Remember how sweet it was when your kids were little, and someone would ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up, and you’d smile down at them as they told an older gentleman in the post office line that they were going to be a firefighter and an archeologist?
And then a month later the answers had morphed into a dentist and a dolphin trainer? And all throughout childhood, any answer they gave was met with, “Oh, that’s great! I bet you’ll make a wonderful ballerina or teacher or zookeeper.”
The possibilities were endless, and always met with hopeful enthusiasm. As parents, we’d daydream about them as adults and many times think, why yes! – I can see him becoming a herpetologist and searching through the Peruvian rainforest for coral snakes. Or, sure– she’d be an awesome fighter-pilot!
And then somewhere around middle or early high school, all the fun suddenly got sucked out of the Career Possibilities discussion. Everything turned serious and ugh – PRACTICAL. Instead of hopeful enthusiasm, our kids’ ideas were too often met with Debbie Downer responses like, “Well, you don’t really have the math grades to be an astronomer.” Or, “You’ll never make any money being a painter.”
And then, the stakes got even higher, and the discussions way less enjoyable if your kids started college and their dreams didn’t quite align with yours. Perhaps you’ve tried to sway what major they choose, or which companies they should try to intern for. Maybe you’ve hinted that living in a certain part of the country would be less than desirable – too expensive, or too crowded, or much too far from you.
Then before you know it, college graduation is right around the corner, and the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question is all settled – right?
Not so fast.
Yes, some lucky kids have a job secured. Others have already announced plans for graduate school or are waist-deep into the second and third rounds of interviews for that “dream job.”
And then there are the parents who will be met with announcements such as these:
1). “So yeah, I’ve decided that I have the rest of my life to be an accountant. I signed up for a two-year stint in Costa Rica to help save the turtles. And don’t worry, rent on the beach is super cheap and I can sell anklets to make some cash.”
Do not respond with, “Are you serious right now? You can’t even stand the feel of sand in your flip-flops!”
2).“Geez, getting through these four years of engineering classes was completely brutal. I’m kind of over all the stress, so I accepted an offer to edit cat videos for my friend’s start-up. These cats are hilarious, here lemme show you!
Do not respond with, “Umm, full stop. NO way in hell are you taking that job and if you do, you owe us four years of tuition money to be paid back IN FULL!”
3). “I have decided that I really hate California. I know I always promised I’d move back, ‘cause all the relatives are here and the family business, but I’m tired of the fog and I met this super chill girl last semester who’s from New Jersey and she said I could bartend in her uncle’s club. We’ll probably get married the weekend after graduation before we move out there.”
Do not respond with, “Over my dead body.”
4). “Hey guys, I have reached a conclusion after taking so many Poli Sci classes. Politics really just suck! And all politicians are whack. It’s so disillusioning for my generation. I think I’m ditching the whole public policy route and I’m just gonna spend the next few years traveling around the country going to music festivals. People there are so much happier.”
Do not respond with, “Excellent idea. We’re happy to buy you a van and camping gear and lots of floral headbands. Here’s my credit card.” *snort*
5). “What’s new? Let’s see…oh, right…. I know I told you I was accepted to that Teach For America program, but I told them I was going to pass because I really just miss you guys and I’m going to come back home and live with you for a while. You can delay the downsizing, right? I’m waiting to hear back on a Goat Yoga Instructor position.
Do not respond with, “What fresh hell is this?”
6). “Great news, fam! My buddy Jake and I got a hype deal on a used food truck. That position at the tech company will always be there, so we’re taking our avocado toast show on the road. Already got the Instagram account up and we have 14 followers!”
Do not respond with, “You’ve gone completely mad. And I’m pretty sure you’re allergic to avocados.”
We can all keep our fingers crossed that scenarios like these will not be in our future, but what if our kids do come to us with a complete surprise or a total change in their plans? Will we wail and gnash our teeth, begging them to stay the (practical) course, or will we take a deep breath, close our eyes, and try to envision that smiley five-year-old who dreamed of driving a bulldozer?
Will we only focus on the “wasted” money and time, if they choose to walk away from finding a career that matches up with their major? Or if they decide that law school isn’t for them, even though we’ve been telling everyone for years that they are going to be a civil rights attorney? Is it not simply a wonderful thing that they’ve gotten a college degree, have been exposed to so many new ideas and people, and have gained invaluable critical thinking skills?
When and if a seismic event like this happens to you, there will undoubtedly be many protestations that come immediately to your mind. There will probably be anger, frustration, disappointment, and perhaps even tears.
But years later, will we want our kids looking back at their decision- and our reaction to it- with anger and sadness, or will we want them to remember that we treated them with respect and an open mind, no matter what the consequences to their actions were? Paths to success are usually full of twists, turns, and rest stops. Many of us didn’t arrive at our “grown up” career until later in life.
As the parent of two college students who are on the cusp of this next big transition, here are the three things that I hope to say in response to whatever their post-college plans may be:
We love you.
We want you to succeed.
We are always here for emotional support.
Because we may indeed come to a place where we don’t think they are making the best, or the most practical, choice. Or that they are taking a step we cannot or will not financially contribute to. But that won’t change our love or emotional support for them one tiny bit.
And also, I truly want to keep that hopeful enthusiasm for their futures alive and well. What they want to be when they grow up may evolve through many iterations, as mine did. Every life experience will gift them something they can use in the future.
My son’s red firefighter hat and my daughter’s dinosaur books are in boxes somewhere, should they ever need to use them.