Archive | October, 2010


28 Oct

Dave Marcus’ essay in the New York Times last week (“A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps”) moved me deeply because he aptly articulated some of my struggles as a parent of a college-bound teen.

In looking at colleges, I talk to my daughter about the importance of finding the “right fit.”  I talk about how we should focus on schools that offer the academic programs that she wants, in the type of environment that she will be happy, instead of choosing a school for its prestigious name.  I tell her that she doesn’t need to attend an Ivy League school to get a superb education.  All this advice is consistent with what guidance counselors and admissions officers tell students.  So why is it that I feel like I’m trying to convince myself?

In my head I know that she need not go to a brand name school to be successful – however success is defined, a subject for another post – but in my heart, like Mr. Marcus, I fantasize about how great it would be if she were to attend ____ University.  My head and my heart are antipodes apart, seemingly irreconcilable.  So it is from this place of schizophrenia that I parent.

In our well-manicured suburban community in northern New Jersey, so many residents are accomplished, successful professionals and captains of industry.  They push their children as hard as they push themselves to achieve and achievement is often equated with getting into a brand name college, defined as an Ivy League or comparable school (Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams, etc.).  Based on where our local high school’s graduates have gotten into college in previous years, the results of such pressure have been impressive.  Many children have been able to fulfill their parents’ expectations, and maybe their own too.

All of this is not without consequences, of course, chief of which is an inordinate amount of stress and pressure on the children.  In addition to parental pressure, there is strong peer pressure to do well, to get into AP classes, to compete for leadership roles in extracurricular activities, to get top grades.

My heart aches for my daughter as she encounters such pressure.  She gets little sleep, is tired most of the time, toils endlessly over homework, stresses over exams, and is pressed for time.  There’s little time to relax; she is even reluctant to miss school when she’s not feeling well.  Seeing all this, I try to keep my own desires and expectations in check, to not put additional pressure on her.  But in moments of truthful clarity, I know that like the other parents in my town, I am just as enamored of the brand name colleges and by the package that comes with them – the prestige, the bragging rights, the status, the validation of one’s parenting abilities.

Judging from the response Mr. Marcus received to his piece, there are a lot of people who wrestle with similar issues.  In writing about this, I am trying to be honest about my own struggles between my conflicting head and heart in the hopes that I can do right by my daughter.  Already I feel that a burden has been lifted, a loosening up of strong emotions, and that in itself is a good sign.



21 Oct

Recently my daughter celebrated a birthday.  No matter how you feel about Facebook and its ongoing tussle with privacy concerns, it has changed the way birthdays are noted.  In the pre-Facebook days, probably only a handful of friends would remember and wish her a happy birthday, maybe give her a card.  Nowadays, the social networking giant sends you weekly reminders of friends’ birthdays (for those who choose to make that public).  So two days before her birthday, she was already eagerly anticipating birthday wishes from her Facebook friends.

Sending and receiving birthday cards is now so passé.  Instead she logged on to read her birthday greetings.  One after the other, the birthday wishes poured in as dozens of friends wrote on her wall.  It was as if they were lined up to wish her a happy birthday.  Some wrote in capital letters, as if they were shouting aloud their EXCITEMENT! at the event, complete with exclamation points and repetitive vowels to emphasize their enthusiasm in case you missed it. Facebook has allowed her to receive more birthday greetings than she otherwise would have and seeing all those greetings made her happy.

The younger generation is comfortable putting personal information online.  When I started this blog, I debated how much personal information can be shared with readers.  Being from an older generation (yes you read right, I just referred to myself as the older generation) I’m much more leery of putting private information on the Internet where it lives on in perpetuity, or at least until Jesus returns.  And I am aware how oxymoronic it is to write a blog and maintain privacy at the same time.  A few readers have asked about my daughter’s reaction to this blog.  Wishing to protect and respect her privacy and spare her any possible embarrassment, we agreed that she could vet the posts beforehand, just to make sure she was copacetic with the content.

Many readers have asked about what she thinks of each school.  To safeguard her privacy, I have decided not to write about her reactions to the colleges we have visited except in general terms.  After having seen a dozen colleges, she seems to like those that offer a liberal arts education with a strong Chinese language program, that are located in suburban or urban areas, and whose campuses exude buzz and student hubbub (read larger school than high school but not too large).  At least that’s what she likes today.  The teenage mind can be fickle and I wouldn’t be surprised when it’s time to apply that she had changed her mind about some of the schools.


Girl Power, Part 2

18 Oct

Last week I interviewed my friend Gigi Collins about her experience at a women’s college.  Her last point about having confidence in the workplace really struck home for me.  As a young lawyer, I once had a grandfatherly-looking client who was a CEO of a hospital tell me I was “cute.”  (I almost thought he was going to reach out and pinch my cheek).  Being horribly green, I was chagrined but kept an awkward, frozen smile pasted on my face and prayed for the moment to pass; I didn’t have the confidence to say or do something about it.  It never seems to work out like it does on TV where the female character will retort with something clever and witty that puts the CEO in his place.

I am intrigued by how women’s colleges seem to do a good job of instilling and nurturing confidence and I sure would like my daughter to have more confidence than I did.  This is not at all to say that co-ed colleges cannot turn out confident women.  My sister-in-law is an accomplished physicist and professor who attended elite co-ed universities and no one who meets her would ever say she lacked confidence.

I’m sure personality plays a big part in building one’s self-confidence and my daughter is a different person from me.  But when I think about how much of my early post-college years were occupied by painful self-doubt and pervasive hesitancy, I think how wonderful and liberating it would be if she could be spared that.  Whatever college she ends up attending, I hope and desire that her education there will build up her self-confidence and assurance.

Here are some websites for those who want to explore more: the Women’s College Coalition website cites studies showing that higher percentages of women attending women’s colleges enroll in the traditionally male dominated fields of math, science and engineering.  The study speculates that “women in science, mathematics, and engineering at co-ed schools are often discouraged from pursuing science as a career because they have few interactions with role models and further they perceive that science professors fail to take them seriously.”  I also read an interview in the New York Times with the president of Bryn Mawr College who laid out her case on the continuing need for women’s colleges.


Girl Power, Part 1

14 Oct

In our search for the right college, my daughter’s guidance counselor suggested that we look at a few women’s colleges.  At first my daughter was skeptical; I attended a co-ed college so it never occurred to me to consider them.  But through the years, I had met many graduates of women’s colleges and they all struck me as strong, confident women.

Being neurotic, I decided to do some research and asked one of my friends, Gigi Collins, who is a graduate of Sweet Briar College, about her experiences.  I’ve known Gigi since our daughters were in diapers together at the same daycare and she’s a fellow blogger.

Q: Why did you choose to attend a women’s college?

I resisted going for a campus visit to a “girls’ school.”  I vividly remember driving up the entrance to Sweet Briar – just gorgeous.  Anyway, I had an amazing tour guide and admissions interview.  They actually cared about ME – I was not a number like at the other college visits.

Then I had an epiphany about women’s education – I could go to college where there were more women role models and mentors among the faculty and administration.  And the best part was, women could take leadership positions in student government, athletics, and clubs.

Q: How is excluding men from your classroom an advantage?

First let me tell you how awesome it was to wake up with three minutes to get to class and be able to throw your unwashed hair into a ponytail and grab those ugly sweats – and not worry about trying to look pretty while sitting next to the cute guy whom you wanted to impress.

Think about the traditional male disciplines like math, science, and engineering.  Studies have shown that more women will pursue these disciplines in an all women’s setting.

Q: What is the social life like in a women’s college?

It is whatever you want it to be.  I partied a lot my first two years (shhh…don’t tell!) and then by the time I was a junior I decided to concentrate on my studies and my friends on campus.  At that point I was more interested in my future than parties and men.

Q: Are there women who would not be happy at a women’s college?

Yes, I do believe that it’s not for everyone.  From my experience, some women are adversarial or overly competitive with other women.

Q: Why do you think women’s college are successful in turning out confident, self-assured women?

I think you could say that confidence depends on the person’s personality no matter where they went to college but having said that, I think a women’s college creates an environment for women to feel safe to learn about their capabilities without men around to tell them otherwise (either overtly or covertly).  There’s a feeling of confidence that I can do anything I put my mind to.  I can usually tell when I meet a woman whether she attended a women’s college.  There is just something about them that I can connect with.

Q: How does a women’s college prepare its graduates for the workplace where they will compete with men?

It goes back to having self-confidence.  My first job was at a bank in New York City and I worked with mainly men and older men at that.  One day in a meeting one of the men called me “sweetheart.”  After the meeting I asked to speak to him privately and told him that I did not appreciate being called sweetheart and that my name was Gigi, to please use it.  Later in graduate school, I had to work in assigned study groups – all men plus me.  They immediately started in on the disgusting jokes.  One of them said to me, “Sorry, we’ll cut it out.”  I replied, “Don’t stop on my account – we all have to work together – I’ll let you know if it gets out of hand.”  After that I was “one of the boys” and only had to get them back in line a few times.  I definitely give credit to my women’s college experience – it gave me the confidence to speak up.


Studying Chinese

7 Oct

Many readers have asked what my daughter wants to study in college.  Before last year, she would have just shrugged, signaling the indecision that is normal for teenagers.  It has only been in the last year that she would tell people that she wants to study Chinese in college.  The irony of this decision makes me shake my head.

You see, the early days of learning Chinese held few pleasant memories for her.  Sitting in an antiseptic schoolroom for two hours every Saturday and listening to a teacher speak a strange tongue, my daughter was unmoored almost from the start.  Most of the other children spoke Chinese at home but we spoke English, which made it difficult for her to keep up.  Homework assignments and oral presentations became occasions for some anxiety and tears.

Nevertheless, we kept sending her to Chinese school out of a perverse sense of fealty to our heritage and a faith that any exposure to the language was bound to stick sooner or later.  I also heard my father’s voice in my head saying over and over, “She’s Chinese, she should learn zhong wen.”  So you see, even if she had wanted to quit, there were strong forces arrayed against her.

Mindful that we were violating a central parenting principle dear to us – to not force her to do anything that she disliked – the guilt made us pushovers when it came to other things that she didn’t want to do.  So we didn’t force her to take dance classes or play soccer.  We tried bilingual classes and even homeschooling but that led to more tears (there’s a reason I never went into teaching).

Finally she took Chinese language instruction offered at her high school.  Maybe because she made some good friends in the class, or because she liked her teacher, or because something from those years of struggle finally stuck, it clicked for her.  She came to embrace the language on her own terms.  So much so that she spent last summer at a Chinese language immersion program.  Now she wants to continue studying Chinese in college, maybe even study abroad in China.

I would never have thought this possible a few years ago.  And what’s the parenting lesson here?  I don’t know; I’ll try to figure it out once I stop shaking my head in bafflement.


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