Aug 16, 2010

I Just Want Her to Be Happy

Our firm has spent countless hours conducting interviews and focus groups with prep school and college bound parents over the past several years. We have poured over the responses in an effort to decode the decision process for parents as they embark on such a significant financial and personal commitment. We have learned a lot about this process and what matters most to parents from a generalist perspective, as we outlined last month with our white paper and webinar “Why Parents Choose Independent Schools“. And, for clients with which we have specific research relationships, we have learned so much in institutional-specific, market-specific, or region-specific data. But, one finding lately seems to trump all the others in my mind and, while it puzzles and troubles me on one hand, it perhaps seems very logical on the other.

No matter how you slice it, parents just want their kids to be happy. Countless interview and focus group participants offer, when really pushed on the question of why they made the school or college choice they did, they respond with a desire to please their children and make them happy. Sure, they want a rigorous program, personal attention, and excellent placement – but not at the expense of their child’s happiness, which trumps all other outcomes.  

And, yet there is one more finding that I see as equally as interesting.  While parents just want their kids to be happy, they really seem increasingly involved in their children’s lives.  This generation of parents, often called the “helicopter parents”, have caused colleges across the nation to give birth to new services and programs for parents, such as “Parent Orientation” programs or “Office of Parent Relations”.  There is no question that the independent school or college parent today is highly involved in their children’s lives.

Put these two qualitative research themes together and you have an interesting sociological stew bubbling.  On the one hand, parents just want their kids to be happy, but on the other hand, they just want to be involved in their lives.  This is either a bewildering or obvious finding depending upon how you examine it, but nonetheless, it still puzzles me.

Remember the old Peace Corp campaign from the 1970’s?  They were selling “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”.  Try selling challenge or hardship today to these students and their parents.  I’m not sure that will work.  So, the question is, do parents really just want their kids to be happy, and just want to stay involved?  I am sure there are two sides of this coin.

On the one hand, I personally understand the need to raise happy children. As a parent, I want my kid’s life to better than mine – isn’t that the American Dream? I want them to find happiness, peace, and purpose in their life choices. I want them to find joy in learning and discovery. I want them to view the future with hope and optimism. And, somehow I have equated all of those intangible outcomes of an education as a direct result of happiness.

Here’s where I am puzzled. Some of the aspects of a rigorous education do not necessarily promote happiness. Isn’t some level of pain, hardship, discipline, and toil key ingredients to the developmental sequence of one’s life? I have to admit, I am growing suspicious that parents might be erring on the side of ease of parenting and playing a bit of role reversal.

There are many people that I have chatted with regarding this issue. Some say it is a generational issue. They point to the fact that students at independent schools seem to be making the choice of schools at earlier ages every decade as evidence. And, others take the contrarian view, suggesting that this issue is simple as parents wanting their kids to know life’s blessings without too much hardship.

I believe the natural tension in this issue really boils up at the faculty level.  Have you ever seen a parent who was completely hands off on the admission or school selection process, but then becomes overly involved in a perceived battle of unfair treatment by a faculty member or school representative?  In many instances, the parent becomes actively engaged in making sure that their child has not been the recipient of too much challenge or unbalanced treatment from a school.  I have seen this issue countless times and am never sure exactly what to make of it.

What do you think? Are parents abdicating their role to their children, aiming to please rather than make the hard choices of a parent, yet still living vicariously through their lives?  Or, is this simply an age-old need of a parent wanting the best path for their child without too much pain along the way?

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.


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