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But Seriously, How Do I Position My Third-Grader for College?




I get asked this question by parents whose kids are in middle school, elementary school, and sometimes, yes, toddlers.


I get it! I was the first in my family line to go to a private liberal arts college, the second to go to college at all. If you don't come from a family or a culture where "normal" means you're choosing between Yale and Penn, it's genuinely baffling to imagine what those people are doing. And the college admissions landscape has become a Hunger Games-style dystopian freakshow. So how do you position your elementary schooler to be a college acceptance machine?


You don't.


Parents, if this answer makes you uncomfortable, check your backside for a tattoo that says "Sikorsky." I say this with all the love and respect in the world, as a fellow parent who would go to the ends of the earth for my kids. We need to refrain from over-parenting them. That's how you position your kid for college readiness. Don't make it loom over their childhood like it's the only thing that matters. It ain't.


I was lucky. My parents came of age in the sixties when social mobility still favored scrappy folks with a work ethic. The post-Reagan economy doesn't work like that for most people. College has become wildly unaffordable, everything about it feels super high-stakes, and in some neighborhoods (my own included), parents are incredibly competitive about whose kid got the flashiest acceptances or the biggest scholarship. I'm not judging or blaming those folks—I am, however, saying "It doesn't have to be that way and you are probably going to find it works in your kid's favor if you reject the whole head-trip." Here's what you really should be doing to prepare your young children for this journey.


1) Love them for who they really (really) are. I'm not kidding. Focusing on achievement at the expense of letting them know they are loved, liked, respected and appreciated as the unique beings they are is a serious risk factor for narcissistic adult personalities. If your child grows up believing their value is tied to what they achieve rather than who they are, they are not being positioned to thrive in the adult world.

2) Allow them to be bored. Make them play outside, by themselves or in small groups. Don't install streaming TV in your car for road trips. Have designated down-time that isn't dominated by screens or competitive team sports or forty-three academic tutors. If you've never heard your kid say "I'm bored," something's gone sideways. Boredom is GOOD. It forces us to cultivate this thing called an imagination, which they will definitely need later on. If they tell you they're bored, smile and say "Great! What are you going to do about it?" Then give them time to answer. Problem solving starts at home, folks!

3) Encourage risk-tolerance. If your child is shy, gently help them shed their inner hermit crab by making them order their own meal when you go out or suggesting an activity that demands a little extroversion (try the school play!) If your kid's a jock, take 'em to a poetry reading. If your kid's a poet (hi) put their butt in a robotics class. If they're afraid of confrontation, a debate camp won't kill them and might end up being great for them. Let them know that no one has ever mastered anything, ever, without failing at it first. Falling on your booty is an important part—arguably the most important part—of becoming an authority on something. Teach them to love failure and see it as that wonderful teacher who is always there for them. Tell them about times YOU failed and what you learned from it. Seriously. It matters. A lot.

4) Expect competence. If your child is developmentally normative and over the age of ten, you need to have a little come-to-Jesus with yourself if they do not know how to do at least several of the following things: Household chores like laundry, dishes, dusting and vacuuming, feeding and caring for pets. Making their own meals, including using stoves, ovens and knives. They should be able to pack their own lunch for school. They should be able to take out the garbage (and they're probably better at separating the recycling than you are, so let them!) And on down the line as they get older: babysitting, retail or food service jobs, self-transportation, doing their own stinkin' homework. Learned helplessness is not your child's friend, especially once they GET to NYU, where it just plain won't be accommodated.

5) Help them find their "zone of excellence" and let them know you expect effort, not results. What if your kid doesn't want to take Mandarin lessons? What if they want to learn archery? What if they're good enough athletes to get recruited for tennis but you still think they should be on the football team whether they want to or not? What if they have the makings of a brilliant artist but you're sure they'll never be self-supporting without a STEM degree? Please, worry about that stuff if and when the times comes. If you have the luxury of being able to pay for enrichment classes, do it, but don't overdo it. A couple of things CAN be differentiators in college admissions. They include excelling in an under-saturated field (It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a business major to matriculate into USC.... but your art historian who is also a brilliant fencer might look damned valuable to Brown!), being a good writer, and being an above average critical thinker. Also, I'd rather admit a kid who took risks and went for difficult subject matter and got Bs than someone who took AP bio in summer school to avoid a tough teacher at their high school who might not give them an A. Your child is a human being, not a number. Even in the eyes of Princeton. I promise.


Your children need to know it is truly the journey and not the destination that matters. Encourage them to perfect the art of being themselves. Everything else will happen naturally. There will be rejection and failure along the way. Lucky for us, humans learn more from those than they do from success. Which they will also experience.


So: stand down, folks! Give them space (and hey, chores!). Encourage the heck out of reading for pleasure. Make sure they spend time outdoors. Offer to help but don't insist on it. Let them experience childhood. Things will fall into place.



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