Category Archives: Dear Zinc

Dear Zinc, Volume 2.

Dear Zinc is a regular advice column for high schoolers and their parents, written by Matt’s company, Zinc. To submit a question, email zinc.

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Dear Zinc,

Our son is a 9th grader at a top California public high school. He swims for one of the better clubs in our area. We’re told he could be a D1 swimmer, but his girlfriend, who is determined to swim for Stanford, Berkeley or UCLA trains before and after school and has already placed at national meets. She’s on his case about not trying hard enough, and, frankly, she’s right. He has a 3.8 GPA, but in-state, UC Santa Barbara expects a 4.0. Also, he does what’s required of him but not one jot more. He spends hours and hours on social media or on Xbox. We both graduated from top tier colleges. We don’t need him to do that, but the game has changed. When we tell him to join a club or something, he laughs contemptuously. We definitely don’t wanna be those parents, but we also want to set our child up for success. Help!

Warmly,
Not Those Parents

Dear NTPs,

You’re in a tight but all too familiar spot. Here are some guidelines:

It’s his world. He’s the player. I’d love to say you’re the coach, but…you’re not even the coach. At the risk of over-extending the metaphor, on this team, you’re more like a cross between the owner and the facility. You’re the grass the game gets played on and the air the player breathes.

Anything positive you can contribute rests on the foundation of your unconditional love, trust, and respect for your son. Prioritize the relationship over the outcome. No matter how surly he may act, he wants only your complete approval. If he feels it’s beyond his reach, he won’t try. Lack of parental approval has driven many of us to all sorts of crazy efforts and many others into the abyss. Research shows that approval gets a lot more traction.

For your son, “Hey, why don’t you join a club at school?” may translate as, “We’re more concerned about superficial appearances — ie, where you go to college — than we are about who you really are.” At an age when it’s developmentally appropriate for him to seek separation, you risk alienating him.

At the same time, you’re correct that hiding out in his self-enforced gaming and social media dungeon dulls him and syphons off much of the richness you’ve hoped to provide. Joining a club or even seven clubs he doesn’t care about won’t help though. Colleges prefer candidates who contribute to their communities, but they find Tracy Flick-style box checkers almost as distasteful as slackers.

What will help your son in the college process is the same thing that will help him in life — a connection with what matters to him and an ability to effectively engage with the outside world. That’s an awful lot to ask of a hormonal teen, sipping at the firehose known as the high school curriculum, while navigating the digital assault on his dopamine coming at him from multiple screens, all under the conscious or unconscious pressure of impending adulthood.

Still, it can be done and should be attempted — most of all, for his benefit!

Yes. You feel the clock ticking, but time is also on your side. Remember how radically he changed during his toddler years? The teenage brain develops at least as much as the toddler brain. Efforts and abilities that seem inconceivable for him right now will become routine during the next year or two.

If his reply to your query about what interests him goes something like, “Well the main thing that really grabs me is Madden 18,” your answer is, “Of course! We love entertainment too!” Then, if you can do so in a non-confrontational way, get him thinking about what Call of Duty, Overwatch, Snapchat, or Instagram do for him.

Separate your fears from his. Cordon off any desire you might have to atone vicariously for failures you perceive in yourself. Take the long view, believe in your son’s intrinsic worth, and stay relentlessly faithful to your love for him.

Doing so will set him up to succeed no matter where he goes to college. You will feel a good deal of pain when he leaves home in three years. Spend those years in conflict or stony silence and you’ll experience only painful pain when he goes. Help him grow by providing a foundation of trust, faith, and love, and transform the sorrow of his leaving into the exquisite, beautiful pain that only parenting can offer.

Yours,
Zinc

 

Dear Zinc, Vol. 1

Dear Zinc is a regular advice column for high schoolers and their parents, written by Matt’s company, Zinc.

Sign up to get Dear Zinc in your inbox.

Dear Zinc,

I go to a small school so I’ve been hearing a lot about college and college counseling from the teachers and older kids for years. Plus, my brother already went through it and it was stressful to be around. I wouldn’t say my parents are college obsessed, but they are definitely involved and have pretty high expectations (though they would deny that). If I ask my parents for help or advice, they have a million opinions and suggestions. So do other kids and teachers. I’m already feeling overwhelmed by everything. My parents and I are going in to meet my college counselor for the first time next week. What should I be doing right now?

From,

Already Overwhelmed

Dear A. O.,

Everyone in this process means well, including, obviously, you. It’s just one of those emotion-tangling times when the tides of life overlap and everyone needs all the help they can get to navigate the cross currents.

Put yourself in your parents’ shoes. They may have an odd way of showing it — like, by going to the office and working all weekend or yelling at you for neglecting to clean the cat litter again — but you’re probably more important to them than eating. And college will rip you from their lives (sort of) and launch you straight out into the world they’ve spent so much energy protecting you from for the last sixteen years. They’d really love to have all the answers for you. Of course, they don’t, so they’re compensating by talking a lot.

Put yourself in your shoes. It wasn’t that long ago you were filling your Club Penguin coffers with gems and rings. Now you’re juggling rinsta, finsta, SAT, stoichiometry and the Treaty of Westphalia, and you’re somehow also supposed to “fall in love with ten colleges” or find your life’s true calling. And all of this is meant to prepare you for that looming menace called “adulthood” when you’ll somehow be expected to make your own way in the world.

I’m exhausted writing that.

The writer Mo Ogrodnik has described coming-of-age as journeying into one’s aloneness. When we are finally left to ourselves, we notice paths meant only for us. Tough to do that while keeping up with teams and homework and social media, aka, being normal. Still, for many of us, the college process is the first of many opportunities to figure out what matters to us and act on it.

There’s a world of difference between freedom from — as in, “freedom from my parents telling me what to do all the time” — and freedom to — as in, “freedom to choose what to study or who to be.” Take stock of yourself and prepare to make choices.

You can start by making two lists.

Before your counselor meeting, make a list of any activities and experiences that have mattered to you. You need not make a formal “resume,” but writing them up in a form you can hand to the counselor is a good idea. They need to get to know you, and people love lists. Just make sure to include the color commentary. Instead of just “camper – Camp Sarsaparilla,” clarify that you spent your summers without electricity growing your own organic food.

The second list should be a very preliminary list of colleges. Look up some schools online. Your preferences may well change, but notice what appeals to you — big university with lots of graduate schools or small liberal arts college that emphasizes undergrad teaching? Major metropolis or tiny college town? Do you want to stay near home or go far away?

There will be many other factors to consider. What will your transcript look like? What test scores will you present? Where will you get the best financial aid package? No matter the answers to any of these questions, you will have choices to make, and, at the end of the day, some or all of these choices will be yours.

Take a deep breath, A.O. Give yourself a pat for asking this honest question. Put your phone in a drawer in another room. Go for a long walk. Free-write in your journal. Meditate. Visit a house of worship or a museum or a park. Look for other opportunities to tune yourself in.

And begin…