The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone

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When it comes to dealing with the key moments of my daughter’s life, I’ve always had my hands full. The first one came when she was not even two years old. She decided it was time to climb up on the playscape all by herself, just like she’d seen her older brother do. It didn’t matter that her legs were about half as long, and the diaper she was wearing significantly limited her mobility. It was time, and that was that.

As she eyed the situation, I was about 20 feet away, clearing some brush, and holding a chainsaw, of all things. There was no way I could drop the chainsaw without her noticing it, and not even the slowest gait towards her would do anything but convince her I didn’t think this was a good idea. All I could do was stand there and watch, poised on the balls of my feet to spring the 20 feet in the event I needed to catch her. She didn’t exactly look like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but she made it up, in her own way, safe and sound.

An adjustable wrench was the tool du jour when the next major transition came. Wearing a helmet that made her very much look like Toad in the Mario Party games, she decided a cold spring day was the right time to be liberated from the training wheels on her bike. She straddled the seat with excitement as I struggled to get the acorn nuts to budge. As I was turning the last one, I was starting to deliver my best advice on how to negotiate the roads in our neighborhood, and the bumps in our driveway, with just two wheels.

It was too late. Hearing the last of the training wheels hit the ground, she heaved the bike forward, and without so much as one of my hands on the seat to offer temporary balance, she was gone. Her journey down the driveway was one smooth line of travel, as if she had done this for years. The only job I had left was to watch and admire her getting elegantly smaller and smaller.

The tool I had on hand in the third transition turned out to be one I didn’t use. My family had the blessing/adventure of having both my children attend the school where my wife and I worked, she as an elementary science teacher, me as a college counselor—the only college counselor. By the time she was a junior, my daughter had schooled herself from her older brother’s experiences in postsecondary planning. Look hard, know what you want, and Dad will be more than happy to send out the paperwork. Simple.

The sentimental part of me wishes something would have happened with her application that would have created a space for me to play Super Counselor, swoop in, and save the day, but the realistic part of me was proud to see there was no such need. She had to choose between offers at several schools that all made sense for her in their own way, so I did have the chance to hear a little of her thought process as she waded through them and made an incredibly sound decision. But that was about it.

Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly. Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive.

The college selection process is as much a discovery of self as it is a choice of what’s next. Denying my daughter the chance to take the lead, direct her college selection process, and survey the landscape of options she’d created for herself would have dulled the senses needed to self-advocate in college, discern among the pros and cons of a question with strong answers that were also limited in their own way, and take pride in the efforts of living and learning that gave her these choices in the first place.

College is only a great thing if it prepares you for something greater. The same is true for applying to college, and to this day, I’m grateful humility ruled the day, and the phone was left in the cradle, so my daughter could take her next step, fully emerging from hers.

NACAC Past President Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools (MI). He has served as president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling and is the author of two books — College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload and College is Yours 2.0: Preparing, Applying, and Paying for Colleges Perfect for You. You can read more from O’Connor on The Huffington Post and the Counselors’ Corner blog.

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