Butterflies in Flight: Parenting and Metamorphosis in the College Process

Butterflies in Flight: Parenting and Metamorphosis in the College Process
Lauren Watson
Buckingham Browne & Nichols School

The other day on our drive home, my nine-year-old son blurted out, “Mom! Did you know that if you try to help a butterfly come out of its chrysalis too soon, it won’t ever be able to fly? Did you know that, Mom?” He went on to explain that his teacher shared, while imploring a group of fourth-graders not to touch their classroom visitors, that the oil from human skin can ruin a butterfly’s ability to fly before even leaving the chrysalis.

When he returned to looking out the window, I couldn’t help but think about some of the well-meaning adults who I’ve encountered in my almost twenty-year run in college counseling. Parents who, with good intentions, end up spilling their own concerns, priorities, insecurities even, onto their child’s college process. And, not unlike the curious and well-meaning fourth-grader, in doing so, risked jeopardizing their child’s opportunity for flight.

After guiding hundreds of families through this experience, I am certain of the following truth: the college admission process can either bring a family and teenager closer together or, mishandled, can create troubling cracks in the foundational relationship families have carefully nurtured. Back in 2017, Ben Stiller starred in a mediocre yet fascinating film called Brad’s Status. Stiller plays a dad who is surprised when college visiting with his son unearths waves of self-doubt and causes him to question his own understanding of success.  Despite a lack of critical cinematic acclaim, the movie is worth watching for parents who seem self-aware enough to appreciate the message.

The difficulty lies in the proposition of letting students drive this pressurized, often over-hyped process; an approach I believe is critical to student success. As parents, we are innately programmed to protect our children from harm. We guide them with great love and care through every milestone of their lives. Then we, the college counselors, ask parents to step back and allow their child to take the lead on applying to college. Many of our students begin the process when they’re only 16 or 17 years old. Still, this moment in a teenager’s life is a crucial one. By enabling them to captain the ship, we as the adults are sending a clear message: we trust you. Your voice and your experience matter.

I recently listened, wide-eyed, to a friend recounting his confession to his elderly parents, that he really, really wished they had allowed him to attend the college of his choice and hadn’t forced him to attend another, more visible, higher-ranked institution. He didn’t tell them until he was 51 years old for fear of disappointing them or appearing ungrateful. Another friend’s parents required her to attend their alma mater, instead of allowing her to pursue her dreams at a school two states away from home. As a hugely successful, happy adult, she still struggles to release the resentment she holds. Both of them were taught at 17, by their well-meaning parents, that their voice was not as valuable as those adults around them who assumed they knew better.

When I became a parent myself, and returned to my college counseling post after maternity leave, I remember being struck by my own blissful ignorance. Even though my newborn was lightyears away from the college process, I felt a pang of guilt for the ways I misunderstood and judged parental enthusiasm in family meetings. Prior to becoming a parent, I struggled to truly understand how emotionally invested some parents were in the process. Now, I have three sons who I adore and I get it. Every decision I make in my life is tied back to my boys: how will this impact them? How will my choice make them feel? How will it influence their experience? What am I modeling for them at this moment?

As parents, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. And we make mistakes. I’m sure my friends’ parents thought they were appropriately guiding their children; however, in pushing them toward a decision without deeply listening to the young adult in front of them -- instead of quietly walking beside them -- they inadvertently robbed their child of the opportunity to grow into themselves. And I’m sure the hundreds of parents who have sat in front of me in my office were also convinced that they were doing right by their children. Every parent does. Here’s the misstep: their children -- my adult friends, my students -- sometimes don’t feel heard. Their voices are nearly silenced in the conversations about their futures. I’ve watched students, over and over, physically shrink into themselves in my office as mom or dad continually, often kindly and affectionately, interrupt or talk over their teenager. It’s gut-wrenching to witness, and I have empathy for both parties.

I’ve come to realize that listening, deep listening, is the most essential skill I need to support my students and families in the ways that matter most. It is also extraordinarily difficult to do without impulsively offering suggestions and solutions. Listening and affirming students now, when they are experiencing high school on a plane where time has a different meaning, has become even more important. For these COVID teenagers, their high school experience has existed in an isolated slow motion and is also somehow, cruelly, fast-forwarding through the best parts, like lunch in the cafeteria with friends and musical performances and proms and graduation rituals. Even in a non-pandemic year, forcing our adult agendas and timelines upon them can cause paralysis -- and smear oil on their wings. We all want to protect our children from pain and struggle, but in our efforts to do so, we sometimes are unknowingly shepherding them toward a path or timeline that feels most comfortable for us, not them.

The beauty of this process, even now in the midst of a global pandemic, is that it provides an opportunity for families to grow together. Asking a teenager what they value most, what makes them feel safe, what brings them joy, who they aspire to become, and what sparks their curiosity -- these are invitations for families to learn more about each other, to turn toward each other.

This spring especially, I find myself asking parents to leave space for the growth, the evolution, the metamorphosis that this process can bring. I truly believe that given the mental and emotional margins to both reflect and research, students and their families can actually enjoy this process, learning about themselves and each other simultaneously. One of my greatest joys in this work is watching kids grow into themselves -- becoming more confident, more able to articulate their goals and values, more willing to share who they are with others -- and then witnessing their proud and surprised parents realize that their child has just become a young adult in front of our eyes. As nature shows us, once again, how to wait, how to let things unfold, how to grow, let us remember that the teenagers with whom we work, are also hoping that we will trust them and their timing, too.

Share this post:

Comments on "Butterflies in Flight: Parenting and Metamorphosis in the College Process"

Comments 0-5 of 2

Mike Geller - Thursday, May 13, 2021

Beautifully written, Lauren. Thanks for sharing!

Katie Gayman - Monday, May 10, 2021

The waiting and watching in our work s just as important as the forward motion,If not more so! Thanks to my colleague, Lauren, for this wonderful reflection.

Please login to comment