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Why Your Child Is Crying in His Professor's Office

Sometimes a tough stance in the short run saves tears in the long run.

Why your child is crying in his professor's office Photo courtesy of Christopher Lemercier via Unsplash

I, like all college professors, see a lot of student tears in May. The cause is usually not the end-of-year crush of work. Rather, that pressure forces longer term problems to the surface. Most often what’s troubling them is some variant of the question, “What am I doing here, anyway?”

Over the years, I’ve learned that parents sometimes unwittingly set the stage for these crises. I’ve also learned that parents can help their children out of them if they know what to look for.

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Let’s start with what I see.

Some students are unhappy because their lives get out of balance. Each of us has, to varying degrees, physical, social, intellectual and spiritual needs. Imbalance simply means some needs are met, or even gluttonously overfed, whereas others are starved.

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The stereotypical form of imbalance is the freshman spending all his time at parties and ignoring his classes. Those students exist, sure, but I see other types of imbalances just as frequently. For example, a student who lived in one town her whole life may have no idea how to meet people and make friends because she hasn’t had to do that since she was three. She pours her energy into her classwork and receives straight As but is miserable.

When parents help their child select a college, they often seek a school environment that seems to match their child’s interests and habits. Consider doing the opposite. If your child is very studious, she’ll probably be studious wherever she goes. Maybe she needs to go somewhere that makes it easy to be social. If your child likes to exercise but quickly drops the habit when stressed, maybe he needs a school where many undergraduates make fitness a priority. Consider a school where the environment provides ample support for the aspect of life that your child values but struggles with.

Other students are unhappy not due to imbalance but because they feel they are just going through the motions in their coursework. They’re unmotivated.

It’s natural to assume this problem is due to poor course selection, or even the wrong major. The student must not be following his passion.

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But that’s seldom the problem. Rather, it’s a lack of ownership. The student isn’t learning for her own sake but for some external purpose: to please her teacher, perhaps, or to avoid her parents’ disapproval, or to maintain her self-identity as a “smart kid.”

It’s a frame of mind many children learn around middle school. That’s when the material becomes more difficult, and more homework is assigned. Many kids balk at the increased workload, so parents get them to do it by badgering, cajoling, rewarding or threatening.

Parents don’t intend to use these tactics forever. But often they aren’t mindful about moving responsibility from themselves to the child as the years pass. I think many assume that their child will take ownership of his work as he matures.

Not all do. These are the students who come to my office feeling unmotivated and bored by college. They work because they are in the habit of doing so, but they feel that, somehow, they aren’t profiting. That’s because they haven’t internalized that the learning they are doing (or fail to do) is for them.

Ideally, you’ll help your child come to this realization during high school, but even if he’s in college, it’s not too late. The strategy for parents must include letting go, which means being prepared to let your child fail. It’s not much different than teaching him to ride a bicycle. Taking the training wheels off means some falls are likely, but he won’t ride until you let him try.

To understand the third category of unhappy students, I’ll ask you to try this thought experiment. Suppose a friend asked you to help her move a sofa out of her basement. You might not be excited by the prospect, but you’d probably do it. Now suppose your friend asks for your help and offers to pay you two dollars. Does that make you more likely or less likely to help?

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It makes most people less likely to help, which is a little funny. After all, you were willing to do it for nothing; shouldn’t adding compensation make you more willing?

To explain this paradox, psychologists suggest that each of us operates in a “social sphere” and an “economic sphere.” I’ll help a friend move furniture because friends help one another. It’s a social transaction. But when she offers to pay me, she moves it from the social sphere to the economic sphere. And in the economic sphere, two dollars is insufficient.

Confusing the social and economic spheres makes things awkward, and possibly insulting. If I tried to give you cash in exchange for a choice seat at your daughter’s wedding, you wouldn’t just think it was weird, you’d probably be insulted—even a little angry.

Parents sometimes mix the social and economic spheres with their children. They tell their child, “We just want you to be happy.” But when the student contemplates a choice her parents don’t like, financial concerns suddenly come into play. For example, the student wants to major in art history and her parents say, “I’m not paying $60,000 a year for you to look at paintings.”

The point is not that mentioning money is incompatible with loving your child. The problem is the lack of transparency. It’s certainly a parent’s prerogative to offer financial support for some things and not others. Just communicate financial constraints in your earliest conversations about college. The most distressed, bitter students I see are the ones who feel they’ve been bait-and-switched by their parents.

Each of the three problems I’ve described is rooted in the delaying of an unpleasant task: helping your child take ownership of his learning, helping him recognize that he’s poor at meeting some important need or letting him know there are constraints on what you’re willing to pay for. But as every parent knows, sometimes a tough stance in the short run saves tears in the long run.

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