Ambition for children

We run with a crowd of people who have high expectations for their kids.  They don’t just want them to go to college.  They want them to go to one of the best colleges in the country.  As our friends’ kids get further along in high school, conversation naturally turns to college ambitions.  Recently, we’ve heard from friends with straight A kids and fabulous SAT scores that they can’t get into the likes of MIT, Harvard, or other highly reputable schools.  And some of those kids, I know, chose this route for themselves.  It was their decision to work for A’s, to do well on the SATs and to aspire to Harvard.  But we also know people where I’m not really sure who’s driving the car.  Is the kid who wants those things, or the parents?  I struggle with this myself.  If I’m honest, I know that I would really love it if both my kids ended up at a school that opened lots of doors for them and that gave my friends a slight twinge of jealousy.  I try to focus on the former rather than the latter, but I’m being honest.  I wouldn’t have those thoughts if I didn’t think both my kids were capable of achieving those goals.  But I’m also trying to find a balance between pushing my kids toward those goals and letting them find their own way.  I worry, like many parents, that the way they would choose on their own will keep them from achieving success and maybe even lead to unhappiness.  But, here in the Northeast, it’s not uncommon to find parents who push too much, who have their kids in millions of activities from a young age, all with college admissions as the guiding force behind them.

I don’t want to be the pushy mom.  But I also don’t want to be the pushover mom.  Figuring out the right balance is proving one of the most difficult parenting challenges.  Readers, what’s your strategy for motivating kids toward goals, academic or otherwise?

10 Replies to “Ambition for children”

  1. Yeah. Same problems here. My kids are younger, so right now, I can try to make this a mostly theoretical worry (i.e. what my role should be in facilitating and encouraging my childrens’ achievement).

    We run in a crowd where parents of 2nd graders say things like, their kid isn’t going to participate in basketball camp, ’cause they already know that the kid is going to be short, and therefore, never *really* play basketball.

    I tell myself, that if planning that way is the price of Harvard, it’s certainly not worth it. But, then, I worry that I’m closing doors for my high-achieving children (who are, indeed, naturally high achievers). And then, I tell myself to get a grip, and decide that indeed, if decisions *I* make now for my little ones, are closing doors to Harvard, that it’s a decision I can live with.

  2. I’m very much against pushing kids. It always has a way of biting you in the butt. And when I see incredibly driven teens broken by their Ivy League rejections (that happens, even here), it makes me more and more wary about putting it all on undergrad admission.

    I’m really impressed with our eldest who’s in an International Baccalaureate program through her own hard work. A lot of her impetus comes from her peer group (she runs with really high achievers) and her own interest in pursuing psychology or psychiatry. We try to give her the tools in terms of information (she was one of the few in her 8th grade class who knew the difference between a Ph.D. and an M.D. and explained that to her peers) and support. But to really succeed, the drive has to come from them. Who’s going to sit there in that university classroom in the end?

    And if a kid’s drive is an area that isn’t going to “pay out” in the long term (too short for basketball, too slow for track), who cares? That kind of parental quelling of kids’ ambition really bugs me.

  3. I’m there, too. I have a high achieving daughter with stats for the highest colleges (but has also seen friends deferred, waitlisted, and rejected from those schools, so she knows that no one is a shoe-in).

    Lucky for me, she has pretty firm opinions about what she wants and likes.

    I cringed this year when she was nominated for NHS and didn’t fill out the application. She says it’s nothing more than source of stress for her older friends at school — it’s all about service hours and most of the hours have to be accumulated on NHS projects, not on outside volunteer projects. We had a calm discussion about it and I successfully let it go.

    She shows no interest in being a club leader at her school. It seems like everyone says the college wants to see you show leadership. So, do I push her to step outside her comfort zone and try leadership, or do I just accept that this is not who she is?

    You can do everything perfectly according to all the advice and STILL not get into the top schools; there are just too many good applicants. It would be horrible to spend 4 years trying to be something you’re not and either
    * not get in, or
    * get into a place that’s not a match for who you really are.

  4. bj, I guess my worry is that my kids will make decisions that will keep them out of a college they really want to go to. It’s sort of like Jo’s example of NHS. I’ve tried to encourage my high schooler to participate in clubs, telling him that not only would it be fun, but that it looks good on college apps. That’s probably not a good motivator, but at least I’m honest. So, it’s a question of, do I insist that he participate because it’d be good for him in multiple ways or do I just shrug and say, well, that’s just not something he wants to do? I lean toward the latter, but still feel guilty.

    And Janice, I agree with you about the drive needing to come from the kid. I’ve seen plenty of kids in college who are there because their parents want them to be. And they just seem kind of sad.

  5. We’re still a ways out from this, but yeah, I worry my kids will choose a laid-back approach to volunteering/clubs and hurt their chances for achieving their own goals. I don’t know where we’ll fall in the competitive race for admissions — I think the dynamics of our own kids (three applying in the same year) will probably trump whatever dynamic emerges between us and our kids’ friends.

    I’m such a believer in applying to the strong regional liberal arts school, only outside your own region (i.e., if you’d apply to Williams and you live in the Northeast, apply to Carleton in the Midwest, too). All the “top” schools want to say that they have kids from every region of the country; kids need to take advantage of that.

    And even though I would encourage science-oriented kids to apply to the universities, it’s remarkable to me, how many scientists I know who got their start in liberal-arts colleges, where the science faculty actually had time to work with the undergrads.

    I just realized: our kids’ problem is going to be that their parents have too many theories about college, and those theories will either be out of date or just not in line with what the kids want.

  6. I’m guessing, too, Jody, that all three of your kids might have three different ideas about their ambitions. Which isn’t a big deal when a couple of years separate each kid, but when it all happens at once? But maybe that’s just me speaking as someone who doesn’t have multiples.

    I’m all for the small liberal arts college and so far, Geeky Boy has expressed interest in a smaller school. Many of them are quite selective, though, so I worry about his chances of getting in.

  7. I wonder if there is a way to encourage kids to give something a try that you know is good for them, without forcing them to commit to it for years? My parents had something called a “no thank you portion” at dinnertime. If there was something at the table I didn’t want to try or didn’t like, I still had to serve — and eat — a very small portion of it. Most of the time I didn’t like it. I probably got in more vegetables as a kid because of it, and was exposed to different kinds of food as a result.

    All of this is theoretical for me too, as my kid is only two. But I wonder if it’s possible to tell Geeky Boy he must participate in a club for a month to check it out, but after you two can evaluate together whether it’s something worth doing or worth ditching. I don’t want my daughter going to a fancy college just because it’s what I want, but I don’t want to be so under-inspiring or -encouraging that she never tries for anything. Maybe the no thank you portion is the way to go. Though I will say, since communication is somewhat limited with a two year old, so far this hypothesis has yielded only negative support!

  8. Mine are young, so I think these discussions are not really meaningful. We don’t really know what we’d do. Now, I’m free, for example, to tell my daughter that she can decide whether she cares about the rules or not, because, all that matters now is that she learns, not that she get good grades, or . . . . And, much of the scheduling is still my responsibility. If she wants to audition for a play, I have to make the appointment, not her.

    When they’re older, I want to be like Janice, at let my kid be the person in charge of their future. But I know that will be difficult to do when I’m surrounded by parents who are planning and supervising their childrens’ achievement.

    Laura: you can freak yourself out by reading this book: I stumbled on it at the library, and it completely freaked me out. It does, though, have useful information, too. And, one of the things she says in the book is that parents won’t tell you things, because they are competitive. So, I feel compelled to tell people about the book, because otherwise, I feel like I’ve acquired information that not everyone has.

    I do not want to plan like that for my kids, but I do not want to be ignorant. I don’t want my kids to be ignorant either, though I want them to be free to choose not to play the game if they don’t want to.

  9. @bj That book is truly cringe-worthy.

    I am going to bury my head in the sand and not “package” my kid for college admissions.

    She’s only in 5th grade, and my primary concern is that she likes school and has nice friends.
    Perhaps my attitude will change when we get closer to doomsday.
    I hope not.

  10. One of the things I did, when my eldest was in 8th grade and getting a bit of attitude that I worried about, because, like Laura, I didn’t want him prematurely closing doors which might matter later, was to take the kids to engineering open house days at the University of Illinois.

    I suspect other schools do similar things. But this is a really fun occasion, with robot wars and the million pounds of pressure machine smushing cars (and any little doodad audience members might wish to put on the car’s roof)

    We saw all manner of wonders, including an electronic cockroach, and cars that automatically manage the distance from other cars in traffic.

    Over lunch, I tried to be casual as I mentioned that “this is what school looks like for people who jump through the hoops necessary to qualify.”

    As it turns out, none of my three have chosen to pursue engineering. But the idea that doing stuff that isn’t that fun now might make for opportunities to have BIG fun later did stick. Said 8th grader made it into and through a fine school, and his younger sibs are in the process of doing the same.

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