5 Things I'd wish I'd Known as a High School Parent, by Stephanie J. Smith


When my daughter's first college application was accepted she texted me a screenshot of the acceptance, "I'm going to college, mom!" I messaged her back on my iPhone and delivered exploding confetti congratulations. Even though she may not accept this first offer and has other submissions in the queue, we're celebrating her good news. 

In my position as an event planner, I refer to this tidbit of goodness as a click. In planning an event, we're clicking means things are going well: the caterer showed up on time, the DJ brought all her cables and the AV company hasn't blown a circuit. While we're starting to click with this first college acceptance, the main event we're working toward is the selection of a college that meets her potential and passion and our price.

So what happens when we're NOT clicking? Event planners know all too well about things going wrong. We fix mistakes or hiccups and then distribute a post-event document of "fixers" so we all learn from the experience. 

As the parent of your own Teenage Events you probably know that I spend way more time fixing than I do clicking- it's part of the job. Looking back on my four years as a high school parent, even the best planning couldn't have prepared me for the following fixers: 

1. Teens Look you in the Eye and Lie

In elementary school and even middle school, I sat on a high horse of "not my child" superiority. My young child could do no wrong. Then, high school lasso'd me, yanked me to the ground and I'm still eating dirt. Even with good grades, weekly spiritual services, occasional sit-down dinners and fun summer vacations, my angel and many of the Teens in her sphere, lie to parents just like we lied to our parents but probably forgot. Like us, these Teens are good kids, they are talented, smart and perform their versions of the truth to a level worthy of an Emmy Award or a possible career in the FBI as a double agent. 

While technology allows this generation of parents to better track the whereabouts of Teens and we access information at lightening speed on our devices, it also powers new and innovative ways for Teen tribes to rebel. Starting in Freshmen year they'll go rogue finding parties on social media, disabling location tracking, covering their house cameras, sneaking out and setup a new Lyft or Uber account via free coupon code to attend a house party that is located outside their permitted driving perimeter.

Moving into Sophomore and Junior year, a search of their backpacks and rooms yields suspicious electronic pens or colorful USB-looking cartridges that do not belong to them, they belong to their friends. "I only tried it once and didn't like it." "I quit a long time ago, this is super old." "It's not mine, I promise!"

The key mistake I made was to take the lying personally. After all, I raised my daughter since infancy, how could she turn on me after I taught her to walk and dribble a soccer ball down the field? According to Megan Devine, clinical therapist and author of "How Dare you Lie to Me!" How to Deal with a Lying Teen"*, it's important to distinguish between lies that cover up risky or dangerous behavior and every day lies. If Teens are lying to cover up illegal or unsafe acts, please reach out to your community or a professional counselor for help and deal with it swiftly and directly. If Teens are lying to cover up homework, grades or protecting another person, consider having a calm conversation about why  and the importance of honesty.

Regarding honesty, I repeat the line from my friend Kristi who continually told her young daughter, "I love you unconditionally but you need to earn my trust and respect." 

2. Opening Up When Things are not Perfect Alleviates Stress, Builds Confidence and Deepens Friendships

The good thing about getting older is that I'm not afraid or embarrassed to admit I'm constantly failing and fixing. As a 50-year-old mom, when I need support or advice I reach out for help. I often attend the free Parent Support and Walking Groups offered through Families Connected and I treasure my high school parent friends with whom I can be my authentic self. I might not see these parents that often but sharing the truth and being vulnerable with a confidential and kind ear heals my soul and gives me great ideas and talking points on how to handle different situations.

Whether it's Teenage love, rebellion, vaping, partying, anxiety or depression, finding a network of parents and counselors who are engaged, enraged and often disappointed with the choices of their Teens and young adults has evolved me into a more compassionate, less judgmental and wiser Parent.

3. Start the College Conversation Freshmen Year of High School, or Earlier

Our public high school started talking about college at the Parent Night for 8th graders and although I was attentive and pleased that our public educators discussed college so early, I postponed any research or significant conversation about college until her Junior Year. I'm a busy planner and I survive by prioritizing and the looming death star topic of college seemed like something that could wait until after the sports team fundraiser, the Spanish project, etc. Although my daughter knew about her 529 College Savings Plan and her parents' expectations that she would go to college, this was the extent of our conversation until Junior Year. Big mistake. 

I was shocked when starting sophomore year, aged 15, she began to receive a deluge of marketing material from colleges all over the U.S. and even some outside the states. Then, well-meaning family and friends started to ask about colleges and even majors of interest and I'd see her discomfort. I felt overwhelmed and panicked and projected my anxiety onto her peppering her with even more questions:

    • When do you take the ACT/SAT?

    • Shouldn't we sign you up for a ACT/SAT Test Prep class right now?

    • When do kids even apply to college?

If I'd listened to the sage advice from Beth Kobliner, financial journalist and best-selling author, on how to talk to kids about college,* I would have started the conversation a lot earlier. Like it or not, you and your Teenager will also hear these questions and it will help both of you to have a perspective and some talking points even if it's "I have no idea what I want to major in but right now *I think* I'd like to go to smaller college".  I also found a lot of value in Helen Codren's Families Connected post on "Let's Stop the March College Madness" on how to set boundaries with these questions. 

What both Kobliner and our high school counselors stress is finding a college that’s the right fit for you and your Teen is more important than the name on the sweatshirt. To zero-in on the fit, look for the right opportunities to ask things like: What do you think about Community College as a bridge to a state school? Would you like to be near the water? Do you think you'd enjoy walking to class in morning rain or snow? I know you're a sports fan, do you see yourself going to games? Do you see yourself in a big city and smaller school or vice versa? 

4. Sharing a Car Saves Money and Opens the Door to Conversation

While a lot of parents provide Teenagers their own wheels and this builds independence, reliability and helps transport younger siblings, my husband and I decided to wait. Our daughter does not have younger brothers and sisters and our offices are located in close proximity to our home in the South Bay and her high school.

In addition to saving money one of the unexpected benefits of sharing a car with my High School Senior is simply talking about our day. Because of our busy schedules we seldom sit down to dinner together more than once a week and ride-sharing provides a way to connect. When she takes me to work, I refer to her as "TUber" (Teen Uber) and when I'm dropping her some place I'm "MUber" (Mom Uber).

When in the car, I strive not to lecture and instead plant seeds about good habits that I'm trying to model. Still, even if I'm quiet, she'll often volunteer information about her day, homework, friends and more. I get to remind her that her I love her and even give her a hug.

I often hear parents say once their Teenager gets a car they never see him or her. Sharing a car puts the brakes on total independence and also forces my daughter to think about my schedule, as well. It's not all about her all the time.

5 .Make Time to Participate

As work-life balance, flex time and leave of absences are more of a reality, there's never been a better time to support a school or sports team event. When my daughter made the dance team, I was grateful that the senior dance parents coached me on the team's fund raising, training and travel commitments. Although I had zero experience as a dance mom, I could certainly throw my event planning weight behind any activity. Eventually, I was asked by the coach to be one of two varsity team moms and then ultimately responsible for a giant snack bar fund raiser hosted at the school- right up my event-planning alley. Because our family worked together, the experience brought us and the team closer together while serving nachos, hamburgers and hot dogs. To this day, I got more out of giving my time than I received and created some lasting friendships along the way.  

If you're just starting to volunteer, consider taking on a supporting role, first. Sign up for a shift then be sure to mark all your calendars to ensure you uphold your commitment. Once you get to know other parents and have some experience, then step-up as the lead- go for it! 

I hope that these lessons learned contribute to some clicking on your path from middle to high school. And if you find yourself in fixer mode, join the club and be sure to ask for help along the way. (See #2, above)

*This blog post links to articles outside of Families Connected that we've reviewed and approved; however, we're not directly affiliated with these authors, their products or their organizations. Please use your own judgment if they are selling products or books from their sites.

by Stephanie J. Smith