William Deresiewicz offers many theories about the college obsession in his energetic polemic, Excellent Sheep. He hypothesizes that parents hover over their kids’ higher-education plans, or insert themselves into them, or downright manage them, partly because the parent overidentifies with the child: "The child is made to function as an extension of somebody else" When parents treat children as a self-extension, he claims, children form a false self. They are happy with themselves when they achieve what their parents want for them. They are depressed when they fail at what their parents want for them. But they have no self of their own, pleased and displeased by whatever genuinely matters to them. Years of being pushed and packaged so that Yale might say "Yes, we want you” prevents the development of genuine goals and interests.
That’s Deresiewicz’s main diagnosis, but there’s more. The intense involvement of parents in the college application process "bespeaks a misguided belief that you can make the world safe for your children: that if you only do everything right, nothing will ever impede or harm them" In addition, parents are driven by "status competition within extended families; peer pressure within communities; the desire to measure up to your own parents, or to best them; 'family branding.’” Ultimately, their child’s admission to college will be the grade a parent gets for the past eighteen years. "When your kid gets into a prestigious college, it’s as if you got an A in being a parent. And nothing less than that, of course, will do.” What’s the solution? Children should fire their parents and invent their own lives. They can best do that, says Deresiewicz, if they get off the elite college track (if they were on it) and go to big public universities where they won’t continue being pressured into relentless striving for superficial success. If you can get your parents off your back enough to land in that freeing environment, the next step is to limit contact.
Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week, or even better, once a month. Don’t tell them your grades on papers or tests, or anything else about how you’re doing during the term. Don’t ask them for help of any kind. If they try to interfere with course selection or other aspects of your life, ask them politely to back off. If they don’t, ask them impolitely. Make it clear to them that this is your experience, not theirs.
Freed of parental influence and overbearing pressure to succeed, you will now be in a position to find yourself. And that’s actually what Deresiewicz thinks college is for—that’s its true purpose.
Reading Deresiewicz when I’d already written most of this book, and when I was quite seriously immersed in helping my kids choose and get into good colleges, I felt a pang of guilt when I got to the part about parents treating kids as self-extensions. In this book, I am arguing that children are, in a sense, self-extensions. But they are also separate—a fact that’s critical to good parenting from the earliest days onward. Plus, the self-like quality of kids decreases with time, as children start "coming from” many other sources besides their parents and directly from themselves as well. But I do say the self-like quality matters, giving parents prerogatives others don’t have. Could the overbearing parent derided in Deresiewicz’s book be an indictment of just the approach to parenting I’ve supported here? Would Aristotle’s picture of our children as "second selves but separate,” if taken seriously, turn us into bad parents?