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I am a mother of two. My daughter is 15 (going into 10th grade) and my son is 17 (going to 12th). My son has been so nonchalant about college applications and everything that goes into getting accepted. My husband says that we shouldn’t worry, and if he misses his deadlines, he’ll pay the price. How else will he learn? he says. I don’t want to let my son make such a big mistake, but I don’t know how to get him to do it. I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent at all, but should I just let him screw up?
— Not a Helicopter Parent
You say the problem is with your son, NAHP, but it sounds to me that this is, alas, really a marital issue. You and your husband are not seeing eye to eye on a fundamental — and evergreen — parenting question: step in or lay off? This wouldn’t be a big deal if this were about, say, a fudged math test. But this is your son’s future, and it’s painful and disorienting to not be on the same page as the person with whom you are raising your kids.
Every single married person has moments like these, when you look at your spouse and think, Is that really what you believe? Are you out of your mind? If you’re anything like me, this occasionally leads to: How am I married to you?
When my husband and I are battling it out from seemingly opposite ends of the boxing ring, I often think of my dear friend, who sent her 5-year-old son to a New York City charter school against her will. OK, it wasn’t entirely against her will, but for various reasons it was exceedingly important to her husband that their son go to this highly-ranked charter. The school did not espouse her hippie values, but it was abundantly clear to her that the values it did espouse — discipline, rigor, competition, academic success — were absolutely non-negotiable for her husband. She wanted to respect his point of view, different as it was from her own.
So she bit her tongue and off he went.
Long story short: midway through elementary school, it became clear that this was the wrong environment for him (and other kids, it turns out). Her husband, who also saw that it wasn’t working for their son, was happy to let her choose where to send their now- 9-year-old next. She chose her local Brooklyn public school. The kid thrived.
What is the point of this story? That Mom is always right, of course.
No. It’s that sometimes marital decision-making turns mainly on whose views are more strongly held and why. If your husband has some deep-seated belief that kids need to be left to their own devices to fail, interrogate him on it; and then explain to him why you think your son might actually need more hand holding.
If you’re navigating this conflict from a deeper place — your core beliefs about parenting or growing up, your own college-application fights with your own parents — you might have an easier time seeing things from his point of view and coming to some sort of compromise (maybe you set deadlines for your son, but don’t nag him every day about them). Or, you might see that your husband is hellbent on letting your son flail and you might realize that you absolutely cannot stand that idea — or you might see that your 17-year-old is learning something valuable! In all cases, this is an opportunity to learn more about your husband and for him to learn more about you.
Whether one of you proves to be right or wrong is beside the point. My friend’s kid wasn’t permanently scarred by the charter school, and if your son blows every deadline, he can always take a gap year. But if you can get through the next six months with both husband and wife feeling heard and seen, your soon-to-be-emptier nest should be stronger and happier.
One last thing, and this is related to your son: Maybe he secretly doesn’t want to go to college. Maybe he really does want a year off. Maybe he wants to be an actor or join the army. Maybe he’s depressed because of Covid (so many teenage boys are right now). Maybe college seems suddenly like an impossibility. There are a lot of reasons why your son might not be capable of focusing on college applications right now. I wouldn’t be so quick to chalk it up to him being “nonchalant.” I’d interrogate him, too — what’s on his heart and mind?
Abby Rasminsky is a writer living in Los Angeles. Got a question? Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What if my son just forgets to apply to college?