I got a call today from the anxious parent of a sixth grader who wanted some guidance on how to best help his student position herself for success in college.  What classes should she take now? Would it be worth it to investigate private school? When is it too early to start looking at college campuses?

While thinking college with a 12-year-old may seem crazy to some, any parent reading this will understand the utter panic we feel on a daily basis trying to give our children the best possible future.  Mine are barely preschool age and I already worry when faced with any decisions for them and hope I’m choosing a path that will ultimately be to their benefit. The anxiety of parenthood knows no bounds, am I right?

As with most things, if you’re asking yourself if it’s time to begin thinking about college the answer is all about balance.  There are some great ways to educate children about their future at any age. Encouraging career exploration and challenging them to imagine what different jobs might be like is a wonderful place to start.  Attending a college football game could be a fun way to expose them to the idea of college and that it might be somewhere they want to be someday. An older sibling, cousin, or neighbor might be able to talk to them about how important it is to try your best in school; that the effort you put in now will have a domino effect far into the future.  Activities like this will help create some excitement about the future without adding unnecessary pressure.

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The sort of practices to avoiding are those aimed at reaching a specific college goal very early on.  Of course good study habits are important to foster but pressure aimed at “ensuring” acceptance at a specific college, or a tier of colleges, often does more harm than good.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: college choice is all about fit.  There are over 4,000 colleges in the US alone and, while it can be hard to leave the anxiety we feel as parents behind, have faith that the right school is out there.  Research shows time and again that student success in college is tied to student happiness and engagement as opposed to the prestige or selectivity of the school. When students are given the chance to explore their interests and potential this choice is often much easier to make.  

There is a secondary benefit to letting students take the lead and that is their ownership, engagement, and investment in their future.  Many families find themselves pushing a child across the finish line because, to put it bluntly, they’ve been pushing every step of the way.  There are so many voices from school, friends, and family alike that it becomes hard for teenagers to draw a line between what they’ve heard they should want and what really feels right, leaving them feeling paralyzed.

Don’t forget, once these little birds leave the nest for school they will be treated as adults.  Even though mom and dad are footing the college bill that bill will have the student’s name on it.  And don’t forget, while every student deserves access to a college degree it isn’t necessarily the right path for everyone.

The more you as a parent can do to make conversations about career and college choice fun and exiting the more relaxed the entire process will be.  This will afford everyone the ability to make decisions that truly feel right instead of allowing these outside pressures to run the show. In the meantime, if anyone finds a way to help wipe out any of this parental anxiety let me know!