Step Back


I remember writing my essay for Haverford College on New Year’s Day. I don’t remember writing the essays for the other schools, but I remember, very clearly, sitting on my bedroom floor with my back pressed against the footboard of my bed and writing about New Year’s.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I would guess my essay was filled with all the hopes and dreams for the future, as one would imagine an ambitious 17-year-old would write as she sat on her bedroom floor dreaming about college. I do remember the final line, “Happy New Year.” In my mind, the line was read in a dramatic whisper. (A very dramatic whisper, as said by a 17-year-old girl who considered herself very dramatic and inspiring.)

I smile when I think of that girl. She comes to mind often now, as I begin the college search with my daughter. She’s a high school junior and not yet in the essay-writing stage. But that hasn’t stopped me from requently suggesting possible essay topics for her.

And, I truly think I’m being helpful. More than that, I truly think I’m awesome because I’m merely suggesting topics and structure and not actually writing the essay for her as rumors have it that other parents do. But earlier this week, I accompanied my daughter on a tour of a local university. After explaining the differences between all of the various schools and programs offered by the university, the admissions officer took some time to give the kids application tips. Take a challenging curriculum, let us know that you really want to go to our school, and finally, as great as your parents are and as much as they should absolutely proofread your application, do not let them tell you what to write for your essay.

Wow. OK, not even suggestions?

No. Not even suggestions, because, as the admissions officer wisely explained, the moment it becomes someone else’s topic is the moment the essay stops being authentic.

I thought about that. My parents didn’t discuss my essays with me. And how would I have felt if I had told them my essay topic and they didn’t like it? When I think back on that essay, although I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, I remember it truly reflecting who I was at that moment.

I realize now I need to let my daughter do the same. It’s so frightening though. If only I could be the one to write the essay — then I could make the school see my child the way I see her.

But maybe that’s not the way they should see her. I don’t necessarily know everything about her anymore. I can’t say for certain that I know exactly what her dreams are or how she sees herself. My vision of her is filled with memories of her playing tea party and singing made-up songs. My vision is clouded with ideas of who I think she is when she’s at school or with her friends.

But that’s not her. Only she can paint that portrait. As parents, we need to let our children tell their own story.

At some point, we have to stop leading the way. At some point, we must step back and walk side-by-side with our children. And, if we’re very lucky, they’ll allow us to hold their hands as we walk.

Happy New Year.

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