“We’re at an impasse.”
The mother didn’t need to tell me that. I had already figured out from the pained look on the face of her son who was sitting on the other side of my office. They couldn’t agree on a final college choice, and had come to me for help, or mediation, or something.
The son was leaning toward attending what a good counseling friend refers to as an “ESPN school,” that is, a large public university with a big-time athletic program. Like many boys that fit his vision of college—big football weekends, Greek life—and like many boys he knew what he liked but had a hard time articulating why.
The mother admitted that she was impressed when they visited his first choice university, but was nevertheless opposed to him going there. She wanted him to choose from two liberal-arts colleges where he had been accepted, including the one his sister attends.
There are times when college counseling feels like great preparation for negotiating peace in the Middle East. This is one of those times. What happens when college counseling becomes family therapy?
“It happens in the best of families.” I make that statement every time I do a joint presentation for parents and students. The college admissions process brings with it tension that can put families at odds. Students crave independence and adulthood, and yet may not be ready for either. For parents the advent of college provides a reminder not only that your baby has aged enough to be ready to leave the nest, but also that you are passing another milestone of aging yourself. How did you come to be old enough to have a college student?
That doesn’t begin to describe the complex issues often hiding beneath the surface. The college decision can be our last chance as parents to have influence on our children, and the name of the college on the decal on the back windshield of the car can be seen (falsely) as evidence of our success as parents. I learned long ago that I derive more pleasure from my children’s successes and feel more pain from their disappointments than anything that has happened in my own life. There’s a fine line between healthy parenting and living vicariously through one’s children.
It is also the case that adolescents become pretty good at pushing their parents’ buttons and manipulating them. That may take the form of non-communication or it may take the form of apparent disdain. “They think we’re stupid,” I have had multiple parents lament about the way they are treated by their soon-to-be-adult children. “No, they don’t,” I respond, “but they’re happy to have you think that.”
In the middle of this thicket of philosophical, practical, and psychological issues sits the college counselor. What are our responsibilities when college counseling morphs into diplomacy?
It starts with having a clear philosophy of college counseling. I start with the assumption that the college search process is an important developmental step in a young person’s life, a transition between adolescence and adulthood. The college search is ultimately a journey of self-discovery, and the journey is more important than the destination.
I believe that the student should drive the search process and make the final decision, as he or she will live with the consequences of the decision. I believe that the adults involved, whether counselor, teachers, or parents, should be askers of questions rather than providers of answers, with the goal being to help the student discern who they are and identify colleges that fit their needs and wants.
I also recognize that I serve as college counselor and agent for the parent as well as the student. I am not writing the tuition check, and I need to understand that a college education is a huge investment for a family. My role is to help clarify issues and help bring about consensus. In most cases there is ultimately a meeting of the minds.
In those rare cases when that doesn’t happen, they end up in my office. I tell my students that I am willing (but not necessarily happy) to serve as mediator.
In those moments good counseling techniques come in handy. I always try to break the ice by asking the student, “So why did you call this meeting?” That usually gets a smile, even when it is clear they would rather be anywhere than sitting in the room with all the adults. I try to have each party articulate their position, I ask follow-up questions to clarify nuances and identify underlying issues, and I summarize by saying, “Here is what I’m hearing.” I try to keep my own views out of the discussion unless necessary, such as when a faulty assumption pops up.
I have learned through years of experience that rarely is the issue presented the real issue. In the case above the mom first stated that the school was too far away and too expensive, but the son pointed out that both of the schools she was championing were more expensive, with no appreciable difference in distance from home. The son argued that the mom was concerned mostly about whether the name of the school would impress her friends.
It soon became apparent that the mom wasn’t that happy with any of the boy’s options. It also became clear that she was fixated on rankings, and that her ultimate worry was that her son would fall into the social scene rather than get an education. She wondered about the possibility of a gap year, but I told her is that my experience is that a gap year doesn’t produce a different universe of college options. But she was also talking about hiring an independent counselor from the West Coast someone had recommended, so it wasn’t clear that she trusted my judgment.
I tried to find common ground, asking both the mother and the student if there was a compromise choice that both would find acceptable, and whether they could agree on a contract with performance goals for the student’s freshman year. That idea seemed to have potential, but they disagreed about where the one-year trial run should take place.
It was a reminder that good people with the same goals can profoundly disagree about the right choice, and it was a reminder that the hardest part of the college process may be making the final choice because it means opening one door and closing others. We’ll see what the final decision is.
I may not have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I now feel perfectly prepared to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria.