Kid not into college,trying not to compare

My sweet, bright high school son is a medium achiever and not a club starter, not an athlete, not a musician, not interested in AP classes, and not too interested in college. He likes video games and has two friends. He does the bare minimum to earn Cs in school. He’s not depressed, just….chill. We’re a pretty happy family though. The pandemic made him disengage from school even more. But I’m in a social group where many parents are sending their kids off to Ivy League, the UC system, or play water polo etc and that’s not happening for us. The pressure gets intense at times, with conversations about test scores, GPAs, admission status, applications, trips to colleges all over the US, etc.As a mom, I feel frustrated and angry. Not at my son, although there’s some frustration there, but mostly at the other parents who and talk and talk and brag and are so very invested in the status and academics of their children. Maybe I’m jealous, I very willingly admit that’s a possibility. But I also feel frustrated that one of the only measures of success for young people is through college. I wish people talked more about medium scoring children, or kids who are disengaged from school, or other routes to success besides Yale, Harvard, or UCB. Anyone else have this experience?

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While I don't have expereince as a parent of high school kids, I do have expereince as a child of a parent who was invested in the status and academic prestige. It is so stressful. Every interest, choice, activities I was interested in was met with "How will this help you get into an Ivy League school? How will this help you pursue a lucrative and prestigious career?" When I told my parents that I was choosing to go to a small liberal arts college instead of an Ivy League school, my parents LOST it. It was as if I had crushed their life's dream. The liberal arts college I chose to attend is a top tier school (Top 20 on US News Ranking) but it didn't matter because it was not an Ivy League school and did not carry the same name recognition or the bragging right. When my parents later found out that I was majoring in a non-science field and was not planning on going to a medical school, they were devastated. After college, I had an administrative job at an office while figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.  My parents officially deemed me a huge disappointment and failure. All of this is so unhealthy. It's taking years of therapy.  I encourage all of us parents to try to see that life is not linear and there are many different measures of success. To the OP, is your child content?  Perhaps he's a late bloomer. Instead of prestious schools or clubs, I think our job as parents is to encourage our children to be able to make a living, be a kind person that helps make the world a little better place, and have a happy and fulilling life. Yale or Harvard won't guarantee that. My spouse is brilliant (very high IQ) but was never ambitious in terms of achievements. They went to a prestious college and went to graduate school because going to school seemed better than getting a job. After graduate school, they spent several years unemployed, directionless, dabbling in different career paths. They ended up in a career that is suitable for their personablity. My spouse is content with their life, but they do not check the boxes for the conventional definition of success. Both of our parents are disappointed in the way our lives turned out. They lament, "you are so smart. so much potential. what a shame..." But, we feel that we have a lot to be grateful for. I have a dear friend whose child was like your child. Just chill. He didn't want to go to college right away and worked at an ice cream parlor for some spending money. He lived with his parents for a long time. My friends worried about him so much and was in disbelief that they have produced what they perceived to be a failure. After a couple of years, the child decided to take some community college classes that interested him. He later went to UC and is doing fine -- software engineer at a startup. His sister also took a roundabout way to go to college, working retail and babysitting jobs while going to school part-time. She ended up becoming a nurse, but it took a while. I think we live in a pressure cooker with so many high achievers. I hope people relax a bit and realize that there's more to life than top tier, top ranked [insert whatever it is that you're obssed about]. 

Oh yesssss!!! It happened to me as well. I just tried to keep my sense of humor about it and recognize that while I was definitely envious of these high achievers, I also needed to trust that my child’s growth will be on their own terms. 
Practical suggestions- leave the conversation when it starts in this direction. Redirect. Or at some point you could even say “ gee I am so torn hearing all of this cause John is just on his own path and it makes me feel like a “ less than” parent.”

And as my final thought- my daughter ended up at Chico state- had a great time- joined a sorority and met tons of lovely kids. She thrived there and  is now a top exec at a high tech firm earning more money than I ever have! And 
my son never graduated from his state college ( first in our families to not get a degree) and he is doing his own thing and happy with his choice. 
 

good luck! So many paths to happiness and so many ideas of what success looks like!

Yes!  I feel you completely on this topic.  I am the mother of a great young lady who just graduated high school.  My daughter is smart, level-headed, choosy about her friends, not interested in ANY kind of competitive sports, and is a quiet introvert.  She loves being smart and feels pride in this aspect of herself, HOWEVER she seems to see no value in scoring well on tests or challenging herself to "compete" for anything at all.  She just is not interested in the idea of competition, not even with her own self - to push past any limits.   She went from an "A" student before COVID to a "D" student in her junior and senior years and thus, didn't have what it takes to get into a good school, so she started at BCC instead.  She dropped her classes because she just could not stand any more remote learning, and is now on a gap year.  

All of her friends have moved on with their lives, moved into dorms and are doing what my husband and I always envisioned that she would do. We are supportive of her but I have to admit that I somehow feel that we failed her.  Or that she failed herself by having the attitude that she does, even though she completely intends to go to college and get a degree (in something). 

Thank you for your post, which demonstrates an extremely healthy and admirable approach. I have two teenagers. One is very focused on getting into a good college and is extremely anxious and unhappy.  The other one does fine (not great) in his classes, has a very active social life, is very physically active, and has zero interest in college. With just a tiny bit of additional effort, he could get his grade up to almost all A’s, but when I encourage him to do this he says that he doesn’t want to be miserable like his older sibling. That pushback from him was a wake up call to me that I wish I had had earlier. He wants to go into the construction trades, which can give him a very fulfilling and financially secure life. I am so proud of him. 
I know that the pressure in some parent social circles is crazy. I hope to destigmatize parents supporting kids not going to to college, going to community college, or taking some time to figure it out. 
I don’t have much advice for you in terms of how to interact with the parents you described. I hope that you can feel confident in your family choices and tune that stuff out. 

I feel you!! Our kids were more on the college track than yours, but we live in an area with lots of high-achieving kids and hard-core, helicopter parents. When my kids were looking at colleges (def not ivy league or UCs), I started to pull back from certain people socially because they were driving me nuts. ALL they talked about were test scores, college rankings, blah blah blah. I started saying to people, "I just want the next step to be the right fit for my kid. I care more about their development and happiness than what sticker I get to show off on my car." That shifts the conversation immediately. haha. Also, I have a neighbor whose son has serious substance abuse problems. In a very serious car crash, in rehab a few times before he graduated, family therapy, the whole works. She was so freakin grateful he lived to even graduate, that she had no patience for the parents whining about SAT scores and admission rates. She was my role model. She was worried about the important stuff: her son's and her family's mental and physical health. So, not sure this response amounts to advice. But pull back if you have to, defend your son and your family's choices if you feel the need to, weather the storm because this will be so far in the rearview mirror so fast, you won't even believe it. 

It sounds like my husband was a lot like your son when he was in high school. To hear him tell it now, he was happy in high school and  really didn’t care that his friends were applying to high status schools. He went to college right out of high school and partied at first. Then he somehow found his niche academically and ended up getting good grades. Fast forward to the present-he ended up going to law school (not a high status law school) and has a job that he loves. Our kids are college age now and whenever the conversation with other parents turns to college admissions he practically brags about his C-average and his academic path. Sounds like you’re a really supportive parent : )

I know it's hard not to compare, especially when the ones you hear the most about are the ones going to fancy schools, but there really are plenty of kids out there who aren't going straight into top 4-year schools - they're getting  a job, or going to community college, or just generally trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. I think the pandemic has made this even more common recently, at least in my kid's peer group (class of 2021). Even in "regular" times, college isn't the right path for everyone, and I think we've lost track of that. Think of it the same way we did when our kids were babies or preschoolers and some were walking/reading/whatever sooner than others. There's no one right path and every kid is different. It's hard to keep that in mind when you're in the midst of it, but it sounds like your son has a pretty good outlook; I'd focus on helping him make some kind of plan for what happens after graduation - it doesn't have to be more education, but he should work on some kind of realistic path to earning a living. Beyond that, you can't really change other people. Celebrate their kids' successes and try not to worry about the differences. (For me, it's similar to how I deal with seeing friends taking fabulous vacations I can't afford or having more exciting jobs or publishing their novels or whatever else I'm jealous of - acknowledge your feelings, be happy for your friends, and then move on. Dealing with these feelings has to come from inside you, though, not through trying to change other people. If it helps, think of all the money you'll be saving on college - it's a lot!) But who knows, maybe if more people start talking about their kids' alternate plans it will help normalize paths other than 4-year college.

Agree. I have teen/tweens and am trying to shed the ingrained mindset that equates worth with intelligence, achievement etc. and would love to know what alternative post-high school options are out there.

I think cooking/gardening, construction/repair, non-violent communication, critical thinking, living a smaller footprint, helping others…is important.  

Yes let’s please share ideas!
 

I hear you! It's really annoying that all kids are judged on the same scale with college as the goal. My kid doesn't enjoy school and there's no way I'm wasting my money on college unless something changes. But there's no reason for him to feel badly about that. The world needs skilled labor way more than another paper pusher. My child has been judged and compared to the college bound kids since the beginning. The best part was when his kindergarten teacher compared him to the kid raised by a tiger mom who was lucky enough to be born during the window that made him eligible for TK. So my kid who was born 3 days too late for TK was graded and judged against a kid of the who had already completed a year of school. That led to my child feeling badly about himself and not wanting to go to school. This idea that there's only one acceptable path through life is just stupid. At the end of the day we need electricians, not marketing professionals and it would be nice if trade school was promoted as a viable pathway to success  

I was an academic high achiever, BA from Stanford, MS and PhD from Berkeley.  The problem is what happens after school and its associated rewards are over.  I was never taught or encouraged to learn much about working with other people -- something I'm glad to see they have kids do now in school, much as my kid hates group projects -- nor how to succeed in a system where success isn't evidenced by something as unsubtle as test scores or grades. There aren't a lot of jobs out there that pay you to pass exams 40 hours a week. For many people, me included, post-academic success is pretty elusive.

On top of that, a lot of the high-achieving kids you're hearing about are focused on things they don't really care about, and may end up in careers that have little to do with their real interests.  When I was an undergrad studying biology at Stanford, many of the kids I met were aimed at med school but had no real interest in biology.  And they were scarily determined.  No doubt many of them went on to become bad doctors.

Of course you want bragging rights, who wouldn't, and going to a top college has a lot of advantages.  On the other hand, a lot of the bragged-about kids may be never again be as successful in life as they are now.  If your son finds work that he loves and that meshes well with a complete life, he will have some important components of a happy adulthood.  He may find a productive groove that will escape many of his straight-A peers.  In 10 or 15 years, you may be the one with bragging rights.

You didn't ask for advice, but here's mine.  Encourage your son to explore activities and hobbies other than playing video games.  Unfortunately that's hard right now, with covid.  My kid (who sounds a bit like yours) has taken a skateboard-building class at BHS and will be doing an online maker's class -- these are things she sought out herself.  She has long been interested in product design and architecture, so these are good choices.  I share with you the icky desire for Ivy League bragging rights, but I try to keep them tamped down in favor of encouraging our kid to aim for work that she loves.

I think you can be the parent to teach them that there's more roads to success- social and emotional success are not the same for everyone. Perhaps you could try it out on your closest friends- be honest about your jealousy and disappointment but also proud of the things you are actually proud of about your kid.

I'm not in your exact shoes but I had a recent experience with my 18 year old senior that really put this to the test.  I realized (after I got over my initial shock, disappointment, rage, embarrassment) that I'd actually be ok if he took another route if he wanted-a gap year or went to a less "impressive" college. I really believe it. Part of parenting is letting go, isn't it? I realized that it's really his life and I'll love him no matter how it goes.

Good luck!

I don't have a high schooler yet, but I can see my family being in a similar situation in a few years. The humble (or not-so-humble!) bragging is hard to take! It's one of the reasons we're leaving the Bay Area. It might be worthwhile to check out the community colleges in the area. I'm a PhD and former prof, and have been so impressed by community college students. They're a wildly diverse group in age, life experiences, country of origin, etc., and the students are incredibly interesting. While the students I met there may not have been Ivy League candidates, I think it's because of a lack of socioeconomic resources and/or different life priorities more than anything else. It's also a smart choice in terms of transferring to a 4-year university in the future, having a chance to take a wide variety of courses (including trade/vocational classes!), learning about the dignity of all work, and earning job skills that can be applied immediately while earning a higher degree. Good luck to your son! 

I know exactly what you are talking about. My daughter was a pretty good student but then completely disengaged from remote learning when the pandemic hit. And this was during her crucial high school sophomore-junior years. Her best friends on the other hand have excelled, going on to AP courses and community college. I thought I was in a group of parents that were more focused on preserving their child's mental health than pressuring them to get into the top schools, but I realize now that I was wrong. These kids are being driven so hard with studying and college applications that they have very little time to socialize anymore. It seems a little insane to me. It really feels like these parents are setting their kids up to be future workaholics. This has left me at times feeling alone, stressed, and very much an outlier. And most of all I really feel bad for my daughter. When I read your piece, what stood out to me is your mention that you are a pretty happy family. Hearing that made me feel like it is most likely going to work out for your son. Having a loving and stable home is so much more important in the long run to a child's development. I know it is hard but I encourage you continue being there for him as he grows and takes time to figure out what he wants. It astounds me how much pressure we put on kids to do well and to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their life. I think laying the foundation of love and support is far more important than bragging rights. But believe I have struggled with worry over the past almost 2 years. So hang in there, pour yourself a glass of wine, and give that kid of yours a big hug. Remember, mental health first. With time the rest is likely to fall into place with a loving family behind him. ( I'm happy to keep our conversation going if you want.)

Your child could be my child. It’s been hard for me bc I am type A myself, went to Cal & then Stanford law & it’s been hard to see that he’s not driven in the way that I was - but I’ve learned that I need to just back up off of him. He’s reasonably happy. He’ll go to community college. I’ll have him home longer. I’ll save some money. I really liked the response from the adult child. We all just need to relax. What I’ve noticed is that the more I push him, the less he wants to do. So I had to ask myself - do I want to be writing all his papers, preparing all his college applications myself? And I decided that it’s better if he learns to do these things himself. And I can live through the indignity of the occasional B or god forbid C+. I had to retrain myself to not see anything less than an A as a “failure.”  I have to retrain myself not to be obnoxious like your friends bc that was definitely my first inclination ;-) Just to let you know you’re not alone…

I remember those dreadful parent discussions so well from my first teen's experience, and now with teen number two I'm careful to protect my feelings AND those of fellow parents by never asking where other kids want to attend college, never saying what my kid's plans are beyond 'oh, he's making his own decisions on this....' and walking away from those awkward group discussions. It may be temping to hear the gossip about who is applying and where, but you won't learn anything valuable and you'll just feel bad about it later. If you're going out with friends, ask if you can make it a 'college free zone' for the evening where the college thing is not discussed. If you're stuck in such a group, excuse yourself as soon as you can - just walk away, you won't regret it, and believe me those type of parents won't be your long-term friends anyway. Good news: by end of senior year, everyone tends to calm down and respect others' choices. Good luck in protecting your mental health! You and your kid will get through this!