Today I was talking with a client about her college aspirations. She’s already attending community college, and she plans to transfer in a year and a half. She talked about this acceptance rate, and that acceptance rate. She talked about school rankings and prestige. Finally I asked her, “Which school is the best for you, and for what you want to do?” After she obtained clarification on my question, she finally understood I meant for her to tell me what fits her personality while best connecting her in her future field. Her answer surprised even herself.
We began to talk about the theory of the big fish in the small pond. I pointed out that some adolescents thrive on constant competition, but some thrive when they’re highly successful in relation to their peers. I asked whether it is ever wise to go to a school that is easier to get accepted into, but consequently easier to be a stand-out student. She told me that in such a case it would be a lot easier to get connected with internships and to know the professors. She talked about how it would then be possible to get a position in a lab and have strong connections when it comes time to get a job. At the end of all this she said she’s going to think through her college strategy again so she can make a decision that better suits her personal situation.
The point of all this isn’t to advise you on how to pick a college for your teenager. It is to help you and your teenager see that you might be stuck in a rut. Without realizing it you might have bought what you’re being sold by our culture. You always have to stop and ask if the way the majority is trying to do something is actually the best way for your individual situation. Using the college example, just because every high school junior and senior is trying to get into the “best” possible college, does that mean you should too? Just because a vast number of Orange County teens play sports at an intense level, should your teenager do that? We often lose site of our personal big picture when we fall in line with everyone else.
By the way, I’ve fallen prey to this trap many times as well. I don’t want you to read this and think I’m immune. I did the crazy intense sports thing as a teenager, and I did the take every AP class possible at the start of high school. My dad stopped me on both and asked me why I was doing all this. When my answer was, “That’s what all my friends are doing,” he probed a lot deeper. He spent quite a bit of time with me helping me dream and focus. After about a year of these types of conversations it became clear that I eventually wanted to run my own business. He then gently started asking whether the things I was putting my time into were helping that goal. Some things were a yes and some were a no. One thing that was obvious though was that I needed to start working in small business settings. I had to get the lay of the land (even if it was simply as a hostess at a mom and pop pizza joint) because that was training for my future.
It would be another three years before my passion for psychology was discovered, but once that happened I knew there had to be a way to combine my two dreams. For me in my personal journey the top ranked school was far less important than standing out enough to have connections. It wasn’t a realization I came to on my own, but it did help me see past what everyone else was doing.
The bottom line for your teenager is this: Look around and take notice of what their peers are doing. Use that to help you decide how your teen should spend his time and energy, but don’t take it as Gospel Truth. Create the path for your child that makes the most sense for him.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT