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Parents of College-Bound Teens: The Power of “No”

When my son hit the terrible two’s,  I received a rather unwelcome crash course in boundary-setting, from none other than my mother-in-law, who casually observed, “Love is spelled N-O.” As a know-it-all Mozart-in-utero Baby Boomer, I did not exactly relish receiving parenting advice from the Greatest Generation, but her simple words resonated. I never forgot them.

As a consultant to families of college-bound teens or young adults preparing for careers, I routinely see cumulative results of parenting style in the student’s academic profile. In the 1970’s, psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three distinct parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. Her research found that these styles varied their mix of four elements: responsive vs. unresponsive, demanding vs. undemanding. 

Authoritarian parents are demanding but not responsive. This style is characterized by high expectations of compliance to parental rules, with little open dialogue between parent and child. Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. They encourage children to be independent but still place limits and controls on their actions. Permissive parents are responsive but not demanding. This indulgent style is characterized by having few behavioral expectations for one’s child. Parents are nurturing, accepting, and responsive to their kids’ wishes, but do not require kids to behave appropriately. Maccoby & Martin added a fourth style: neglectful or uninvolved parenting, in which parents are neither responsive nor demanding. 

A recent teen alcohol study found that teens least prone to heavy drinking had authoritative parents (high on accountability and warmth). “Totalitarian” parents doubled their teens’ risk of heavy drinking, while “indulgent” parents actually tripled the risk. Being your kid’s “buddy” can have severe consequences.

The most desirable style is authoritative parenting, in which Mom and Dad are warm and involved, but also set consistent, firm boundaries. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Much easier said than done, but also an essential goal for parents. Why should a college counselor blog about this?

It is an unfortunate, but common, experience for me to see a student with above average SATs, but below average grades, even without rigorous courses. The student typically attends public high school in an affluent suburb. The student has no hardships that would interfere with academic performance: no tragic family situations, language barrier, part-time employment, or disabilities beyond mild ADHD.

So what is wrong? There are three common contexts, but the root cause, in my humble opinion, is the parenting style.

1. Extracurricular activities. Often, the student is busy with performing arts or athletics, which draw significant time and effort away from academics. So I suggest dialing down extracurriculars. Sounds reasonable enough. But curiously, the parents, who appear genuinely worried about their teen’s college prospects, do not consider this factor as something within their control.

With boys in particular, passionate devotion to sports may be driven by hunger to win the approval of a charismatic coach. Certainly, there is a testosterone element (i.e., a need to demonstrate physical prowess and win in a competitive arena). However, the coach may also be filling the powerful, constructive role of an authoritative parent. A good coach clarifies the connection between behavior and consequences; if a player does not show up for practice, he gets benched. If teachers and parents are not able to engage this boy, but the coach can, what is that coach doing right and what can be learned from him?

Remember the brilliant Stephen Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can, based on the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr., who, before his nineteenth birthday, successfully performed cons worth millions of dollars by posing as a Pan Am pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana lawyer. Abagnale (Leo DiCaprio) had an indulgent, excuse-making father (Christopher Walken), whose poor role modeling led to his son’s sociopathic behavior. The gruff FBI agent (Tom Hanks), who chased Abagnale across the globe, actually became a father figure because he set a moral standard for this young man. Ironically, it was the FBI agent whom Abagnale phoned on Christmas while on the lam, responding to the law officer’s persevering “tough love.” The FBI agent was the first alpha male who ever told this kid no.

2. Social life. Years ago, I heard a parent complain that her high school son did not come home until two in the morning on weekends. When I mentioned the word “curfew,” she seemed shocked at such an old-fashioned idea. Of course, I would be worried about a seventeen-year-old’s physical safety, the possibility that he may be abusing alcohol or drugs, getting a girl pregnant, or getting arrested, if he is routinely coming home at 2 AM. But I would also be concerned that he is not learning to set boundaries, since none have been created for him by his parents.

It is no wonder that a boy like this does not care about his grades, because there is a connection between limit-setting for social behavior and his own ability to internalize standards, set goals for himself, and deliver on them. When this young man goes to college, he will lack the inner tools to get up in the morning and go to class, study instead of party, and graduate with a decent academic record that will land him a job in a tough economy.

When a child grows up in a household without limits, it is actually quite scary for him, because he is developing no inner architecture to deal with life. I am reminded of Pinocchio‘s Pleasure Island, where orphaned, unsupervised boys could lawlessly pursue vices; they became “jackasses,” and then were magically changed into real donkeys and sold to the salt mines. Even as a kid, I felt sorry for those little cartoon donkeys  and wished I could warn them before it was too late. This nightmarish metaphor is full of painful truth: teens whose parents set no boundaries find themselves consigned to a suboptimal life trajectory. Hopefully, the limits we set for our kids will be internalized as a conscience (i.e., Jiminy Cricket), helping them conquer life’s adversities and ultimately take responsibility to become real”  young adults: brave, unselfish and true.

3. Electronic distractions. For boys, especially, electronics can mean escapist, addictive “shoot’em-up” video games. For both genders, social media can take over all free time. But in the end, it is about boundaries, set by parents, and consequently internalized by the adolescent. Parents who feel helpless about requiring that electronics be turned off during evening homework time have a boundary problem. They have more power than they realize, but they are afraid to use it. What are they afraid of? Uncomfortable conflict, an embarrassing scene, their child’s disapproval or rejection, not being a pal, not being liked? But they really need to be more afraid of the alternative. All they need to say is “N-O.”

And that’s how you spell love.

Relevant reading: The Male Brain by L. Brizendine, Boys Adrift: Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by L. Sax, and Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens by L. Kastner. Related posts: Not Just Getting into College: Parenting for Purpose, First Aid for a Disappointing GradeAmy Chua: Everybody Needs a Tiger, No Guts, No Glory, and Honorable Adulthood.