March 2013

Does A College Rejection Letter Mean You’re a “Loser”?

With the Oscars behind us, it’s time for America’s next gladiatorial event: college acceptances and rejections.  Many schools are mailing out (or posting online) their admissions decisions during the next few weeks.  Each letter carries a potent message.  The notions of “accepted” and “rejected” are emotionally loaded ideas —a clear demarcation of “winners” and “losers”—and parents are as invested in those rejections and acceptances just as much as their kids.   As a therapist working on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, where expectations for success run sky-high—I’ve seen many tears shed over rejections from Ivy League schools

So, why do parents personalize this process?  For one thing, they break from the gate very early, often sacrificing precious free time to “help” write reports about The Navaho, or construct classical Greek temples from toothpicks and papier mâché.   Then there’s the whiteboard calendar in the kitchen, crammed with a 24/7 schedule of activities from football practice and fencing lessons to afterschool enrichment classes in Shakespearean dramaturgy or string theory. (And we haven’t even mentioned the tutors and SAT pre classes yet).  All these activities represent a lot of time, money and effort for parents—and many do this with some idea in the back of their mind of creating a “perfect” college candidate, one that will catch the attention of an admissions officer.

Here’s what many parents often fail to understand: College admissions are a concrete and obvious goalpost—but that’s only the pregame show. The true test of a child’s successful transition to independence lies next September, in the first semester of college. That’s when the rubber meets the road and a young adult must draw on the precious internal resources that have hopefully been cultivated over the course of childhood and adolescence: impulse control, maturity, self-guidance, and overall independent functioning.   All of these are the signposts of successful parenting—not the acceptance letter.  If a kid can do laundry, study unsupervised, stay organized amid the lack of structure, and manage alcohol consumption reasonably, then the parent can step into the spotlight and take a bow.

So, parents, take a deep breath and see the long term view.  If you are lucky, your child will attend an institution of higher learning.  Whether that school is located in Cambridge, New Haven or Columbus, your child can thrive.  In the coming weeks, try to tamp down your ego, your guilt at having missed a holiday school show, your competitive spirit, and whatever else may be driving you to ruminate over a “rejection” or “acceptance” by a college.  If your child can bounce back from a college rejection, if he can be happy over an acceptance without its being regarded as the top tier of lifetime achievement, then you’re on the right track.  Take pride in creating a kid who can fly solo.  And if you want a dose of reality, a recent NYT article revealed that many students in poor neighborhoods don’t even apply to top colleges because they never realized it was an option. That’s something to cry about.

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Working Families

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, caused a stir recently promoting her new book “Lean In”, which advocates for women’s success in the workplace. Many women misconstrued her message as anti-motherhood. My take is different:   If you lean in and listen, she’s not advocating that women burn their Baby Bjorns.

Rather, Sandberg encourages women to form a clear intention about their professional path: If you are in the game, she says, play like you mean it. But, if women want to claim a seat at the power table, they should begin by claiming a seat at the kitchen table. This means being honest and up-front with their partners about career ambitions and finding a workable parenting arrangement. Ambivalence just won’t cut it.

As a couples’ therapist in Manhattan,  I am privy to fallout of the parenting v. career conflict.  Here’s what I’ve learned. The nexus of a family’s emotional life is the marital relationship—and it calls for mutual understanding about each parent’s role in the upbringing of their children. Couples who argue about parental responsibility come into my office upset, depleted of energy and short on intimacy. Worse, this type of conflict can have a lasting impact on childhood development.

What does this mean on the ground? It means that parents have to pick up each other’s slack and think outside the box of traditional gender roles. Cultural expectations work against this level of collaboration, often leaving women vulnerable to feelings of guilt and self-doubt and fathers vulnerable to uncertainty and frustration. For children, their parent’s collaboration gives them a solid foundation, so that mother’s drive to break the glass ceiling doesn’t rain shards on the family nest.

Even if a working family can hire a phalanx of domestic workers, from nannies to housekeepers, they still need each other’s full cooperation. They are each other’s  partners in life. Let each one reach for the starts, but first a mutual agreement on who is tending the nest. A successful work-life balance can be achieved when both are honest with each other–and themselves–about their ambitions.

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