One of the questions with which I wrestle is about when and how to introduce the kids into the real world, the world in which we have to make choices and our dreams don’t always come true. This is especially relevant in light of the ongoing conversation about whether a college degree is worth the money that’s going to be spent obtaining it.
We’d been talking about Eldest’s experiences thus far in college, including playing soccer. Youngest looked at me and asked Dad, can I major in baseball? since he loves the sport and has aspirations of a pro career. It was during the following conversation that he now understood that while she played for love of the game, her college studies didn’t involve soccer but were geared towards something else entirely. He also learned the words vocation and avocation; the former pertaining to what one does for a living and the other to what one does for enjoyment and love. As he learned, they can sometimes be one and the same but more often than not, they’re different. Youngest cocked his head and nodded, silent for a moment. In that interval, I told him that he could certainly play baseball in college if he wanted – and was good enough – but that the course of study would most likely be different. He leaned back against the kitchen counter and then inquired whether he could study to be a history teacher instead.
Damn, I thought, another career with lousy job prospects. My response was a – hopefully – encouraging sure, if that’s what you really want and are good at it. I don’t see why you couldn’t take that route, but I wouldn’t worry about it now since there’s still plenty of time before college.
When to begin these conversations is a matter of personal choice, although we’ve held off on the conversations until middle school; this is the point at which our local school system begins to have kids look towards the future by engaging in career shadowing. If the kids have to start looking at potential careers, then it’s a logical starting point for household conversations. When Eldest talked about becoming a marine biologist, our family conversations veered towards what courses might be involved and what schools offered the degree. Where were they located and did they mesh with the type of college environment that she’d thought would be a good fit for her personality? Did the career require solely a bachelor’s degree or was she looking at further graduate work to become a viably employable biologist? Was this a career that would permit her to move or would she be restricted to certain geographic areas? Could we get her through with minimal or no debt? I offered my own trenchant question: If you’re asking me to remove your dead pet hermit crab because it’s gross, is this the career for you? The point is to probe and engage, discuss and explore options and questions with them until they’re more clear on what’s involved.
While I’d thought that the school system was an ally in educating your child – and in most ways it is – I’ve come to learn that there are instances when the system automatically slots kids into prearranged tracks that really aren’t appropriate for them. Don’t just assume that the system is the expert in your child’s best interest and don’t be afraid to buck it if necessary. The great majority of secondary schools have tracks for students broken into three segments: Career Prep (for those not deemed ready or able to attend college); College Prep; Honors (for more advanced study). Based upon grades and teacher/counselor assessments, your kid will be matched to a level that ultimately leads to a certain conclusion. During a baseball practice several weeks ago, I chatted with a mother whose older son was presently in the local high school. This student, a Junior, was intellectually advanced and the school counselor was strongly that he take both Advanced Placement Physics and Advanced Placement Calculus, courses that would prepare him for a career in science and engineering after attaining a college degree. But they were balking at the placement as the boy’s interest was in becoming a heavy engine diesel mechanic and he was gifted with an ability to understand the practical workings. As she said, Why should we prepare him for college when his skills are outside of that? Why take on all of that debt when the degree will have no bearing on his employment? The final remark saddened me as much as I’m sure it did her: We’re making it paycheck to paycheck and he’s probably going to have to work the same way that we do. The student debt will just make it worse.
That comment is a microcosm of what all of us fear as parents.
In the summer of 2011, we took a family vacation to Europe – a trip for which we saved for several years. On our first day in Rome, we took a guided tour of the catacombs and surprisingly, our guide was a young American expatriate who’d come to Rome in search of work. His degree was in Western Civilization and saddled with student debt and unable to get a job here, he’d taken what amounted to a desperate, courageous gamble by putting that education to use as a guide in the cradle of Renaissance civilization, Italy. One of his comments in our conversations actually haunts me: I wish that someone had told me that I couldn’t get a job with a degree in Western Civ. No parent wants to potentially shatter a child’s dream by pointing out the pitfalls and practicability of a career option. But keeping silent or leaving the route to someone else can shatter the dream with a burdensome debt that can take decades to satisfy.