middle and upper class children who aspire to maintain or improve
their family's socioeconomic position, the first step is college.
Once that separation is begun, neither party, in the years leading
up to that separation, can predict how close or how distant the
relationship between them will be after the transition to college
or after college is finished. There is a feeling in both parties,
often unarticulated or denied, that this cauld be it. This could
be the end.
of a child stirs up everyone in the family. For the parents it is
the culmination of their child rearing, the end of the parental
curriculum. From now if they act as parents for a college-age or
older child, it will be by invitation only.
Ground for Fears
is the main testing ground of fears about incomplete or inadequate
child rearing? The college admission process.
If you are
afraid you don't discipline your children enough--too much Dr. Spock--the
incriminating evidence of parental failure is right there in front
of everyone. The child is not filling out her college applications!
If you are
afraid that you have allowed your children to watch too much television
and settle for low grades, the chickens all come home to roost--painfully
and publicly--during the meeting with the college counselor at the
end of junior year.
If, on the
eve of departure, a parent decides that a child needs more self-discipline,
then surely the way to drum it in is in an SAT review course or
with parental pressure about applications.
involvement of many parents in the process is, from my perspective,
a cover for this profound parental anxiety: Did I do a good job
with this child? Did I do everything I needed to do for this child?
Is this child prepared? Is this child going to have a good life?
I have seen many laissez-faire parents, not much in evidence in
the tenth and eleventh grade years, swoop back into their children's
lives at college admission time, trying to stuff all of their wisdom
and discipline into their children at the last moment.
need to be reassured as their fledglings leave the nest that they
really have taught them how to fly. Since it is impossible to assess
the quality of what parents have done for their children at this
point, what is the next best thing? What comes closest to getting
graded as parents?
of the college to which the child is admitted. From the standpoint
of an anxious parent, an "Ivy League college" child is
proof of better child rearing than a "small college" child.
Our human and common sense react against this notion: no one would
actually come out and claim such a thing. But the uncertainties
of separation can so infect anxious parents that they begin to operate
on this concrete and terrible logic.
I once sat
with a talented, emaciated senior girl and her brilliant, well-meaning
parents. She, they, and the school had to decide whether she should
remain in school or go into a hospital. In light of her anorexia,
the result of a perfectionistic personality style run amok, and
to ease the stress on the girl, the school recommended in the strongest
terms that she not file her early decision application to Princeton.
Upon hearing this, the girl looked at the adults in the room and
said, "If I can't apply early to Princeton, I'll die."
The parents of this young woman were not far behind her in their
need to have her get into Princeton. Why did they all need this
this case, something was askew in the family. Due to some flaw in
her upbringing, this child was not happy or self-confident. Yet
she was eighteen, the culture required her to leave home, and so
her parents had to hide from themselves, and she had to hide from
herself, the painful truth about what she had not gotten from her
parents. . . and probably never would get. The psychological solution
for them all was the reassuring vision of a great college. Somehow
going there would make her life fine and vindicate her parents'
about letting go of an unfinished child exist in all families. How
can we let go of a child who is still so young in so many ways?
With the greatest difficulty. It is painful and has no cure except
time and hope. For parents looking for an analgesic, the college
admission process is an action arena where they can work out their
anxieties. What I do, as a clinician, is try to reach into the interior
of the family and touch the fear and sadness. If the fear and sadness
can be made conscious, a lot of the nuttiness goes out of the action.
separation process for parents has many rough facets. Along with
the ending of their role as parents, other psychological stresses
may be at work. The departure of a child means that they have to
face--and this is always true when the last child leaves home--the
viability of their marriage. Perhaps the children have been the
pillars that propped up their marriage. They may be lonely. Perhaps
their careers are not so fulfilling and the day-to-day responsibility
for children has been what has given meaning to their lives.
for college precipitates the "empty nest" syndrome. The
separation of late-adolescent children from their parents may have
almost the impact of divorce or death without anyone ever articulating
the loss and grief that all are feeling. Two women were talking
about dropping their children off for freshman year at college.
Each had been quickly dismissed by her child at the dormitory door.
One mother asked the other. "Did you cry when you got back
to your hotel room?" "Oh--you waited that long?"
may be aware of what their departure means to their parents. I have
had young people say to me that they are afraid their parents' marriage
will fall apart after they leave, or that one or the other parent
will be terribly lonely. As one girl said, "Mom never went
bird watching with Dad. I was the only one in the family who would."
even in the midst of their excitement about leaving, may feel they
are abandoning the family. This can lead to considerable guilt.
They can even feel that they have to make reparation to their family
for their leaving. What is the best possible gift a child can make
in these circumstances? Admission to a good college. A child may
think, If I can get into a good college--especially the same college
one of my parents went to or wish they could have gone to--I will
have gotten my parents an A in child rearing and reassured them
that I--and they--are going to be OK And I can distract myself from
being sad by competing ferociously to get into college and wait
until later to feel happy or sad by making it into that school or
not making it.
the action connected with the admission process lie all the issues
of self-esteem that inevitably arise in students who are applying
to college: Am I good enough? Have my parents and my school been
telling me the truth about myself? If I put down on this application
everything I am, everything I have done, all of my good points and
faults, will somebody-- anybody--want me?
college is a pretty scary and courageous thing to do. After all,
what if no one likes the fundamental you? Every student seen by
a college counselor has fears about self-esteem as the admission
process begins. Many naturally look to the quality of a college
as a grade on their self-worth; who can blame them? The "best"
colleges seem to want the "best" students. Everyone knows
that the best students are not always the best human beings, but
that complex human understanding may not come easily for high school
juniors and seniors.
We are talking
about a moment of maximum personal and family stress, one that the
prominent family therapist Jay Haley believes is the most difficult
transition in all of life. What is a family supposed to do? Does
every family have to find its own way through this maze of feelings
and pressures? Most do, in consultation with friends and family
who have experienced the same developmental challenge. But those
who cannot manage the separation individuation process either hold
on to their children too long or fling them out too abruptly.
of children and parents who were separating, Helm Stierlin and his
colleagues documented two types--centripetal and centrifugal--and
three clear subtypes of dysfunctional separation styles. Though
Stierlin was working with troubled families, the concepts illuminate
normal family separation styles as well.
families exert pressure to keep a child from leaving. The completely
successful centripetal family is the binding family, which keeps
drawing the child back as if it possessed a powerful invisible magnet.
Children from such families may be simply unable to overcome this
force and make the transition to college--or leave home for a job.
They stay home, only to resent their parents' inability to let them
leave and experience their parents' resentment of their inappropriate
families, according to Stierlin, are families that cannot tolerate
the slow withdrawal and separation of the child and resort to abrupt
separations. The expelling family simply flings the child out early,
without reference to the particular child's needs. Boarding schools
often have "expelled" children in their populations, but
the expulsion may be justified by an educational rationale, so that
these children feel thrown out without really being able to say
that they have been. The parents of these children may not be able
to tolerate the pain of their growing up and leaving them slowly,
and so they send them away early in an attempt to avoid pain by
means of a short, sharp separation.
centripetal and centrifugal forces are at work in a family, the
result can be the delegating family. The delegating family sends
a child out, and the child believes that she is free and independent,
but in fact she is on a mission for her parents that must be fulfilled.
What appears on the outside to be a truly independent child is someone
who is not psychologically individuated and pursuing her own goals.
often the child from such a family is delegated to live out some
dream that a parent or parents were unable to fulfill in their own
lives, such as attending a high status college.
counselors and teachers will immediately recognize these categories
described by Stierlin. Families inevitably manifest one of the styles
of separating that have been perfected over generations. Most healthy
families are slightly centripetal or slightly centrifugal but able
to adjust in a flexible way for different children and circumstances,
alternating between impulses to hold a child in or spin a child
is the job of a culture to provide a ritual framework that enables
people in families to sustain the psychological stress of an important
life transition. Many such rituals are religious, but not all. They
create a series of prescribed steps that mark developmental transition.
Weddings, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, getting a driver's license,
and registering to vote are all examples of cultural signposts that
ease our way along the path.
the transition from childhood to adulthood are known as "rites
of passage." A rite of passage formalizes and institutionalizes
personal and family changes into a series of forms that symbolize
end cerebrate the importance of developmental changes. In American
society, the end of childhood is marked by the end of high school.
For those who do not go on to college, the end of childhood is marked
by high school graduation and the events that surround it. For those
who do go on to college, it seems that getting into college is a
more significant ritual than graduating from high school; it certainly
occupies more time, attention, and family preparation and anxiety.
The major transitional step for these young people is the departure
for college, and the series of rituals preparing for that step is
the college admission process. How does this process measure up
as a rite of passage?
studying traditional rites of passage to adulthood describe them
as a three-part process. The first stage is physical separation
from the community at large; children are taken away from their
families in the company of others their own age.
stage, called the "liminal phase," is one in which the
child is between classifications--neither child nor adult. In this
phase, children and their age-mates become social comrades. They
are challenged, made to suffer, and, in some societies, may be beaten,
circumcised, or ritually scarred in some way. It is important to
note that during this phase there is no hierarchy among age-mates.
Children suffer their torments individually, but no distinctions
are made among them; they are all treated the same. At the end of
the liminal phase, young people are reborn as adults. During this
phase, they may have worn clothes of death, symbolizing the death
of the childhood self.
In the final
phase, the group of age-mates is reintegrated into the community
and the adults rejoice. Whatever trials and tortures may be used
by different cultures, all put a time limit on the liminal phase
and culminate in reunion with the adult community.
It is the
strength and power of these rituals, and the community's agreement
upon them, that permit all members of the community to share their
anxiety about the important developmental moment, be they the parents
who give their children over to the ritual or the children who fear
the pain of the test.
admission process looks like a rite of passage, comes at the right
time for a rite of passage, has some elements of a rite of passage,
but does not work as a rite of passage to bring children through
the separation-individuation phase of late adolescence. Getting
into college makes everyone anxious, in the manner of a classic
rite of passage, but it does not provide the climax, or the catharsis,
that psychologically supports the age-mates and other members of
the community. Instead, it too often leaves everyone more anxious,
exhausted, and feeling bad about themselves, not less anxious, energized,
and proud of themselves for having survived.
the Process Fails
at least six reasons why the college admission process fails to
function as a helpful rite of passage.
are not separated from adults during the college admission process.
They have to go through their trials and tests in front of their
parents, who cannot help being affected but who have no formal role--or
do they? This leads to the possibility of shame for children, should
they fail in front of their parents. It also leads to intense confusion
in parents. Because of their love for their children, they either
share the pain or choose not to share the pain, even when other
parents are helping their children through the "torture."
Better that all children should be in the hands of adults chosen
by the community to see them through the ritual--but that leads
to the second difficulty.
2. No consensus
exists about exactly how important getting into college is in the
life of the community. Each family, depending on its history and
socioeconomic aspirations, has to decide how excited or how upset
to become, depending on its vision of how important getting into
college--or into a certain kind of college--is in the life of the
family and the child.
3. These varying
views on importance result in uncertain criteria for success. If
a child gets into college C instead of college A, has she failed
to become adult? Has she done a terrible job of becoming adult?
Will she be forever scarred, her future blighted by this failure,
or isn't it really a failure at all? Many students who get into
perfectly credible colleges where they have every chance of having
a wonderful experience feel as if they have failed in life because
they did not get their first choice. I have met adults who, years
later, are still mourning the college they wanted but did not get
4. The worst
thing about uncertain criteria for success, competition, and confusion
is that they tear age-mates apart. In a classical rite of passage,
children go through the experience together, become adults together,
and have lifetime camaraderie. Here we have the destructive effects
of different outcomes for different children. They begin to watch
others, fear others' success, and ultimately wish others ill. I
talked to a student last year who got into her first-choice college
but was upset because another girl, her "enemy," had also
been accepted by that college. High school seniors do not get "reborn"
together; many get split apart.
5. The college
admission process has no time limits. It has no clear starting point--in
many schools it seems to be starting earlier and earlier--and it
does not go on forever, despite what we may think. Early admission
is fiendish in this regard because it offers two chances to fail.
One of the saddest, most destructive aspects of early admission
is to watch bright students go through the anxiety of applying early,
fail to get in, and then have to repeat the process. Although they
may end up being accepted, they spend most of their senior year
in emotional turmoil.
because of our mobile society, there is no promise that children
will be reintegrated into the community. They may return in some
sense, but in other ways they do not. Perhaps most painful for parents
and children is this great unanswered question in the separation/individuation
process in our society.
criticized the college admission process by comparing it to classical
rites of passage, I open myself to two easy criticisms. First, whoever
said that getting into college should be a community ritual filled
with meaning, especially in our pluralistic society? The life stories
of Americans who go to college are so varied that no rite of passage
around college admission could ever be designed to meet the psychological
needs of everyone involved.
criticism asks, "Where have you been? Are you naive?"
After all, getting into college is not a group or age-mate experience.
It is a competitive sorting process that is tough and cold but utterly
essential for the economic and intellectual health of our society
as it is presently constituted.
As for the
first criticism, no one has said that college admission should carry
the burden of being a community rite of passage. But it looks like
a rite of passage, and it has the attention of the adult community.
In my opinion, it should be made to function better as a rite of
passage because so many adolescents break down at this time of life
and are admitted to psychiatric hospitals. So many depressed college
freshmen and depressed young college graduates return home after
college for emotional as well as economic reasons. For them, the
separation/individuation process has been incomplete, and they return
to try it again. Our society sends many late adolescents off too
soon or not in the right way. Some more psychologically supportive
ritual is needed; our society is paying too high a price in casualties
among its late adolescents.
As for the
second criticism, the reply must be, "Yes, of course this is
a competitive society, and we do need a method for deciding which
children should go to which colleges." However, the sorting
aspect can be quicker and cleaner. It may be possible to sort age-mates
by level of ability yet retain the feeling of camaraderie.
It seems a
tragedy to take the best and brightest young people in our society
and put them through an ordeal that ends with them losing their
families, their age-mates, and, for far too many, their self-esteem.
If we take the best-educated children in our society, the ones of
whom we are going to ask the most, and deprive them of psychological
support even as we subject them to stress, psychological casualties
will be the inevitable result. If we put people through too tough
a test for too little reason and with too little support, many of
those who appear to thrive and survive will eventually take out
their anger at society by doing whatever they please with their
educations on Wall Street, in Washington, or wherever else they
may work and live.
always said that it is easy to tear things down but so very hard
to build them up. Having criticized the college admission process
from a psychological point of view, I want to offer some ideas,
in the form of questions.
1. Can we--through
attitude, through deliberate education, through greater consciousness--talk
with parents and children about the profound psychological process
that underlies the transition from high school to college, from
childhood to adulthood, from family interdependence to being on
teachers, and school administrators see the hardship and pain of
this transition more than anyone else. They see anxious parents
and frightened students. Do school people address these issues?
Or do they talk only about admission test scores, advanced placement
courses, and the "right" extracurricular activities? People
in every school should be listening for, and talking with families
about, the grief of separation and the loss of childhood.
2. Can we
better define the role of parents and other adults in the community
in the college admission process so that parents do not end up in
a free-for-all, with some children being hounded to death and others
I have heard
of some good parent-child college visiting experiences, but wouldn't
it work better to let thirty students go out on a college-visiting
bus and let them rate the colleges? Can parents be assigned specific,
limited tasks and be kept out--firmly, if necessary--of others?
3. Can we
keep the senior year intact, to prevent it from getting cut to pieces
by the college admission process?
I know of has, more or less, simply given up on spring of the senior
year. Two weeks before college admission letters are in the mail,
the seniors go out on "senior projects,;' scattered to the
winds and reunited only for a few days before graduation. This saves
the school problems of senior class cutting and boredom during spring
term, but it also splits up the seniors and robs them of being able
to say extended good-byes to one another. Group sadness and separation
anxiety go unacknowledged. This is only one manifestation of a tendency
in many schools to give up on the senior year and allow it to be
completely dominated by the college admission process.
4. Can we
better sustain these age-mates as they go through their common ordeal,
before they end up in different colleges and different places? Could
students work on their admission essays in study groups, just as
business school and law students do, instead of going off to work
with educational consultants?
As a former
outward Bound instructor, I know that it is possible to form a strong
group of young people of widely differing abilities and prospects
in life. If you orient a group to facing a common challenge, they
are bound together. Isn't it possible to introduce some group outlook
and cooperation into the business of getting into college? Is the
process inherently so competitive that such efforts are doomed,
or do we just see it as being that way and not try to make it cooperative?
can we have more ritual around college admission in our schools
and communities? Jack Wright, a college counselor at Franklin High
School in Los Angeles who works with disadvantaged students whose
families may know little about college, has a map on the wall with
pins marking the colleges to which students have applied. When someone
gets into a college, he uses a different pin as a visible sign of
success. In so doing he emphasizes the common challenge and the
success of individuals within a group and minimizes the chances
for individual shame. Every student who walks into that counseling
office looks at the map, is inspired by it, and feels the history
do not provide such occasions for ritual, students themselves will
try to bind their wounds with their own rituals. Students hold "rejection
letter" parties after April 15 that only those with rejection
letters in hand may attend. This is clearly an attempt by the age-mate
group to heal the wounded self-esteem of individuals. Shouldn't
adults be helping, too? If it seems that all of these suggestions
depend on group or community solutions, they do. The reason? Simple:
the stress our society, and the college admission process, put on
the individual and on individual achievement. The individual self
is fragile. The self in isolation is not strong and can break down
relatively easily, particularly a young self. The self supported
by the love of family and by the ideals and rituals of the school
and community, nourished by a rigorous education, and strengthened
by the challenge it has faced--such a self, inhabiting the body
and mind of a healthy young man or woman, can leave home and go
on to one of the many colleges that are a good "match"
for him or her and have a wonderful and productive experience there.
Thompson is a clinical psychologist practicing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He is codirector of Independent School Psychological Consultants,
a group of mental health professionals that provides psychological
services to schools and runs workshops for independent school teachers.