As a college writing instructor and a parent, I wonder why some of my students are successful and some aren’t. Of course, there are many factors that come into play like socioeconomics and family life. But I really wanted to know about the parenting that went on before these students entered my classroom.
So, I began my research. Initially, I asked all of my students to answer one question. How did your parents help you succeed in college (or not)? The majority of the answers I received from my high achievers pointed to one simple conclusion: Their parents backed off in high school.
Backing Off in High School
I dug a little deeper and discovered my freshmen students took “backing off” to mean a variety of different things.
For starters, many of them believe that their college success is attributed to the fact that their parents let them make mistakes and learn how to manage school independently.
One young woman said, “My mom lets me figure things out on my own, right up until I lose control and fall off my bike—face first. Then she helps me the best she knows how.” The fact that my student’s mother lets her loose and doesn’t hover has set her up for independence. Sometimes, when parents act too smothering while their child is in high school, they fail in college.
My students also commented on how their parents backed off both regarding their academics and choosing their future careers. “My parents just let me do my thing and backed off in high school,” one student told me. “This taught me some independence, which is what college is all about for me right now.”
Benefits of Backing Off
Loosening parental control and letting go completely can be difficult, but I can tell it’s helped my most successful students.
Another student said, “The absolute best thing my parents did for me along the way was believe in me and allow me to decide what I want to do in life, even if that meant changing my mind. They care so much and want me to be happy. And they’re allowing me to figure out what I want to do.”
My students are onto something here. Social worker Haley Sztykiel, who works with children and teens, agrees that this could just be the magic formula for collegiate success.
“An important part of high school that connects to future success in college and the workforce is intrinsic motivation,” Szytkiel says. “A student should be motivated to succeed or achieve because of their own personal desires, and not due to pressures or expectations of parents.”
A young student may do well when a parent hovers, but it’s not because they want to do well.
Usually, Sztykiel explains, they succeed because they are afraid of disappointing their parents. So, how can parents go about supporting their children while also amping up their intrinsic motivation?
Sztykiel says that one way to foster motivation is to ask your child about their personal goals. This is both for immediate future (such as choosing specific classes) and long-term goals (college, career, etc.). She goes on to say, “Support your student in achieving goals they have set for themselves, not the goal you as a parent have set for them. Create a healthy dialogue with your child. Provide them the space where they can talk if they are struggling or need assistance, but won’t feel that failure will be punished or something that is judged.”
I have students whose parents did just that.
One young woman said, “The best thing my parents did to help me be successful in college was support me as long as I was working hard. For example, when I got a C on an essay, I was upset. But when I told my mom, she wasn’t mad at all because she knew I tried my best. She listened to me. I was already tearing myself down and if my mom would’ve torn me down too, I would’ve lost motivation.”
As this student points out, her intrinsic motivation came from her mother simply being supportive and understanding.
As a parent of elementary-aged kids, I took notes vigorously as my students sat and chatted with me. I’m already trying to add some of this “backing off” business to my own parenting toolbox. I know it’s not easy. We want our children to succeed to the best of their abilities, especially when the stakes (and costs) are high in college. But if we want our children to soar, we have to not only loosen our grip, but learn to let go completely. And then give them the support they need when, or if, they fall.