Let Them React First

In the coming weeks, Early Action and Early Decision letters will arrive from colleges. Applicants will anxiously hover over mailboxes and recheck email. When the messages arrive, some will feel on top of the world, while others will feel crushed. For moms and dads, this is a Helicopter Parenting Moment, waiting to happen.

I’ve experienced both sides of the application process. In recent years, I’ve been the parent offering support to my three children as they filled out the Common App, wrote supplemental essays, gathered transcripts. I also vividly remember my own application process decades ago, when my first response was a resounding rejection — leaving me to wonder if any college, any place, any time, would ever want me.

When my children began the process of applying to college, I surprised myself. I found myself thinking not of SAT scores or teacher recommendations, not of my own application experience. Instead, my thoughts turned to the neighborhood park where my first child played. When he was born, I knew absolutely nothing about parenting. I had never babysat, never changed a diaper, never prepared a bottle. When he began to walk, I was terrified as he careened happily, delighted with his newfound autonomy. He walked constantly, and he fell constantly. Each time he crashed, my adrenaline spiked – until one day at the playground, a more experienced mom gave me a priceless piece of advice.

We sat on a wooden bench as her daughter navigated the swings, and my son trotted across a stretch of sand. Abruptly, he tripped over a grain and sprawled. I jumped up…but so did he. He hopped to his feet and continued forward, intent on his mission. I backed down, trying to steady my breathing, and this mother turned to me. We had never met before, but she smiled with a world of understanding and said four of the wisest words I’ve ever heard: “Let him react first.”

We love our children with a bond that defies measurement. Those feelings never lessen, even as our kids become adults. But clear emotional boundaries are a vital part of our connection. Their triumphs and victories belong to them, not to us. Their disappointments and failures belong to them as well. They need our support, but they also need our perspective.

As we enter the holiday season and the new year, many families face the next milestone: early action and early decision acceptances and rejections. A gigantic gravitational force called Helicopter Parenting is lurking, ready to suck moms and dads into the fray. If we don’t hold our ground, then our over-involvement can fill the space, pushing our children’s reactions into a corner. Our daughters and sons may feel triumphant, defeated, or possibly something entirely unexpected, something all their own. Whatever they feel, their rejections and acceptances belong to them, not to us.

Let them react first.

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