Helpful or Over-Involved?

October 29, 2013

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

My middle son is a junior in high school. It’s time for him to start thinking about college. To help the process along, his school invited a speaker from Colleges that Change Lives to speak to the parents and students. She reminded the parents that the search should be student-centered. To make her point she told stories about over-involved parents who push their children aside during college fairs in order to speak to the admissions officers and those who get their pronouns confused when talking about the application process, as in, “We are still in the process of writing our essays.”

I have never pushed my children, and I am very conscious of which pronoun I use. That said, I was very involved in my oldest son’s college search, and I plan to do the same for my middle son. My experience has given me sympathy for the parents she ridiculed. It’s a fine line between over-involved helicopter parent and helpful consultant. But whichever side of the line you fall, there will be consequences for your child and a corresponding label of their own.

My involvement in my children’s educational decisions is not unlike that of many parents of gifted kids. For the past 10 years, I’ve been helping my children get the resources they need to challenge themselves and feed their passions. In the past, that meant online courses, tutors, extracurricular activities and schools. Two years ago, it meant helping my oldest son find a college. It wasn’t until he began his college search that I understood how my involvement has influenced the way he thinks about his own education.

“I want a school with a good visual arts program, but I don’t want it to focus solely on the object.”

He wanted to paint, draw or sculpt at a school that didn’t focus on the painting, drawing or sculpture. If you are confused, so was I. Even he didn’t know exactly what he was looking for. But that didn’t prevent me from searching for this elusive school. I (yes, I am aware of the pronoun I am using) looked through course catalogues for visual art classes with unique titles, eschewing schools that only offered the vanilla “Painting 101” or “Drawing Techniques.” I looked at their capital expenditures on the arts and made charts detailing their core requirements. We visited colleges on the East Coast and in Southern California where I asked more questions than my son during the campus tours. The accordion files I created for potential colleges bulged.

My search led him to the University of Chicago. He was intrigued by the classes titled “Visual Language: On Time and Space” and “Performing Tableware.” He enrolled last year. When my husband and I delivered him to the campus, we knew that the school would provide a rich academic experience for him. But he wasn’t done personalizing his education.

At the beginning of his second year, he decided that the majors available at University of Chicago were limiting. So instead of settling for a major that mostly provided what he wanted, he decided to invent his own. He is going to declare a major in Interdisciplinary Studies. This do-it-yourself major allows him to combine studies in the humanities. He is going to craft a major in the fields of anthropology, visual arts, creative writing and psychology. The tentative title of his major is “Storytelling.”

Just as there are contrasting labels that can be applied to me, you may be tempted to apply one to my son. On the positive side, you could say that he is self-actualizing. On the negative: he feels entitled. While I will argue the former, I will admit that the latter also applies. My interference in his educational experiences led him to believe that he can expect a personalized education plan that feeds his passions, wherever that may take him. This may mean that he will enter a work force that does not value his efforts and that he will spend his twenties living in our basement. On the other hand, he may have developed skills that allow him to pursue a career his father and I have never imagined. After all, there are people making a living creating Google Doodles. Who knew that was a career 10 years ago?

I believe that my intentions are good and that my behavior furthers my children’s goals. My middle son is going to test that belief. An extraordinary math talent, he doesn’t want to pursue math in college. He wants the educational equivalent of Sid Meyer’s Civilization game series—a program that combines politics, economics, history and philosophy. I am going to do my best not to slip in a math component, but I can’t guarantee my behavior at this point.

I know that I am both over-involved and helpful. I am certain that my children are seen as both entitled and on the path to self-actualization. Which label you apply to my children and to me depends on your perspective. I suppose the only judgment that really matters is my children’s. If later in life they are leading happy and fulfilling lives, then you can call us whatever you’d like.

Have you struggled with the fine line between helpful and over-involved? Please share your experience in the comment section below.

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