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A Father-Daughter Conflict Over Choosing a College

BY JACK HAMILTON, Ph.D.

· college app conflict,Ladder of Assumption,Father-Daughter,Choosing a college,Listening
Father-Daughter Conflict Over Choosing a College

Parents need to work on developing a collaborative attitude with their teenage children about choosing a college well before their children start thinking about which college to attend. Recently a father and a daughter, a high school junior, got into a standoff because they had such differing views on what would be the right school for her to attend.

The daughter has excellent grades in her high school classes, especially in the many Advance Placement classes she has been taking. However, she is not at all sure of what she wants to do next. She is thinking of possibly taking a gap year to get more real world experience under her belt, or attending a local community college before transferring to a four-year college or university.

“I’m 17 years old, but my dad doesn’t think I’m capable of knowing what I want to gain from going to college,” the daughter says. “He thinks I don’t know how to go about evaluating college options because I’m not certain what my goals in life are. And so he’s worried to death that I’ll make a decision that doesn’t meet our family’s standards.”

“The problem is that my dad has been controlling my life since I was born, and is certain that he has the right to keep on dominating me even though I can think for myself just fine.”

Meanwhile, the father thinks that if his daughter were to attend a community college, it would be a waste of her time. In his view, it would derail her from what he is sure she should do. He wants her to go to his alma mater—a well-regarded Ivy League college.

“My daughter is stuck between applying to the college I graduated from, and a community college near our home that doesn’t hold a candle to my school,” the father said. “With her exceptional high school grades and the fact that her father is a legacy, she would be a shoe-in to be accepted at my school.”

“I recently took my daughter to visit both schools. When we were on the way home, she told me that she was going to turn my school down. She had this crazy notion that she liked the people and programs at the community college and would be much happier there.”

Here are the father’s and daughter’s respective Ladders of Assumption they raced up during their argument over which college she should attend:

The Daughter's Ladder of Assumptions

Ladder of Assumptions from "Conflict-The Unexpected Gift" by Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman

Setting: My dad and I were driving home from visiting the college he attended and a local

community college. We talked about my reactions to the two colleges.

Facts: I told my dad that I wanted to attend the community college we visited,

rather than his alma mater. He said I was making a mistake.

Interpretations: My dad is opinionated, old-school and is dismissive of my thoughts about what I am

looking for in a college.

Motives: He doesn’t want me to think on my own, and is trying to convince me how stupid I am.

Generalizations: My dad is one of those fathers who is sure he knows best what his children should do.

Actions: I quit talking with my dad, because nothing I said influenced his opinions whatsoever.

The Father's Ladder of Assumptions

Ladder of Assumptions from "Conflict-The Unexpected Gift" by Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman

Setting: My daughter and I were driving home from visiting an Ivy League college and a

community college. We were talking about her reactions to the two colleges.

Facts: She said she wanted to attend the community college. I said she should attend

the Ivy League school.

Interpretations: My daughter is impulsive. She is inexperienced in making important decisions, and

flaunts the advice of her father who is much more experienced in making decisions.

Motives: She wants to prove to me that she is an adult who is quite capable of figuring out what

is the right college for her, and that the advice I am giving her is totally wrong.

Generalizations: My daughter is one of those rebellious kids who definitely is “too big for her britches.”

Actions: I was furious and didn’t speak to my daughter during the rest of the ride home and

most of the following week as well. I kept thinking, who in their right mind turns down

the Ivy League?

Epilogue

In time, the father had an epiphany and went back down his Ladder to rethink his interpretations about his daughter. “Boy, did I ever have my head in the sand,” the father admitted. “My daughter enrolled as a freshman at the local community college and currently is happy as a clam there. I thought I knew what was best for her. But, she was the smartest of the two of us about where she would prosper.”

Similarly, the daughter eventually went back down her Ladder and revisited her interpretations about her father. “He’s a good father, and more often than not learns from his mistakes. He discovered that by finally letting me go I was able to make up my own mind about the right college for me.”

All of us can learn how to open the door to empathy. Asking questions instead of rushing to judgment, and choosing to suspend our anger toward someone, requires self-awareness as we rush through our hectic daily schedules. Being self-reflective can help us to relate to others rather than seeing them as adversaries. And it definitely can lift our mood.

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