On the College Track: My Son’s Goals or Mine?

When I was in high school, I didn’t think much about my future, other than the fact that in the near term, I knew I was going to college. In my family, college was not an aspiration, but a given. If I had even uttered the words “gap year” or expressed any doubt about going to college, I’m pretty sure both of my parents would have thought I’d lost my mind. With expectations that the college track was mandatory, most likely followed by graduate school, there was simply no room for considering any other options. Since I was a strong student who generally liked school, the path to higher education suited my personality.

Is your teen on a college track?

Now that I’m a parent of three kids, two of whom are in high school and the third in middle school, I’m focused on making sure they too are on the college track. After all, if I pass on the same expectation that my parents passed on to me, namely that college is a must, it should be a no-brainer for my kids, right?

Well, sort of.

My kids do know that we want them to go to college. And, I’m pretty sure they will all get there. But, there are times when I wonder if my aspirations are getting in the way of theirs. Are my kids too afraid to dream because my dreams for them are already in place?

Writing is my second career and I often think that perhaps it would have been my first and only career had I been less pressured to follow a traditional career path. Along with going to college, the goal of becoming either a doctor, lawyer or businessperson seemed to be the only career choices I knew how to consider. My father was a physician, my mother a nurse. My brother also became a doctor. I had an uncle who was a lawyer and another uncle in the advertising business. I once asked my mother if she would have supported me if I had told her during my college years that I wanted to become a writer, instead of applying to business school and studying for my M.B.A.

She paused and then finally said, “I would have wanted to support you, but I’m not sure I would have known HOW to support you.”

My parents both grew up during the Depression and came from Jewish families where education was valued above anything else. Their thinking was, with an education, you can have a career and therefore have financial stability. Simplistic, yes. True for everyone? No. But, my parents were not risk-takers and following a different path other than the one to college was not something my parents would ever support for their children.

Which brings me back to my own kids.

[More about siblings and the hope we have for them to stay close here.]

My three sons are so unique, it’s as if they weren’t related at all. All are athletic, but one also has creative talents. Another has a comedic side and a memory that never fails. And, we’re still wondering if my youngest will prove to be a video game designer or if he’ll sit in the basement and play Xbox for the rest of his life. I marvel at their differences and burgeoning skills and find myself envisioning what they might do when they are adults.

My oldest son will be applying to college soon and yet he has occasionally expressed doubts about going to college at all. The first time he brought up not going to college, I’m sure he could hear the fear in my voice:

“Of course you’re going to college!” I said.

That was actually my parents talking. No other options allowed, just like they taught me.

When I let my son’s doubts about college marinate a bit longer, I still made it all about me. I must have failed as a parent if my child does not want to go to college. Doesn’t he have goals? Doesn’t he want to be educated and have more than a minimum wage job? That was also my fear seeping back in.

Since then, we’ve had more rational discussions about other possible paths after high school. I’ve discovered that his hesitation about going to college isn’t so much about college itself, but about the other responsibilities and hard work that loom ahead. And what’s most revealing is that his biggest concern is not yet knowing what he wants to do after college. He’s worried about not having aspirations, because he doesn’t have them now, other than to go to college. I’ve reassured him that it’s absolutely okay to be unsure and to not have specific goals when you’re only 18 years-old.

[More about how to help your teen through junior year of high school, here.]

I’m hoping that by giving him the freedom to explore at his own pace and to know that our only expectation for him is to not give up, he will eventually find what it is he is meant to do. Something tells me he’s not going to be a doctor, lawyer or businessperson either. And, that’s just fine with me.


Going to College: 7 Big Talks to Have Before They Leave 

Our favorite essays on kids going to college here

unnamedEmily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom, who is married with three boys and one girl dog. She is also an iced tea junkie and tennis-playing fanatic whose game never improves.  Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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