Shhhh! Keep Quiet!

It can be scary looking at colleges. Will a school be, as they say nowadays, a “good fit?” Will my child be admitted? Will I be able to keep from crying when we drop her off at her dorm the first time? The second time? Every time? I know I am not alone in these anxieties. The children, too, have their own concerns. Will I get in? Will I make friends? Will I be able to find a convincing fake ID? Let’s face it, we are all bundles of nerves at college visits, and with that much collective apprehension, information sessions and campus tours can become powder kegs.

Our first visit was to a university in our hometown. Not that it was on the official list of colleges my daughter wished to attend, but here was a painless, inexpensive, and convenient way to practice and begin the process. It was our first exposure to all the customs, tropes, and corny jokes associated with visiting a college. Before we went, I spoke with a close friend who advised me to do something I’d already pledged to myself: shut up!

Zipping it was not easy. I had so much to say! Yet my opportunity to look at colleges for myself happened long ago. This was about my daughter, not me. Most of the information was in the Fiske Guide or online, so there really was no need to blurt out questions on campus. Yes, I would keep my mouth shut.

Our tour guide was young, brilliant, and charismatic, like a college-aged Bill Clinton. We were all entranced by his expert commentary, in-depth knowledge, and flawless backward-walking skills. Before I knew it, I had asked a question. I, who wasn’t going to open her mouth, had raised my hand and blurted out a demand. It was a fine question, as questions go, but a question nonetheless. This was going to be harder than I thought. I forced myself to forgive my brief indiscretion, and vowed anew to be silent. Mum’s the word.

What? Before I knew it, another query had popped out of my lips. How could this be? I had redoubled my efforts to keep quiet, and somehow had broken my own rule again within minutes. Clearly this was not as easy as I’d hoped. I twisted an invisible key at my mouth like a kindergarten teacher and made another deal with myself. No more talking. Really. This time I meant it.

It’s understandable that parents ask questions on campus tours and at information sessions. We are anxious about giving up our children. We will be, in many cases, the ones paying the tuition. We want the best school for our offspring. As invested, worried consumers, there are a few things we’d like to get straight before we sign on the dotted line. “How many volumes are in the library?” “What is the student/faculty ratio?” “Do you super score?” and “Will toilet paper be provided?” aren’t so much literal questions as they are ways to let off steam from the anxiety brewing in our bellies. After all, nearly every one of our questions can be answered from printed materials. The real reason we ask questions is that we are so anxious about the entire process.

I get it. I really do. And I have nothing but empathy for my sorry self and for all of the other moms and dads facing the same predicament. Except for one thing: This is not our college experience, it is our children’s. The ones who should be asking the questions are the students-to-be. We are just along for supervision and support.

I’m trying to think of when the Question Game began. It must not have been that first tour because I was still getting my bearings on how to remain silent myself. Sometime soon after, there was a parent who simply could not stop asking questions. Really, she was like a game show host with all her inquiries. I’m pretty sure interrogators at Gitmo asked fewer questions than this probing mom. Heck, she could have put the Inquisition to shame! This relentless interviewer hijacked the entire session with her constant queries. That’s when we developed the system.

At every info session we would start a tally. Sometimes there were so many parents shooting questions that we were forced to identify them in the margins of the makeshift scorecard. Salmon Shirt, Purple Glasses, and Bearded Guy were all admirable, if unwitting, competitors in our private game. Preppie Shirtdress, Hipster Mom, and Hippie Dad easily qualified for the lightning round. The most amazing participants were the ones who made it into the double digits, revealed way too much about their children, or even made little speeches. Sometimes, we hit the jackpot and got a parent who would attempt all three distinctions. At one college, a much-heralded “reach school,” there was a woman who so dominated the afternoon, we fantasized about presenting her with a little trophy marked “Ask Hole.” Didn’t she realize we were all anxious? Couldn’t she guess that everyone wanted the best for his or her child? Was it possible she thought she was the only one who had raised a wonderful candidate for admission? Did she truly believe she was the only mother of an applicant who was “scary smart?”

The ones I feel sorry for are the children of these incessant questioners. If a kid can’t get a word in edgewise at an info session, how will that child fare when left alone at college the following fall? It must be oppressive to tour with a parent who cannot remain silent. How can a child find his or her own voice if there is never an unasked question by the parent, never a silence to fill, never an opportunity for autonomy?

I learned my lesson on that first tour, and the game became a silly and instructive reminder to me at each subsequent visit. It’s not easy to take a back seat to your child’s quest for discovery but it’s a necessary step to encourage and support autonomy. Ask not what you can ask for your child, ask rather what your child can ask for himself or herself. And in a pinch, break out the scorecard, tally up, and have some fun!

Let’s face it, we are all bundles of nerves at college visits, and with that much collective apprehension, information sessions and campus tours can become powder kegs.

Fiske Guide to Colleges

This was about my daughter, not me.

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