A Mother’s Speech to Her Son, With Compliments to Kipling

I mentioned in a post in March that I was looking for the speech I gave at my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.  I’d found pictures of him at that event, but I didn’t know where the speech was.

In another monumental cleaning project a couple of weeks ago, I found the speech! He was sixteen at the time and is now more than twice that age. Re-reading the speech took me back to a turbulent time in our lives. I thought of trying to summarize the speech in this post, but I worked so hard on it at the time, that I think I will just reproduce it here:

I’m in a difficult position tonight—J____ asked me to make this speech personal, but not to embarrass him. That’s a fine line that I’m not sure a mother can walk. But I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to give J____ some advice in the presence of so many witnesses. I have a lot to tell J____  because in this short month of February 1998, J has reached many milestones—he turned 16 . . . he got his driver’s license . . . he was confirmed in our church last weekend . . . and he has now received his Eagle award.

As I reflected on the place of Scouting in J____’s growth, I boiled down my advice to J____ into three themes—pride, prudence, and perseverance.

First, on pride. Many people are proud of you this evening, J____—your father and I, your grandparents, your Scout leaders, and many other friends and family members. Even your sister is probably proud of you tonight. But, as you recognized in the personal statement you wrote for the program, what is most important is whether you are proud of yourself.

When I speak of pride, I mean your own confidence that you have done a job well—and done the job through your own hard work. Your Scouting road has taken ten years from the time you started as a Tiger Cub, and you have achieved a lot during that time. Most of your achievements have been your own doing, and you are justified in taking pride in a job well done.

But along with pride should come a sense of humility. No matter how much energy you invest in yourself, other people invest in you as well. I look around this room at your family and friends and your Scouting leaders, and I am thankful for all they have contributed to your success. You would not be here without them, and they deserve your appreciation, along with mine. I was pleased that you recognized their contributions in your personal statement, and I hope that as you succeed in the future, you always remember to thank those who have helped you along the way. Pride, tempered with humility, will serve you well in life.

My second theme is prudence—by which I mean thinking through the problem before you start, and planning for how to overcome the obstacles. Scouting has enabled you to try many different things—such as camping, backpacking, climbing, and canoeing. Your Scout leaders have taught you to do these things safely—to plan ahead and to be prepared for what might happen.

As you know, I am an avid proponent of planning, and, like your Scout leaders, I try to make sure you think ahead. In the years to come, you won’t always have me to force you to plan. In fact, now that you are 16 and are driving without me, I already need to be able to rely on your good judgment and prudence. I hope that when I’m not there to give you my excellent and prudent advice, you will think back on the Scouting motto, and always “Be Prepared.” You’ve got a wonderful mind, and are capable of doing anything you want, if you exercise prudence and foresight.

My third theme is perseverance—keeping on when the going is hard. You have had to persevere to get here tonight—through times that were difficult, and through times when you didn’t want to continue with Scouts. You worried about getting your Lifesaving merit badge. You didn’t know whether you could get through the Order of the Arrow ordeal. You had other commitments like debate and dramatics—and thought you didn’t have time for Scouts. Despite these difficulties, you kept at it, and you have now achieved the pinnacle of success in Scouting.

You have many difficult goals ahead of you—such as doing well in college and building relationships with a spouse and children,  and being successful in the career you choose. The road to your dreams and ambitions will not be smooth. However much your father and I might want to make the road easier, we can’t. Your own perseverance is the only way to get there. The good news is that you can now reflect back on your Scouting experience to tell yourself that you have done it before, and can do it again.

I recently ran across a quote from poet and playwright W.A. Auden that explains what I mean by prudence and perseverance:

Those who will not reason perish in the act;
Those who will not act perish for that reason.

What this means is that you must think things through before you act—you must be prudent. But you also cannot stop with thinking; you must in the end make a decision, and follow through on that decision—you must persevere. Your Scouting experience has readied you for both reasoning and acting—for prudence and perseverance. Because of what you have learned in your life thus far—in large part through Scouting, I am confident that you will have many future successes in which you will take pride.

I want to end with another quote, this time from Rudyard Kipling. You might recall your father and me reading Kipling’s “Just So” stories to you about the time you started as a Tiger Cub. Kipling also wrote a poem entitled “If.” Every line in that poem has something to say about growing up, but the following lines seemed to match most closely what I have been trying to say about pride, prudence, and perseverance:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowances for their doubting, too; . . .
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same; . . .
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will that says to them: “Hold on!” . . .
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

And to those lines of Kipling’s, I add one more of my own:

Godspeed, J____ on the journey you’ve begun.

My son is much further along his journey now, though I hope he still has most of it ahead of him. He’s done well, and as Mother’s Day approaches, I hope that both he and my daughter realize that the thoughts I expressed in that speech almost twenty years ago still apply to both of them. Every day.

What advice have you given to your children?

A Story I’ve Rarely Told: The A Minus Incident

I’ve mentioned before that I was one of several valedictorians of my high-school class. The six of us all had 4.0 GPAs.

A 4.0 was as high as one could get in our high school—all A grades (A+, A, A-) counted as 4 points. There were no deviations for pluses and minuses, and there were no extra points for AP or Honors classes. (In fact, the school didn’t have separate AP classes, though it offered the tests.) And, in addition, the school only counted semester grades—quarter grades were shown on report cards, but not used in calculating GPAs.

My junior year of high school was my hardest, as it is for many students, then and now. I took six courses—Honors English, U.S. History, Chemistry, French 4, German 3 (straight from German 1, I skipped German 2), and Russian 1. I had no free periods for studying, and I had homework in most of these classes most nights. But through the second quarter, I had all As, and I even had an A+ in Chemistry.

My father at about this era, early 1970s – you can see how stern he could be

For the third quarter, ending in the spring sometime, I brought home a report card with an A- on it and no A+s. I can’t remember which class the A- was in, but I remember my father’s frowning response when he saw the report card.

“You should do better than this.”

We had several dinner discussions about how an A- could be improved.

I’d been disappointed in my grades that quarter also, but I recognized that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’d have to be sure that nothing slipped further in the last quarter of the year to retain my class ranking, but I knew that this report card wouldn’t impact my GPA.

Still, I was angry and hurt at my father’s reaction. This was the man who was chastising me—the guy who got a D in Algebra?

My father’s lack of early scholarship was part of our family’s lore. My mother—also valedictorian of her high-school class—dated and married her classmate who got a D in Algebra the first year she knew him. His problem wasn’t capability, but in his early teens my future father suffered from a poor attitude and failure to do the assigned work.

Somehow my father turned it around (probably my mother’s doing) and later earned a Ph.D., but still . . . his history was that of a D student, which I knew full-well. He shouldn’t be complaining about an A-.

I hid a lot of tears that spring.

Many years later, just a few months before he died, my father and I spoke about the A- incident. My pique still showed.

“I was too hard on you,” he said, “wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” I told him.

At his funeral two years ago this week, his former secretary told me, “Your dad was awfully strict with you kids. I remember when he complained about an A- you received.” So the story had made it to his office. “I told him he shouldn’t give you such a hard time. Wasn’t I right?”

I chuckled and said I’d told him the same thing.

Like my father, I know I was hard on my kids. They were (are) smart and usually were good students. Even though I was strict, as they went through high-school and college, I tried to keep my perspective about their grades, remembering the A- incident with my father. I think I was relatively calm about grades, though I lost my cool about many other things—assignments not turned in, papers forgotten, and disciplinary failures. I’m sure they could describe many times when I overreacted.

I wonder which of my failures they will try to eliminate from their parenting behaviors, should they have kids someday.

When has a memory from your childhood impacted how you parented?

A Glossary: Troops and Sports Fans, Ace Guys and Dirt Bags

troops 1989

Troops, 1989

I suppose every family develops its own lingo, terms they use to describe their experiences together. Our family’s jargon is heavily influenced by my husband’s time in the military. He went to the U.S. Naval Academy, spent time on active duty in the Navy before I knew him, and for the first 24 years of our marriage was in the U.S. Naval Reserves and drilled once a month plus two weeks every year. Our kids grew up knowing a lot of Navy terms.

Not all of the expressions he used were official. Some can’t be mentioned in this blog, though he didn’t use those around our children either.

Four phrases in his lexicon described categories of people that my husband dealt with on a regular basis. Not all were flattering.

Here are the definitions of those terms, in descending order of desirability:

sara about to bolt

Sara, another one of the troops

Troops: This was a pretty generic term. “Troops” were just his gang of followers. Anyone could be a troop. The kids were troops from a very young age, as in “Come on, troops, let’s get a snack.”

Of course, dogs could be troops also. “Out to the back yard, troops. Now!”

There was some affection behind the term “troops.” But my daughter commented recently, “Dad, I never knew if you were calling me or the dogs.”

I usually was not a troop, mostly because I resisted orders, but I was sometimes lumped in by accident.

sports fans 1989

Sports Fans, 1989

Sports Fans: I’m not quite sure where “sports fans” came from. It wasn’t really a military phrase. My husband was not a sports fan. Neither was I, though both of our children grew up to be sports fans.

Sports fans were like troops, though this was a more ironic appellation. It was used when something wasn’t going quite right, as in, “Let’s go, sports fans. We’re late.”

People were sports fans, but animals were typically not.

Ace Guys: Things started to get negative when we heard “ace guys.” Ace guys were the people who did something stupid. They weren’t necessarily evil, just dumb—like the ace guy who ran over my husband’s camera with a truck.

The driver who cut us off on the freeway was an ace guy. The grocery store checker who put the oranges in the sack on top of the bread was an ace guy.

Family members weren’t typically ace guys. Maybe a brother-in-law on occasion, but rarely.

Dirt Bags: We did not want to be dirt bags, nor associated in any way with such people.

“Dirt bags” were the sailors who couldn’t keep their lives in order, so they never got to drills on time. They were often in debt and had an ex-spouse or two hanging around. Maybe an illegitimate child. Dirt bags got into fights.

We didn’t have any dirt bags in our family. My husband would have court-martialed them.

What are some odd terms in your family’s lexicon?

You Say Grandma, I Say Nanny . . . Doesn’t Have the Same Ring As Potayto, Potahto

I’ve mentioned before that I called my maternal grandmother Nanny Winnie. How I came to call her that started on my father’s side of the family when my older cousin began calling our common grandmother Nanny Kay. I was the second of Nanny Kay’s grandchildren (though a third was born just months after me). By the time I started talking, my cousin who was two years older had imprinted the family—“Nanny” is what we would call grandmothers.

When my later siblings came along, they all called our grandmothers “Nanny” just like I did. I assume our younger cousins followed their older sister’s example also.

But at some point my younger siblings shifted to calling both grandmothers “Grandma.” I think the change occurred about the time they reached their teens—“Nanny” was too childish. By that time, I was out of college and married.

My cousins made the change from “Nanny” to “Grandma” also, but I don’t know when or why their transition occurred.

The result is that I’m the only one who held to the Nanny Winnie and Nanny Kay designations throughout these good women’s lives.

I don’t know why I didn’t make the shift. Maybe I was too old to change by the time my younger siblings were ready. Maybe it is my essentially conservative nature—I don’t like change. Maybe I don’t mind being different—it didn’t matter what my friends called their grandparents; “Nanny” was good enough for me. Maybe I’m just a little kid at heart.

When I had children of my own, they called my mother and my husband’s mother Grandma”. I didn’t feel the need to continue the “Nanny” designation into another generation.

Four generations with Nanny Kay

Four generations with Nanny Kay, my father, me, and my son

In fact, it was easier to have a different appellation for grandmothers and great-grandmothers. My children had both Grandmas and Nannies in their lives. They were fortunate to know both of my grandmothers—their great-grandmothers—for a few years, though they didn’t see them often, because both Nanny Winnie and Nanny Kay lived halfway across the continent.

In fact, one thing that saddens me now is that, should I ever become a grandmother, my grandchildren will not know my parents. No “four generation” pictures with my parents, me, my children, and my grandchildren.

Four generations, with Nanny Winnie

Four generations with Nanny Winnie, my mother, me, and my son

Nanny Kay’s birthday is coming up soon—Friday would have been her 105th birthday. Next month is Nanny Winnie’s birthday—she would have been 108 in mid-March. I think about these women frequently. They were part of my growing up and lived well into my adulthood.

They made me who I am, not only because they formed my parents, not only because they were refuges during my childhood, but also because they passed on certain traits to me. I look in the mirror, and I sometimes see Nanny Kay in the shape of my face. If I have any musical talent at all, it came from her. As I age, I feel myself moving from my typical reserved demeanor toward my Nanny Winnie’s ability to talk to any stranger. Maybe I am assuming her gregariousness as I mature, maybe I am now more relaxed and less stressed, maybe I actually am developing a greater interest in other people.

We all need Nannies to live up to in our lives.

What nicknames has your family bestowed? Which have survived, and which have been lost to time?

Snow Days: A Recent Phenomenon

Maybe this is one of those “when I was young, we had it tough” stories. But when I was young, we didn’t have snow days. At least, I don’t remember my classes ever being canceled due to snow, nor for any weather-related events. It might have happened, but I don’t remember any such occasions. Hoping for bad weather so I could stay home was not part of my growing-up years.

My brother and me in Richland, when it would have been nice to have a snow day

My brother and me in Richland, when it would have been nice to have a snow day

We didn’t have a lot of snow in Richland, Washington, where I grew up, but most winters there were at least a few snowstorms. And we often had “black ice,” which those over driving age feared more than snow. I’ve written about my dad letting me drive his new Capri after one snowstorm—my choir practice was certainly not canceled that evening due to weather.

I remember walking to the bus stop during my high school years in the snow. Over unpaved paths, uphill . . . both ways. (Well, actually, my route was fairly flat, but it was mostly unpaved, cobbled with large river rocks uncovered when a bulldozer cut a path through what would become the rest of Sierra Street some twenty years later.)

Some school days I’d worn tennis shoes in the morning, and was surprised to find snow when I left school in the afternoon. I still had to walk home from the bus stop. There were no cell phones to call my mother to pick me up. If we didn’t have prior plans for her to pick me up at school, I walked.

Far worse than snow in Richland was the wind. I had less trouble walking home in wet, icy shoes than I did in a 40-mph windstorm. On those afternoons, wind gusts blew me back a step as I trudged west up the unpaved portion of Sierra Street.

I went to college in Middlebury, Vermont. Vermont has a lot of snow. But classes didn’t get canceled there either. I slipped and slithered up and down the campus hills from my dorm to my classes. The grounds crew did a wonderful job of shoveling and salting, but of course college students made their own paths from building to building and didn’t stick to the cleared sidewalks and streets.

Middlebury in snow

Middlebury College in the snow, before the students made paths across the commons

Most years at Middlebury, I lived in dorms without dining halls, so I had to bundle up to get to breakfast before my 8:00am classes. Not fun. Many students slept through breakfast on snowy mornings (and other mornings as well), but not me. I couldn’t last until lunch time without sustenance.

Then I had three years at Stanford. It only snowed once that I can recall in those three years. No need for snow days in Palo Alto, California.

Snow days didn’t become a factor in my life until my kids were young in Kansas City. I was fortunate that my children’s day care almost always stated open, despite the snow. Although their grade school closed due to snow a few days every year, the day care portion of the school stayed open. My kids were in the extended day program at the school, so I could still take them. They went, whether they wanted to stay home or not.

I only remember one day ever that the day care center called to ask me to come get my kids. It had already snowed six inches or so, and big fat flakes were still falling heavily around 4:00pm. I got on the freeway downtown with every other commuter in the city, inched my way over a bridge to the Northland where we lived, and made it to my kids’ school about the time we usually picked them up. What was usually a fifteen or twenty minute drive took me close to an hour.

The next day was a snow day for the school, but the day care center was open.

It wasn’t until my children were in high school that snow days became important for our daily planning. As were “late start” days—which was their schools’ nod at inclement weather that might delay students’ transportation plans but wasn’t bad enough to cancel classes. My kids and I watched the television on evenings when it snowed, hoping that school closings would be announced before bedtime. If not, we had the television on at 6:00am, my children still hoping for the good news of a day at home.

Of course, my husband and I had to go to work, no matter what the kids did.

It took several years after my youngest graduated from high school before I quit watching the school closings list on TV. Snow days no longer matter to me now—I can declare my own snow days, when I refuse to drive. I try not to, because I know I’m just being cowardly. But it’s not me I worry about, it’s the other idiots on the road. If I don’t have to deal with them, why should I?

What do you remember about snow days?

The Orange Juice Incident

I know it is un-American, but I do not like orange juice. The pulp in it clings to my tongue and doesn’t go down easily. The acid churns my stomach. And it’s just so orangey.

A&T Dec 1989 (cropped)

Theresa & Al, several days AFTER the Orange Juice Incident

I also don’t like to travel during the holidays. I started being responsible for my Thanksgiving and Christmas travels when I was seventeen and went to college three-thousand miles from home. Ever since then, I’ve lived far away from at least part of my family and have had to fly frequently on holiday weekends.

Once my husband and I started working, we tended to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents, who lived just ninety miles from our house. Those car trips weren’t too bad, unless the weather was dreadful.

But every third year we traveled to the Pacific Northwest for Christmas with my parents. Once we had children, we had to schlep their belongings—including all presents—halfway across the country. I usually shipped boxes in advance and hoped they arrived before we did.

Christmas 1989 was one of our years to travel west. My parents lived in Richland, Washington, at the time, which required two airplanes from Kansas City. My children that year were four and seven.

I had shipped our presents—wrapped and unwrapped—to my parents ahead of time. I only needed to pack clothes for myself and the kids. My husband was responsible for packing for himself. (He usually was, and we often had to go to Wal-Mart the day after we arrived to buy socks or underwear.)

Packing our clothes was a complicated endeavor. I had to decide on the appropriate garments for church, dinners at fancy restaurants, and everyday activities in the middle of winter. I had to limit myself to the number of suitcases that two adults could carry, because our children were not big enough to provide much assistance. One result of my logistical calculations was that I decided I would make do with one raincoat with a zip-out lining.

December 1989 was the coldest month on record in Kansas City. On the morning we left, the temperature was minus 22 degrees. We had to leave our house at 6:00am to get to the airport in time for our first flight.

The taxi arrived to pick us up at the appointed hour. The kids and I were ready. My husband and I carried the bags to the taxi, and the kids and I got in the back seat.

“I’m going to turn off the water,” my husband said.

I understood why he was turning it off. I didn’t want the pipes to burst while we were away any more than he did. But couldn’t he have done it BEFORE we were in the frigid taxi? I shivered in my coat, even with its zip-out lining.

Finally, hubby climbed in the cab, and off we went.

Check-in at the airport went smoothly. My husband announced he wanted breakfast before boarding. Our seven-year-old son chimed in, “I’m starved!” He was always starved, from birth until age 25. Maybe longer.

We entered the airport cafeteria restaurant, put food on our trays, paid, and found a table. I took coats off the kids and then myself, piled them on a nearby chair, and we sat down to eat. I was exhausted. Not particularly hungry, but exhausted with the effort of preparing for the trip, rising early in the morning, and getting myself and two children ready for a week-long cross-country trip.

“Be careful with that,” I said to my husband when he picked up his bottle of orange juice. He had a habit of shaking drink bottles before he opened them.

“It’s okay,” he said in that placating tone he uses when he thinks I’m being silly.

“You’ll spill it,” I said, as he starting shaking the orange juice bottle.

“Nah,” he said.

The cap flew off the bottle, and half the juice landed on my coat. Mostly on the outside, but some on the zipped-in zip-out lining.

I didn’t swear, because of the children, but I was damn angry. “That’s the only coat I brought!” I yelled. I grabbed some napkins and tried to blot the juice off my coat.

“Let me do that.” My husband tried to take the napkins from me.

“You’ve done enough,” I said through my teeth.

The kids’ eyes were wide, their mouths gaping. Dad had clearly screwed up, even worse than THEY usually did. What would Mom do now? They’d seen her go ballistic over smaller things.

I did my best to salvage the coat. We ate our food in silence, except for my caustic comments toward my husband, such as “Did you think I wanted to smell like orange juice all week?” and “I told you not to shake the bottle” and “You’ve done this before, you know. Why didn’t you listen to me?”

Then we went to use the restrooms before the flight. I took my four-year-old daughter into the women’s room with me. As we washed our hands, I dabbed at my coat again with water and paper towels, still fuming about “stupid man” and “thinks he knows everything” and “it’ll be sticky the whole vacation.”

My four-year-old sidled toward the exit.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I yelled.

She started to cry, huge tears welling out of her eyes. Many years later, she told me all she wanted was to get away from me.

But, of course, I couldn’t let a four-year-old loose in the airport. “Get back here!” She took one step closer to me, but still sobbed.

That’s how we boarded the plane—me reeking of orange juice, my daughter crying, and my husband and son silent.

The only good news is that I got the single seat, and my husband had the children in the row of three across from me. And the dry cleaners was open on Christmas Eve, so my coat got cleaned.

For the quarter-century since that Christmas, this has been known in our family as the Orange Juice Incident.

Xmas 1989 dinner cropped

Christmas dinner, 1989, with the exception of Grandpa Tom, who took the picture

What problems have you incurred during holiday travels?

Top Tips For Students and Parents Attending College Fairs

Middlebury RHS college fair 9-15-15Last week I represented Middlebury College at the Kansas City Private High School’s College Fair. I’ve done this event several times in recent years. I enjoy getting to talk about one of my favorite places and times of my life—my college experience at Middlebury (see here and here).

I am an alum, not a professional college admissions officer, so I’m limited in what I know about the admissions process and financial aid packages. I have been a parent taking kids to these fairs, so I have experience from that side of the table as well.

Each year the kids look younger (and so do the parents, I must admit). But each year, the experience is similar. Some kids are well prepared, others don’t have a clue why they’re there. The parents all want to know about test scores and financial aid.

Here are my tips for students and parents about how to get the most out of your two-hour look at a variety of college possibilities:

Five Tips for Students:

1. Have a reason for stopping at a college table

It’s best if you’ve done some research in advance, and at least know where the college campus is. Most college fairs publish a list of the schools that will be represented, and you can select five to ten in advance that you know you want to investigate.

That being said, college fairs are an opportunity to explore. So even if your reason for stopping by is to ask “I don’t know anything about liberal arts colleges. What do you see as the pros and cons of attending one?” you at least sound like you’re thinking seriously about the next phase of your life.

2. Don’t take information on a college unless you think you’ll read it

This stuff costs money to produce and to transport around the country. Colleges create the brochures and other materials for you to learn about them, so take the pamphlets if you might be interested.

But if you know in your heart that you would NEVER go to a school where the temperature dips below 40 degrees, then DON’T take information from a school in Vermont.

3. It’s OK not to know what you want out of life

Don’t be embarrassed by not having your whole life mapped out until retirement, including your future kids’ birthdays. Most people don’t at sixteen or seventeen. Don’t make stuff up. Do be prepared for questions about your interests.

You can respond to questions about prospective majors and the like by stating what you’ve enjoyed in the past or what you’d like to explore. “My favorite course so far has been American History. I’d like to take more courses in this subject in college.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to learn Mandarin, and my high school doesn’t offer it. Does your college?” Or, “I’m really into photography. How can I continue that interest at your institution?”

4. If you do know what you want to pursue in college, be able to probe quickly

For example, “I want to get a pharmacy degree. Does your school offer it?” Or, “I want to play Division I football. What division is your school in?”

That will speed the process for both you and the college representative. We both have better things to do than chat about a school that can’t meet your needs.

5. Don’t look bored

This is your life we’re talking about. Even if your parents dragged you to the college fair, get what you can out of it. Even if you’re introverted and hate talking to strange adults, have a question or two prepared to get the discussion going. I’ve given you several examples in this post.

My suggestion: Go to the fair with the intentions of (1) gathering data about five schools you think are definite possibilities for you and (2) researching three more schools that you don’t know much about but that sound interesting.

Five Tips for Parents:

1. You really don’t need to be there at all

I know you have a vested interest in where your student goes to college. You’ll probably be paying a lot of the expense. And you want your kid to be happy. But almost all of the information that is shared at college fairs can be learned at school websites. Let your student take the lead on this.

2. If you do attend, only attend with your student

I don’t mind talking with the parents that do come with their kids. But I do mind the parents who wander the aisles picking up information on behalf of their student—“Johnny was too busy tonight, so I’m taking brochures home to him.”

If your kid doesn’t care enough to spend two hours at a college fair (or do his or her own research on the internet), then does he or she care enough to go to college? Why should you make it easier? Applying to college requires a student to invest a lot of time for a reason. It’s his or her future we’re talking about. They need to care.

3. Let your student do most of the talking. . . just listen

You can learn a lot about your kid listening to what they ask about. Did you know he was interested in psychology? That quidditch is her favorite sport? If your kid says he is interested in a Classics degree and you think that is totally impractical, then you have something to talk about on the drive home.

I try to direct the conversation toward the student. If a parent asks a question, I answer it, then ask the student a question directly. I want to know if my college fits the student’s interests, not the parent’s.

4. You won’t get a sense of the money issues at a college fair

All you’ll hear is “needs blind admission” and “the college will work with you.” I can tell you what the tuition, room and board costs are, but I can’t give you any kind of commitment. An alum like me doesn’t even know the college’s process for awarding financial aid. You won’t even get a commitment from the professional admissions office employees at a college fair.

So wait for your student to narrow down his or her preferences before discussing money. Then contact the admissions offices directly. And be sure to follow all deadlines for getting information into the financial aid offices.

Besides, you might be surprised by a scholarship offer before you have to commit.

5. Support your kid

The colleges admissions process is a stressful time for students. I know it’s stressful for parents also, but it’s worse for the kids. But if you think the autumn is bad, with its college fairs and application deadlines, just wait until spring. Then the envelopes, skinny and fat, start arriving.

And it’s time for decisions.

Do readers have any additional tips to offer?