An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Mark Kranwinkle, college counselor/Upper School languages teacher

Wham! The passenger side mirror snaps back against the car as we continue down the street. The shrub overhanging the curb is unfazed, but I am a bag of nerves as my son Peter grips the wheel of our Prius. How far is it to the grocery store? I struggle to appear calm as every instinct shouts, “Not so close to the edge!”

Many parents and guardians will recognize my experience of the first drive undertaken by a teenager. We, the parents and guardians, have extensive experience behind the wheel and all sorts of valuable wisdom to impart. (Although apparently, hands at ten and two is no longer advisable in the airbag era.) Someday in the not too distant future, we are going to watch that teenager drive off on their own, without us there to guide them. Our job is to let them take the wheel and move ourselves into the back seat.

There is an important parallel here with the college application process. In maintaining healthy relationships with our children – when they’re learning to drive as well as applying to colleges – it’s essential to keep lines of communication open, practice patience, model discretion, and know which battles to pick.

Being a parent in the college process is a challenge. We parents and guardians have a lot to add, but our information is often out of date and our emotions can make it hard for the young people to hear us. Dispassionate guidance from a student’s college counselor (cousin to the driving instructor) can often be more effective in getting through to teenagers who are earnestly trying to do their best to plan for the route ahead, make choices in real time, and prepare to take the keys and head out on their own.

With four children who have gone through the college process, I’ll admit to having made my share of parenting mistakes. Some of my best parental advice fell on deaf ears, and I said more than my share of annoying things (according to my children). The more my own children have taken charge of the process themselves, the more prepared they have been for the road ahead. From the back seat, I have tried to quietly observe what’s going on, provide updates about the route (“you might want to change lanes soon,” or “I understand test scores need to be sent at least three weeks ahead of the deadline”) and watch my teenagers gain confidence in their decision-making skills.

In the car, I still occasionally feel for a brake that’s not there as we roar along the freeway. But I have learned to relax and be in charge of the music. It’s been a pleasure to hear less rap and more hits from the eighties. I have also seen my teenagers make important decisions on their own and return home, happy to tell me about their adventures. In the back seat, I’ve even managed to pick up a thing or two about what it’s like to be a teenager in the 21st century. In fact, the less I talk, the more I learn.

Mark Kranwinkle is a college counselor and French teacher at Lakeside.You can reach members of the college counseling team at