WASHINGTON — The "topic" came up once again at dinner last night: college admissions. For parents of high school seniors, this is the autumn of our unrest.
Conventional wisdom tells us that this is the crunch period - visit college campuses, get those application essays polished, take the SAT one last time, and have one last opportunity to score high grades in high school classes, from AP English to French 4.
But the whole process is turning too many of these parents absolutely nuts. They're paying college admissions counselors thousands of dollars for advice that turns out to be a mixture of common sense and a little research. They're screaming at their beleaguered children to study, to apply, to do this and that. They're canceling all other fall activities.
My book club, for instance, 10 out of 12 of us with high school seniors, canceled our annual beach weekend this year because we couldn't find a weekend that someone wasn't trudging around yet another college campus.
Stop the madness, I say. I have a senior, too, but I refuse to make myself or her crazy with the college admissions process - or to add to the tension she already feels living in our high-achieving neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
Here's my thinking: Joanna will get into college. She'll even get into a good college, judging from her grades, her SAT scores, and her extracurricular activities. Will she get into one of the top 10 colleges in the country? Probably not.
Does that matter? I honestly don't think so. While I'm sure that the indirect benefits of going to a Yale or a Stanford have some long-term effect on anyone's life, I also know that a good college is only one of many, many factors that help to finish a young person's education.
Any amount of research on colleges shows that the US has scores of colleges graced with Nobel prizewinners, famous writers, great minds, wonderful teachers. What matters here is not so much where a student goes to school - it's what she does once she gets there.
There are unintended consequences of parents running the college process for their kids. By taking charge of admissions, parents are giving their children the message that they don't think they can do it themselves, that they don't trust them to do a good job of it. When does it end? Next year, these same kids will be choosing their own classes, spending time in ways that they choose. We need to get them launched in running their own lives, and we need to give them the message that we know they'll succeed.
Of course, this is all mixed up in identity: Too many of my friends see their children's success as their own, especially if they've stopped working or scaled down their own career paths to devote more time to family. They can't always separate what is theirs, and what is their children's. That's a dangerous and unhealthy path.
Sometimes what happens is that children wait until they've got some breathing room to rebel. I've seen plenty of talented and intelligent young people get into top-notch colleges, only to drift aimlessly from class to class, from major to major, and from party to party. They may not have wasted their education, but they certainly haven't taken advantage of it fully, either. And I've seen plenty of motivated young people go to what are considered third-rate schools and seek out the finest professors, try new things, and open their minds to the world.
What matters most to me is that my daughter become a good person. What matters is that she make a life for herself doing something that makes her happy, that gives her a sense of fulfillment. She's at the very beginning of a glorious adventure. I can whisper in her ear and give her counsel, but she makes her own choices - and I know they'll be good ones.
• Debra Bruno is a freelance writer.