3 Big Mistakes Parents Shouldn't Make: Lessons from TV

Did you catch Bones (a Fox TV crime solving drama) on November 18?  If you didn't, it is must-see TV for parents and students in the college admissions process and you can watch the full episode for free on Fox's website.  

Woven into the episode is a subplot in which Cam, one of the main characters, is wrestling with the question about how best to parent her adopted child, Michelle, as Michelle goes through the process of applying to colleges.  Unfortunately for both Cam and Michelle, Cam is NOT a model parent.  In fact, she pretty much makes every conceivable mistake a parent could make in the process.  Michelle too makes some mistakes.  And by the end of the show, we know that Cam has lost her way as a parent, that Cam and Michelle are set on a collision course, and that it is probably going to turn out badly all around. 

Spoiler alert:  I'm about to reveal the core elements of the subplot.  So if you don't want to know more about what happens before you watch the show, watch the show first, and then come back to read the rest of the blog.

As I reflected on the show and the actions and reactions of Cam and Michelle, along with the various advice and commentary offered by others to them, I decided that Cam made three big, huge mistakes, and Michelle egged Cam on with some poor thinking and reactive behavior on her part.  Here's some advice for parents about how to avoid making the same mistakes Cam did, and some advice for students about how to do your part right.


BIG, HUGE MISTAKE #1:  Cam treats the college application process as a team project, for which she is the team leader. 

Cam, like many parents, misunderstands her role in the college application process.  Instead of recognizing that this process marks an important shift in the power dynamic within the parent-child relationship, she continues as she always has.  She is the parent; she leads.  She gets things going and organized.  So she orders catalogs from schools, and she sets a kick-off meeting to discuss "our application strategies."  

But Cam has it wrong.  The time has come for Cam to allow Michelle to lead; the time has come for the parent to launch her child into an adult life of independence.  But Cam is so blind to her failure to relinquish her leadership role and shift it to Michelle that she doesn't even get it when it is pointed out to her.  When her co-worker Angela questions Cam's talk of "our application strategies" by asking, "Don't you mean her application strategies?" Cam replies, "Isn't that what I said?" Cam doesn't see the difference.  

For her part, Michelle doesn't seem to have stepped up to take on her responsibility.  There is no evidence that she has done anything beyond deciding to follow her boyfriend to Central Maine State.  So together they have become complicit in keeping Cam as the parent leader and Michelle as the child follower.  No good.   

Parents:  Repeat after me:  "I am not applying to college.  My child is.  It is my child's responsibility to undertake the tasks necessary to apply to college.  I am an advisor and supporter only."

Students:  Repeat after me:  "I fully accept that the college application is my responsibility.  I will undertake the tasks necessary to apply to college.  I will keep my parents and my counselor fully apprised of my decisions as I make them.  Because I am mature and understand that my parents have wisdom and are willing to help me, I will listen thoughtfully to my parents' advice and I will ask them for help when I need it."


BIG HUGE MISTAKE #2:  Cam promises Michelle that the decision which college to attend "is yours and yours alone," but Cam doesn't act in ways consistent with that promise.  

In the scene introducing this subplot, Cam is musing aloud with her colleagues about where Michelle might apply to college.  The names Cam lists are all top tier private schools.  It seems pretty obvious that Cam has definite opinions about where Michelle should go.  And when her British colleague Mr. Nigel Murray suggests some top tier colleges in the UK, Cam curtly cuts him off, stating that Michelle "is not leaving the country."  

So when Michelle announces that she has chosen Central Maine State as her school, Cam comes unglued.  We know that it is hardly the type of school she had in mind, but Cam tries to gather herself and return to her promise.  She consults with Dr. Sweets, another co-worker who is also a psychologist.  Sweets affirms that Cam should honor her promise and let it be Michelle's decision. Cam tells Sweets she's not sure she can do that, and as events unfold, we learn that she is right.  

The plot line of the show would suggest that Cam's mistake is breaking her promise to let the decision be Michelle's alone.  But I actually think Cam's mistake is making the promise in the first place.   I agree with Cam when she says Michelle needs Cam to guide her.  Plus,  I've never worked with a family in which the parents didn't place some limits on the choice of schools.  So why promise otherwise?  For her part, Michelle seems to confirm Cam's evaluation because she isn't displaying the best decision making skills.  She is caught up in her high school romance and has let it intrude on the college choice process.  One of Michelle's primary reasons for choosing Central Maine State is to be with her boyfriend.  Come again?  

Parents:  Don't make promises you can't keep.  Articulate your criteria for acceptable colleges early in the process.  Also articulate what the consequence is if your child chooses to attend a college that doesn't match those criteria.  For most families, the consequence is that the parents will not provide financial support.  Prepare yourself for the possibility that your child will not agree with your criteria and may, in fact, decide to attend college somewhere that is not acceptable to you.  Reasonable adult people disagree.  You can act consistently with your own beliefs, love your child, stay in relationship with your child, and disagree with his/her decision -- all at the same time.

Students:  Treat these decisions with the gravitas they deserve.  Don't decide impulsively or rashly, but instead decide based on good information and careful thought.  Develop criteria of your own for developing a college list and choosing which college to attend.  Get advice from older friends, mentors, and your parents.  (By the way, Cam is so right here…all sane adults will tell you that you shouldn't decide which college to attend based on where your high school boyfriend or girlfriend is going. )  Compare your criteria to your parents'.  If there are conflicts, don't have a knee jerk response.  Talk with them and see if there is a compromise.  If you can't reach a compromise and you simply must attend a college that your parents find unacceptable, then deal with the consequences maturely and in such a way that you and your parents stay in relationship.


BIG, HUGE MISTAKE #3.  Cam writes and submits an application for Michelle. 

In submitting an application for Michelle to another school, Cam is caught in the act by her co-worker Hodgins, who says, "That's bad.  That's just wrong."  Cam replies, "No, that is being a mother."  

Wow.  Cam, what are you thinking? You have so lost your way.  It is hard to lay any of the responsibility for these actions by Cam at Michelle's feet.  She is completely unaware that Cam is doing any of this. 

However, I do wonder what Cam would have done if Michelle hadn't been so reactive when Cam questioned her about applying only to Central Maine State.  If I could have whispered in Michelle's ear, I would have said, "Sit down.  Hear your mother out.  You can apply to Central Maine State, but that doesn't keep you from applying elsewhere.  No one should put all her eggs in one basket."  

But even if Michelle could have handled the confrontation better, Cam is really the person way out of line here.  I hope I don't have to say this, but for the record, what Cam did is fraud in the admissions process and it is not okay.  Period.  So Hodgins is right, "That's bad.  That's just wrong." 

Also, for the record, seasoned admissions officers can spot an essay or application written by a Mom or Dad in a nano-second, and they have a very easy time denying that applicant, so it isn't even a good strategy for getting in. 

But beyond the violations of the admissions process, Cam has violated all norms for good parenting.  In a single act, she has communicated that she has no confidence in Michelle's own ability to get into college or make adult decisions AND she has communicated that cheating and fraud are justified when undertaken on behalf of a loved one.  Again, Hodgins is right: "That's bad.  That's just wrong."   

Parents:  Do not complete applications for your child.  Do not write essays.  Do not submit applications.  Just don't.  Enough said.

Students:  Don't ask for or accept this kind of "help" from your parents or anyone else. If you don't have the time, energy, or talent to complete the application, write the essays, and get your applications submitted, you don't have the time, energy, or talent to attend that college.  Furthermore, if you have a parent who behaves as badly as Cam did, contact the college where the application was submitted and withdraw it immediately.  You don't want your record blemished by your parent's bad behavior.


Join the Conversation

Want to add your thoughts on where Cam or Michelle went wrong?  Seen any other good TV shows where college admissions was a plot or subplot? Post a comment and join the conversation!


Alison Cooper Chisolm rarely gets to watch TV during the heat of the college admissions season because she is the consultant in charge of our college admissions practice.  Based on her experience as a former admissions officer, she helps students and families do the college admissions process right — with less stress, more success, and even some fun along the way.  If you would like to know more about Alison, click here to read her bio.  If you would like to consult with Alison, click here to inquire about her services.