Peter Jennings, a veteran college counselor at the Concord Academy in Massachusetts, sent me a thoughtful proposal for more involvement by grandparents in the college admissions process. I posted it on my blog, but there was something about it that bothered me. • I have been a proud grandparent for nearly three years. I didn't mind Jennings' praising the obvious erudition and sensitivity of people in my situation. "Grandparents have the unique ability to understand the complexity of growing pains while highlighting the special and unique aspects of their grandchildren," he said.
That's true, of course. My problem was that he didn't say enough about the ugly but still indisputable reason that we grandparents need to take over the college hunt: If we don't, it will be left in the hands of the college applicants' parents, our beloved children, who are terrible at it.
They are too nervous. They are too pushy. They can't see the big picture. They are compromising our families' future with all their nitpicking and listmaking. With them in charge, there is a risk that our grandkids will run away from home and never go to college.
I offer myself as Exhibit A in bad parenting on the college tour. (My wife was also involved in these episodes, but she was usually an innocent victim of my excesses, trying to hold me back.) When our daughter Katie was looking at colleges, the trips were tainted from the outset by the fact that I was using her experiences in a book I was writing about college admissions. How exploitative and self-centered can you get? I would never do that to our grandsons.
It got worse. I noticed that the California Institute of Technology was desperate for female applicants. Katie's science and math grades were good. If she got into Caltech, she could meet and marry a future Internet billionaire (or become one herself) and set Linda and me up in a nice beachside condo in Malibu.
So, without telling Katie what I was doing, during a visit to other colleges in Southern California, I pulled the car up in front of the Caltech admissions office and suggested that she take the tour. She refused. It was a shabby move by me. Now that I am a grandparent, I understand that.
Let's face it. Parents can be jerks. They see the college search as a test of their success in raising their child. They are too invested in the result. They worry too much about the rank of the school their child will choose.
We grandparents, on the other hand, have lived long enough to know, looking back, that where you go to college has almost no bearing on your satisfaction with your life and work. We know that success in life stems from the quality of our characters, not the age and pedigree of our colleges.
We don't see our grandchildren as often as their parents do, so there is less chance of our offending them. On birthdays, we give them what they really want — cash — while their parents try to show devotion with a specially chosen gift that never quite satisfies.
We grandparents occasionally say the wrong thing. But our grandchildren shrug that off as quaint, or as a further sign of our mental deterioration, which only makes them love us more.
Grandparents may want to tell their grandchildren to advise their parents that in this troubled economy Mom and Dad can't risk taking time off from work. We can take them on the college tours, pay for meals and never be embarrassing by asking stupid questions at the introductory meetings.