Preparing for College

Disabling the Enabler

Let's talk about motivations. One of the crucial fundamentals is analyzing the first thing that comes into your head about the elite college admissions process. Have you ever thought: "Hey, I never had the chance to go Ivy when I was a kid. So now, by gosh, my kid's gonna get that chance"? If so, you may suffer from VKS. You may be trying to relive your life through that of your kid's. Lots of potential land mines here, folks.

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Okay. What exactly does vicarious mean? In general, it means, "taking the place of another person." You have to ask yourself the hard question: "Do I want my kid to seek Ivy so that the 'prestige' [whatever that means] will rub off on me?" Be honest. You're reading this in private and no one is impatiently waiting for your answer. Just nod your head if it's true. You don't have to attend a VKSers Anonymous meeting, stand up, and say, "Hello. My name is Dave Berry and I want to live vicariously through my kid." Just be aware of your stance here.


The purpose of this post is to increase your sensitivity to your kids' deep-rooted potential. If, after being properly sensitized, you judge that your son or daughter has true competitive potential for the Ivy and elite admissions process, then you may become an advocate for that outcome, should you choose to do so. However, if your intentions are rooted anywhere near your own self-interests, then you should do some serious soul searching. You may be gambling with your kid's long-range happiness and college success.

Loud Angry Voice from Offstage: "Hold it, dude. You almost just put me to sleep telling me that I should be a talent scout for Princeton or Harvard. Now you're saying that I shouldn't? That's one confusing message, man."

Not really. The message to parents is pretty straightforward: "Observe your kids. Discover who they are. If they're competitive, advocate some top colleges." That's all. Notice that the message is not: "Dedicate your life to getting your kid into the Ivy League, come hell or high water." There's a big difference. Don't be a vicar for your kids. They'll have a hard enough time living their own lives. Don't burden them with the extra weight of your unfulfilled dreams.

Disabling the Enabler: Resist the Urge to Become Enabling Parents

Now that we have that straight (and if you're still with me), let's talk about a common negative side effect of VKS: enabling. Are you a control freak? Did you always want to tie your child's shoestrings for them, clean their room, or even do some of their homework? You could be an enabler.

You'll probably be able to find a number of discussion forums on the Web (here's The Best college-related forum) where enabling is a hot topic. I have observed many semi-heated exchanges among forum participants discussing how much help parents should offer their children during the college application process. One extreme faction adamantly states that parents shouldn't even mail their kid's application for them. The other extreme admits to writing {"editing," as they encode it) essays for their kid. There are many shades in between.

How does this relate to our discussion of the developmental years? Well, I'm certainly no behavioral psychologist, but my experience shows me that we can inhibit our children's quest for self-identity by trying to insert ourselves into their developmental trials too strongly. When is it time for them to try to feed themselves (resulting in those classic high-chair-tray food flings)? How about those shoestrings (they might trip and fall down)? And those post-tornado room scenes (I struggled with that)?

It's not easy. We all want what's best for our kids, but sometimes we get in the way of what's best. When we do more for them than we should, we take away some of their independence. Even today, when our adult son visits on holidays, I have to fight my tendency to check the oil and tire-pressure levels of his car. But I don't. He's been able to drive tens of thousands of miles successfully without my fussy maintenance checks.

I often wonder how many other self-sufficiencies my kids incorporate thanks to my butting out of their learning curve. Bottom line: Beware VKS and its fallout.

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