• Dr. Thom

The Gifts of Eighteen Summers and the Importance of Senior Year


Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Eighteen summers.


That’s how many summers most of us get with our children. I mean, sure, you’ll still get special holidays and maybe a vacation or two after that, but for the most part we get eighteen summers before our children head off to college and everything after.


Once school starts this Autumn, in whichever way it is to start, I will have four more summers with my oldest son Andrew. The moment that realization became clear, when the steady passing of time suddenly shifted from a vague someday to a numbered few, it truly shook me. I wanted every moment to slow down and I thought long and hard about every interaction. Perhaps I could be more selective in my griping about him picking up his room for now, and most importantly, my mind began creating a kids-in-the-house bucket list like never before.


Perspective is a hell of a clarifying force.


For the families we work with who are experiencing the last couple of summers of their kids-in-the-house journey, it is especially bitter sweet. There is a tremendous amount of pride in what their children have accomplished stirred messily together with an immediate recognition that they will deeply miss having them always around. There is a very real need to hold on to every moment.


When I was still in campus-based admissions, I recall a series of interactions I had with a family in Chicago’s Northside that would forever change how I viewed the college search, and my role in it for most students and families. The student was an accomplished scholar athlete with nearly perfect grade point average (gpa), top test scores and a full list of accolades and achievements. To many, this student had everything she could want, and could look forward to reaping the benefits of years of tireless work. Instead, the inner fire needed to drive her on to these accomplishments and the intense stoking required to keep it going left her empty, a burnt out husk of a person. Her life was a groundhog day of achievement, filled with the rituals of looking good on a “top” college resume. In the Spring semester of her Junior year, she was finally broken and checked into an in-patient mental health facility. Hard and long months went by and slowly she was able to rebuild herself from the foundation up.


We have a perspective problem.


According to the National Institute of Health, one in three teenagers between the ages of 13-18 have had an anxiety disorder, and the prevalence of those disorders is more prominent in adolescent females (38% versus 26% for males). Worse, adolescent hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and self-harm have doubled over the past decade. One of the sources for this deepening anxiety, according to researchers, is an extreme version of achievement culture which ceaselessly promotes success as a constant over personal health and well-being. The idea seems to be, let’s get them into the best college possible, and then they can relax and become a well-balanced adult. That’s why today’s college students are moving into their their residence halls with a significant amount of emotional dysfunction along with bed sheets and a shower caddy. Thirty-eight percent of first-time college freshmen report feeling “frequent” and alarmingly high levels of anxiety.


All this, for a college.


Let me be as clear as I can possibly be: there is no college, no matter how famous or prestigious, no matter how many movies they make about it, no matter how highly ranked it is, no matter the accolades at all that can justify that kind of sacrifice. None.


A big part of what we teach our client families is that the junior and senior year are a gift. Our “true north” is not that we’ll get your child into some college, it is that as you are driving your child to whatever college they choose, that your mind easily recalls those last couple of years you had with them as filled with warmth, happiness, and love. That is the truest gift of the summers and all the moments in between that we get with our children after all.


But it is a choice how we spend that time. Either we make it, or the passage of time makes the choice for us. We have to choose what we are going to care about and make the most of during these eighteen summers we have them in our homes.


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