Parenting Perspective: Choosing A High School

End of an era: David Murphy's son Tim graduates from Devon Prep. His children were allowed to choose their high school.

May 7, 2010 7:07:19 AM PDT
By the time your kid gets to be a teenager (cue the blood-curdling scream), many of you have already had plenty of experience choosing schools. It probably started with picking a preschool. I know, because I've been on the preschool open house tour three separate times now, and I remember seeing most of you there. We also bumped into each other at the kindergarten open house, and unless your kids were automatically directed toward the local public school system, we likely rubbed elbows over at the grade school, too. And if, like me, you've shuttled several kids through this process, you're probably feeling pretty darned good about your school-selecting abilities, at this point. We know what we want out of the teachers, the administration, the school buildings, and all the extras, from sports to music, and we know how to go out and find it. Well, better than our kids could do for themselves, anyway.

So now that it's time to pick out a high school for junior, who better than you and me to guide the lass or lad toward the proper choice, right?

I'm going to gently suggest that, despite all the variables and pitfalls that exist in this process, the real choice ought to be left up to the kid. I forget where I got this idea. I remember talking about it with my wife, who immediately agreed, lauding me for my parental foresight and general genius in the matter (because, of course, it was probably her idea, whispered into my head a few nights earlier while I slept). The reason for putting our child at the center of the process, we decided, is that at roughly age thirteen, after years of doing most of their thinking for them, it was high time to begin expanding our son and daughter's sense of self-determination. I mean, sooner or later, every kid has to learn how to make his or her own decisions about important things. And what better way to get them started than with a choice that, by its nature, provides an opportunity to introduce all the best decision-making habits.

Here's how we managed this: a year or two ahead of time, we began introducing the subject of high school, casually and only occasionally, and mentioning that while we planned on guiding them through the selection process, ultimately the choice would be up to them. I often characterized it as the first big decision that I was planning on leaving in their hands because, after all, they were getting older and more responsible, and it was time they learned how to make large decisions for themselves. The hope here was to get the proverbial pot simmering in their heads, so that they weren't starting cold once things really got going in eighth grade. Early in that final year of grade school, we started gathering information. With our daughter, we went to a High School Night that was arranged at another area elementary school, where representatives from about 7 or 8 schools all gathered. This helped us narrow down our choices by showing us the differences between the schools, and letting us get a personal impression from the various representatives. Then, after talking over whether any one of them stood out (and which schools were realistic, based on price and academic requirements), we planned about three or four visits. Each high school had public open houses, so it was fairly easy to get to the locations we wanted to see.

In the end, considerations like size, cleanliness, extracurricular activities offered, and which friends were going to a particular school, wound up being the main considerations, which is no surprise and was fine with me. The point was that our kids had arrived at these considerations vastly on their own, considered the pros and cons, and then made an informed decision. It was an excellent learning experience and great practice for making future decisions on everything from college, to buying cars and homes.

Of course, not every kid is going to care that much about this. Others may already have their heart set on one specific school, and that's fine. But I still think it's worth at least going through the motions of comparison shopping, and making an informed choice, if for nothing else the life experience involved. Best of all, when your kid discovers the things he or she doesn't like about the school (as they inevitably will), they'll do so with the realization that it was their choice, not yours, which may more easily embolden them to make the best of things.