How Earplugs Can Help You Parent Better

This is an excellent blog on several levels. First, Jenn Curtis is a wonderful person with great insight on what it takes to help your kids (and you☺) choose a good college and thrive. Secondly, she is spot on as she deals with how to handle the distractions our kids face to make good education decisions. Plus, she lets us in on secret in the blog, her husband snores (!), so she must have a very secure relationship☺.

Jenn Curtis, MSW is an Educational consultant, speaker, podcast host, owner of FutureWise Consulting, and co-author of The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World

My husband snores. It’s not the category of snore that shakes the walls, coming and going only periodically but with extreme gusto; instead, it’s a constant sawing of logs that’s just the right pitch that the light sleeper in me finds incredibly difficult to ignore. I used to try, very hard in fact, to ignore it, but its consistency made it impossible; I woke up every morning exhausted. So now, each and every night, I’ve come to rely on my trusty foam earplugs. They’ve become my shield, my defense against the constant noise. Without my bright orange armor, I might never get a peaceful night’s sleep.

Much like my husband’s snoring, the outside noise—peers, co-workers, friends, family—can eat away at our peace so much that we need earplugs to maneuver through our everyday lives. As a college counselor, I witness the disastrous effects of the noise every day. Students shuffle into my office burned out, stretched thin, and molded awkwardly into mutated versions of who they really are. Their desire to be the “perfect” college applicant, as defined by what they hear from friends, parents, even online message boards, renders them exhausted. Worse, it stifles their ability to explore with curiosity (there isn’t enough time), to learn for learning’s sake (there isn’t enough space), and even to take risks (there isn’t enough wiggle room in their GPA).

So years ago, I started handing out earplugs to my students and also encouraging their parents to use them. My advice? Carry the mini noise-canceling tool around with them in their backpacks, slip them into their pencil holders, or tuck them discreetly into their lockers. The earplugs are a tangible reminder for my students to drown out the noise around them, and instead, to have the courage to be themselves and pursue their wildest dreams—no matter what everyone around them seems to be doing and saying. It’s to remind them to make their academic journey uniquely theirs—not a carbon copy of what they’d seen their friend do to get into a well-known school.

I remember one especially bright student who was deeply curious about several seemingly disparate interests having a near panic attack in my office one day because she’d heard from everyone around her that she wouldn’t make it into college pursuing these disparate interests; she was convinced she had to choose only one, had to toss aside the others in spite of the fact that they lit up her curiosity because they didn’t fit neatly into the box that she was curating.

I slid a pair of earplugs across my desk and explained their power to her.

The same goes with parents. The high stakes characteristic of our college admission system and the frenzy surrounding “getting in” have trickled down to result in what a colleague so appropriately terms “competitive parenting”: If your kid gets better grades, achieves a better accolade, goes to a better college, somehow that means you’ve done a better job parenting than everyone else around you. So we overtutor, overschedule, overparent—overbear. We fix our kids’ problems for them because “we know better” and problems are hard; we speak for them because “we know the answer” and self-advocacy is challenging. But what we’re showing them is that their voice doesn’t matter and their ability for fixing their own problems isn’t good enough. We look at what everyone else is doing, and of course we have to keep up if our kid is going to have a shot at a college education, right?

Wrong. What’s going to happen when they get to college and can’t fix their own problems or use their own voice? We miss so many critical things when we listen to all the noise, chief among them being embracing our child for who he or she is. Paying too much attention to the noise can have the destructive effect of failing to recognize and then nurture the unique gifts and personality God’s given to our kids. We overlook those talents and qualities to focus on inauthentically creating the child we want rather than the uniquely awesome child we already have. We push to create robots rather than make room to raise self-advocates with grit and resilience. We reward them for As instead of rewarding them for the process of their learning. We push them toward colleges where, when they’re accepted, would make for an enviable Facebook announcement, rather than focusing on those schools whose qualities (not their name) makes them the perfect fit. Here’s what I say to families: “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

My co-author and I wrote the book The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World to help parents understand their appropriate role in navigating the tween and teen years amidst a competitive academic environment. It provides the tools for parents to adopt the type of parenting behaviors that promote a respectful relationship with a well-adjusted, healthy, productive student rather than a strained relationship with an unhappy, insecure, exasperated one.

That student—the one with the many fascinating interests—wrote to me years later. “I know I absolutely wouldn’t have gotten the opportunit[ies I’ve had] without having those earplugs, just going for whatever I thought I’d like to do regardless of other opinions, so this is a real testament to how much your advice is still helping me, past the college application process.”

Parents, I encourage you to grab a pair of earplugs of your own. Put them in. I know it will be unbelievably hard. It will require bravery. But it will help you drown out the noise of competitive parenting. Encourage your child to “wear” a pair, too. Foster a family culture of exploration, learning, and mistake making. Resolve in 2021 to eschew exhaustion and to embrace the peace and quiet.

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Jenn Curtis, MSW

Jenn Curtis, MSW, is an educational consultant, author, and speaker. As owner of FutureWise Consulting, a college counseling company in Orange County, California, she has guided hundreds of high school students from throughout the United States through all aspects of the college admission process, and she is most passionate about empowering students to find their voice and their purpose. She is the co-author of The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World. Jenn also co-hosts The Parent Compass x Smart Social Podcast, where she explores parenting amidst a competitive academic environment. On it, she chats with bestselling authors, parenting experts, and education thought leaders. Jenn lives in San Clemente, California with her husband and two daughters.

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