Every other Tuesday for two years, Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan worked side-by-side at their kids’ school. Instead of attending to their menial tasks, the pair would dive into caffeine-fueled discussions about the crazy events and emotions surrounding their eldest sons’ imminent departure from their “nests.” Their often unruly, uncommunicative, and hard-to-understand teens were going through so many monumental, life-changing moments, but there wasn’t a place where parents could talk things through. So, they kept topping off each other’s coffee mugs until Grown and Flown (G&F) was born.
To say G&F “blew up” is a bit of an understatement. Mary Dell and Lisa have established G&F as a massive digital publication and community that helps millions of parents tackle a range of issues related to raising kids ages 15 to 25. How can I support my daughter who’s being picked on? … I don’t want my son to quit the sport he’s played for a decade … How will I pay for my kid’s private university? … These are topics that experts weigh in on. Then, the parents discuss — a lot. They answer each other in the comments. They meet up in person. They help out each other’s friends and family in nearby towns. They listen and support. Let’s dive in to see how this movement grew into what it is today and learn about their new Grown & Flown: College Admission program as well.
AND, there is a 13:40 min video at the end of this article where you can watch our interview with Mary Dell Harrington.
How did you bring this idea to fruition?
Mary Dell: We thought of starting a site for parents of teens and college students when we, ourselves, could not find digital or print media that consistently covered this age group. At the time, our youngest two teens were in high school and our older three were already in college. We realized how consequential these years are and how many questions parents have about raising independent adults. So, we jumped in.
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Where do you find parents have the most questions or frustrations?
Mary Dell: Three things:
1. The teen years are when children are supposed to push away from parents, and it is incredibly painful to feel rejected by the ones you love the most in the world. And it gets worse before it gets better. The closer teens are to leaving home — for college, military, a job — the more they “soil the nest.” That term expresses how separating is easier if they make their home unpleasant, which they can be very good at achieving.
2. Parents also wonder how much to lean in and lean out in parenting teens. We have become so afraid of being overbearing — or “helicoptering” — that we can sometimes be too hands-off at the time our teens need us the most. According to research, when children become teens, parents often feel the greatest sense of self-doubt in their abilities. All parents wonder where they should be on the arc between telling our teens what to do versus just letting them figure it out on their own. We see many questions wondering where the line should be.
3. How to help teens apply to college and how they are going to pay for it are questions that we hear about from the most parents. The application process can be daunting, and it is the most expensive purchase a family will make, second to a home, so parents have much anxiety about this topic for good reason.
What’s a common misconception that parents have about the college admissions process?
Lisa: A temptation for many of us is to tell our teens about what college admissions was like when we were in high school. We didn’t do all the test prep or visit and apply to a dozen colleges before making a decision. Wishing the process was more like it used to be is not particularly helpful to our teens who face the reality of today’s admissions process.
Mary Dell: It’s also easy to let the topic slip into our lives early, and if we let that happen to our freshmen or sophomores, high school becomes less about high school than about getting into college. We can inadvertently rob our children of these happy high school days they can never get back.
Any advice for parents dropping off kids at college?
Mary Dell: Don’t overbuy for your teen’s dorm room. In addition to their laptops and prescription meds, there are only about a dozen true essentials they need to take with them. The rest are nice to have, but can also be ordered for overnight delivery once they get there (i.e. bed risers, a Keurig, a whiteboard). This will make move-in much easier, especially if you have taken our #1 piece of advice and packed everything in these blue IKEA bags.
Lisa: Spend some time composing a letter telling your child how proud you are of them and how much you believe in them. This is not a letter about how to do laundry or to eat a balanced diet. First-year drop-off only happens once. It is likely that you will want to tell them some of these memorable things as you are fighting back tears and trying to stay composed. So write it all down and leave it for them to read after you have said goodbye.
Can you tell us about the new College Admissions: Grown & Flown program and how that came about?
Mary Dell: From personal experience with our five children in our two families, we know how many questions we had about college admissions! We also know that it can be challenging to find answers that are reliable and current. This is even more important now as COVID has disrupted the admissions process in so many ways.
Within this membership, we work with a team of well-known college admissions experts. In weekly live sessions, parents ask questions about every aspect of admissions, as well as merit/financial aid, the FAFSA, and other real-time questions. The benefit of the group format is that it is often the question you did not even know you needed to ask that proves to be the most helpful. Beyond the Facebook Live sessions, we give you resource guides and other perks like test prep discounts.
SB Note: The College Admissions: Grown & Flown program is free for 10 days and then just $27/month after that. We love that they’ve made this so affordable as we’re acutely aware of how confusing this process is!
Did you ever think that this would have such a wide-reaching impact on people’s lives?
Lisa: No! When we launched our site, Facebook Groups were not as dominant as they are now. We have nearly 200,000 members in our Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and members tell us all the time how much they love being part of the group. Facebook has told us that ours is among the most engaged on the entire platform.
Plus, we see that we have had many members helping the children of other members as they need assistance in their college towns, for instance. These are strangers in real life but who feel a deep sense of connection because of the G&F community.
What is something that people are often surprised to learn about you?
Mary Dell: That I am actually not living in Texas! I grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from UT Austin but left to go to grad school and never lived there again. But it is still home to me, and I go there all the time. Lisa claims I have a Texas accent, which I admit is sometimes a bit more pronounced when I return from visiting my family there.
Lisa: I lived in England for over a decade. I raised my kids here and am back in the UK now to spend time with my husband’s family and our friends.
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What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
Mary Dell: Parenting never ends. My 94-year-old mother just said this to me on the phone last night.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without?
Mary Dell: Exercise, lots of coffee, and my chocolate labs. We just got Charlie, a 4-month-old puppy.
Lisa: A good book, my laptop to work, and a great suitcase for travel.
Last best meal?
MD: My husband’s low country boil.
L: Any summer meal outside with my kids … they cook!
MD: Rome and Florence with our kids.
L: It’s been mostly staycations.
L: Cuyana — I love their leather goods.
What’s on your bedside table?
MD: Candid pictures of my kids.
Go-to birthday present (to give)?
MD: An orchid plant.
L: Leather jewelry cases for travel from Cuyana.
Thank you, Mary Dell and Lisa, for chatting with us!
WATCH the highlights of our interview below (and meet Mary Dell’s puppy, Charlie)!
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