College: No Happy Face Required

5403270_565b97272a_m“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

In the age of helicopter parenting where no stone goes unturned in the raising of a successful, passionate, perfect child the one tenet that has failed to be conquered is that the world will often not comply with all of little Johnny or Sally’s wants and needs. Little Johnny or Sally’s feelings will get hurt, they will fail a test or their heart will be broken. When they are young, most of these areas are covered by the best of helicopter parenting. Social engineering ensures that little Johnny or Sally has the right friends, tutors will be hired to assuage learning impediments and cash will be thrown at hobbies because Carnegie Hall or Shea Stadium is on the horizon.

It’s no wonder that many students suffer from anxiety or are unsure of what path to pursue in college. The yellow brick road to college is filled with endless nights of tutoring, practices and extracurriculars – flying monkeys and houses have been swatted away by well-intentioned parents. The acceptance letter to the “right” school is the denouement to success. Once you arrive on campus, you have one goal that is to be happy. Why wouldn’t you be happy? You’ve landed a spot at a coveted institution; you are the pride and joy of your family and friends. Your parents have scrimped for years for you to be happy at college. There’s no dearth of articles either with lofty titles such as “The 50 Colleges With the Happiest Freshmen.”

So why are parents suddenly taken for a loop when they hear undertones of dissatisfaction from their esteemed offspring?  A recent New York Magazine article chronicled the pressure so many college students are under to appear “perfect.” There’s even a moniker for it at some universities. At the University of Pennsylvania, it’s known as “Penn Face.” That’s the happy face plastered all over social media and the one parents flash at the relatives to let them know how happy their child is. At Stanford, it’s called the “Duck Syndrome” in homage to the way ducks hide their feet when they swim.

From a social context, happiness has upped its game. I don’t recall anyone ever investing in my happiness as a college student. I doubt I’m alone. As a boomer, I also ran my own show, picked my own major and made my own mistakes and lucky me no one was waiting in the wings to hear all about it. It was also a slow journey sprinkled with happenstance and lots of serendipity. Social media was not even on the horizon. The pressure to showcase your latest accomplishment is a growing cancer for our children. Clearly, the “Emperor” has no clothes on but who will be the first one to admit it? Times have changed but one thing that hasn’t is growing up isn’t easy. In some ways kids have it easier than they did 50 years ago and in many ways it’s a lot harder. Our kids have access to a much wider audience and the constant ping on their phones shouting out another peers’ accomplishments can cause an undercurrent of anxiety.

When you get that call from college and hear, “I’m not happy” do not send in the clowns. The struggle to grow up and figure yourself out is not sunshine and daisies. Land that helicopter, walk off the tarmac and show your kids who you truly are. Provide them the tools and observations from your own life experience to help them figure out what’s next. Teach them to laugh at the endless stream of self-promoted posts on their newsfeeds. There is no college in the world that will make a student happy, sorry not even you Harvard. Let’s stop selling college as the “promised land” or “nirvana.” College is wonderful but the bountiful experience has one person driving. It’s up to students to turn their experience into what they want it to be and a little struggle often goes a long way. On point, the orientation program for my son’s college began with this appropriate e.e. cummings quote: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”


  1. Lisa Galioto says

    Wow! Did Ryan call you too ?? First month was tough. Of course, all the social media posts were painting a fabulous picture at every university but his. I think I’ll forward your article to him just so I can say “told you so.” We seem to be over the hump……I hope.

    • Yes, indeed! First month is tough and different for each kid! Thanks for reading Lisa! Let me know what Ryan thinks of the article! 🙂

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: