Student Back after Break

About this time of year, most college students return to the nest. You've missed them. You've wanted to have their attention for important conversations. You wanted to make the most of your time together.

But there's this thing...our culture is obsessed with achievement. As parents, we long for our children to achieve, succeed, and be all they can be.

And when our college kids come back home, our conversations with them can be very achievement-focused. What grades did they make? What are their goals for Spring? What do they think they might do this summer? Did they get into the major they wanted to transfer to? What are they involved in?

In short, are they becoming all they can be?

We don't do this to cause harm, but the truth is, the constant pinging of questions can make our kids feel like all that matters to us is what they are doing or achieving.

I'm currently reading Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic--and What We Can Do About It by Jennifer Wallace, and it's required reading, in my opinion, for all parents.

Wallace identifies the concept of "a professionalized childhood," in which kids feel their worth is tied directly to their performance, whether GPA, sports, music, or other hobbies.

While you're waiting for your new copy of the book to arrive, I'll summarize some important points about achievement culture and its impact on students and suggest how you can show your college kiddo that their worth is NOT contingent on accomplishments as they head back to college for another semester (or quarter).

  • Declining mental health among college students is on a steep incline, and "excessive pressure to excel" is among the top environmental reasons.

  • What starts in high school continues in college. High-achieving students in high school do not arrive at college with healthy self-esteem just by arriving on campus. The anxiety, depression, and stress follow them right to their dorm room.

  • High school students who have lived in the dreams of others become college students who are disaffected learners, unsure of what they actually enjoy or want to do because they have not had the bandwidth to discover it previously.

  • They may fail to develop a sense of personal identity and look to others for how to define success.

In my work coaching college students, I focus on helping them identify their own values, discover their purpose (purpose does not equal career, by the way), and set goals that are defined by how THEY view success.

  • Success is based on the individual. No one else gets to define it except you.

  • True success is strengths-based. Shoehorning kids into business or engineering because that's what you or they think they "should" do isn't healthy.

  • Mattering matters. Mattering is the combination of feeling valued and adding value. A key to success is feeling that you and your life matter, not for what you do but for who you are.

  • Real connections with others are critical, including professors, friends, classmates, and family. Social media followers, friends, and likes are not real connections and usually contribute to confusion about what success looks like.

  • Stumbling is part of success, but it's important to realize that stumbling is just a fact of life and does not define us.

As you send your college student back to campus soon, think about how you can relate to them in a way that focuses on mattering rather than achievement.

VIA (Values in Action) Survey - take this free 10-minute online survey with your kids. Learn about your and your kid's natural strengths together and nurture them.

The Puppy Dog Principle from psychologist and mom, Susan Bauerfeld - "mattering means greeting your children at least once a day like the family puppy: with total, unabashed joy" - no strings attached.

Five Tips to Convey Mattering to Kids (from Gordon Flett's The Psychology of Mattering):

  • Respond in a warm and sensitive way

  • Explicitly tell kids how much they matter to you

  • Express unconditional acceptance, particularly after a failure

  • Show warmth through affection

  • Engage in mutual activities

Finally, and here's the truth, there are six types of college experiences that have an outsized positive impact on future success in life:

  1. Taking a course with a professor who made learning exciting

  2. Having a professor who cared about the student personally

  3. Having a mentor who encouraged the students to pursue personal goals

  4. Working on a meaningful project across semesters

  5. Participating in an internship

  6. Being active in extracurricular activities

How can you relate to your child in a mattering, unconditional way (the opposite of achievement-based) and encourage them towards these key college experiences? Ask questions like:

  • Who was your favorite professor in the Fall? what did you like about them?

  • What kind of topics have you learned about so far that you think you would like to keep learning about?

  • If you could do any kind of internship, what would it look like?


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