When Your Child Takes the Road Less Traveled

In case you have a senior in high school and don’t already know this: college applications are due!

But what if your child isn’t interested in or able to matriculate into a four-year college?  There’s so much pressure on our teens to continue their formal education right out of high school but saying college is right for everyone is like saying marriage and children are right for everyone.  It’s just not true!  Nevertheless, our schools, peers, families, and communities beat the drum so loudly and insistently that when a teen opts out of this choice, they can feel stigmatized, ashamed, embarrassed, and judged.   Choosing NOT to go to college can become an issue they constantly need to fight within themselves and defend to others.  Why would we want our kids to feel that badly?

Parents often ask me how to embrace their child’s choice to enter the work world rather than continue in school.  Each situation, like each child, is unique and I must start by assuming that the child (and of course by this time the “child” is really a young adult)has his or her reasons for discontinuing formal education at this time.  Here are some to consider:

  1.  How happy was your child in high school?  Most of the time, when I’ve seen kids choose not to go to college despite having funds to do so, they’ve  made this decision based on their own happiness levels in high school.  While being unhappy in high school doesn’t always mean a child decides against college, it’s often the case for those who opt out.  As hard as this is for many parents, consider how much harder it would be for your child to be miserable for four years in order to make you happy.  Of course, being unhappy in high school doesn’t necessarily mean a student will be unhappy in college, but someone who is determined to be unhappy in college probably will be.
  2. They just aren’t ready.  Remember asking your kids “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”  Here we are as parents trying to instill in our children the ability to think for themselves but we want the college decision to happen when it’s “supposed” to happen ~ during high school.  Imagine what it’s like for a child to feel like college was a cliff they were being pushed off and by the very parents (and teachers, etc) who urged them to think and advocate for themselves!  Often parents consult with me, concerned that their child isn’t taking timely steps to get into college.  I usually tell them that a teen who isn’t meeting the parents expectations with respect to college is a teen who isn’t ready to make that huge leap.  I also tell them some words of wisdom from my own mother: “School will always be there.”  And it will be.  I’d much rather someone choose that path than feel pushed onto it.
  3. College won’t take them where they want to go.  Believe it or not, college isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success, happiness, or opportunity!  I’ve known kids who were very skilled or knowledgable or passionate about something and decided to pursue employment in those areas rather than get a degree.  Life experience is its own education and, since school will always be there, these kids may return to it later.  For now, they are choosing to forge their own path and, as parents, I think we need to respect that.  If you’re having trouble with that concept, just remember how influenced our culture is now by a non-college-degree-holding person:  Steve Jobs.
  4. It’s just not right for them.  Why?  Health issues, disinterest, lack of motivation may all be factors in making the decision not to attend college.  This decision may be disappointing and alarming to parents but right for their child.  Again, college isn’t right for everyone.  There are other options.

So what to do as a parent whose child takes a different path?  I counsel parents to have come to agreements between themselves (when possible) about what they expect of their child after high school if they choose not to attend college and lay those expectations out explicitly to their child.  Here are some examples:

  1.  Full time employment with financial and physical contributions to the household if they live at home.
  2. Taking a class or two at a community college and working part time.
  3. Support a gap year while their child figures themselves out.
  4. Perhaps it means helping your child investigate trade schools.

All of these are alternatives to the four year college track.  On occasion parents have decided that a child who isn’t meeting their expectation of attending college needs to move out and support themselves.  While this is a personal decision for the parents to make, I often see that a teen who isn’t ready to make a leap into college also isn’t ready to leap into independence.  As I mentioned before, each situation is unique.

As parents we start out creating the path our children walk.  We carry them on it until we can put them down to walk on their own and, over time, we have less and less room along their road while they make more choices for themselves.  The end of high school, like the end college, is a time for our children to decide what path will give their lives the most meaning and it’s a time for parents to embrace the reasoned, constructive choices our children make.