In her first year of high school, my daughter works hard to earn good grades. However, when I recently asked what colleges interested her, she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. Is this a cause for concern? Should I be steering toward a certain college or a definite career? According to experts, the approach you take to talking to your daughter about college depends on her age.
At 10, girls are at the peak of childhood. Not having reached that confidence-rattling passage into adolescence, they dream grand dreams about being artists, surgeons, explorers and Olympic stars. Your job at this point is to applaud your daughter’s ability. This gives her confidence and a stronger identity. When she tells you what she hopes to achieve, say, “That sounds terrific. You have many wonderful talents.”
At 10, no girl needs to worry about college, but many do. Research indicates that a girl who worries about future events which she has no control over feels stressed. This can diminish her ability to enjoy school and to perform academically.
Remember that a girl of 10 is still a child. When the subject of college comes up, assure her, “You’ll find the right school when the time comes. But we don’t need to worry about that yet.”
At 12, Caitlin asked her mother, Ann, “If you want to be a lawyer, do you have to go to college and graduate school, or do you just go to graduate school?” When Ann answered her daughter’s question, Caitlin volunteered that she had decided to be a judge—on the Supreme Court! Caitlin is the perfect example of a girl who is 12. She still dreams big, yet she’s also ready to find out about steps she’ll need to take to make her dreams a reality. As they talked, Ann, who was an attorney, said, “Perhaps you’d like to try debate at school or visit my office.” But Caitlin wasn’t ready for those suggestions. “I didn’t know it was so hard to become a judge,” she replied.
At the pivotal age of 12, a girl is learning to predict outcomes. She can project herself a few years into the future. For the first time, she understands that reaching her lofty goals will be hard work.
Girls this age need us to protect them from being overwhelmed. This was confirmed whenThe New York Times held round-tables with 12-year-olds, college loomed large. School-related headaches and anxiety were not uncommon. As one 12-year-old recently told us at Daughters, “If you mess up getting into college, your whole life is ruined.”
If your daughter is in the 6th grade, remind her she only has to work toward her goals one school year at a time. If she takes practice SATs or ACTs, stress that she is learning to take tests, not trying to get into college. Continue to help her identify her strengths, and praise her academic achievements. But be careful not to connect the with college acceptance. Not yet.
By 14, a girl has the ability to examine hypothetical situations in detail. For the first time in her life, she can actually imagine herself studying at a certain college or working at a particular job. This is the year when your parental voice of support can become the voice of guidance. If your daughter has a career interest, help her draw connections between particular colleges and her goal. When she mentions a school, the time has come to say, “Let’s go online and find out more. Is that school strong in areas that interest you? Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, authors of The Ambitious Generation, say the most common mistake with girls this age is pushing them toward prestigious colleges rather than helping them identify schools that can prepare them for their future careers—a point to keep in mind as you guide your daughter.
But what if at 14 or 15, your daughter is like mine and doesn’t know what career, or even what colleges, interest her? Not to worry. Psychologists tell us that the most important thing is simply believing in our daughters. Tell her, “You’ll figure it out in time.” Because she will. The world pressures girls to grow up fast. It’s up to you and me to help them discover their talents and choose paths that are right for them.