I wish that I had known that I had the option to go to trade school…
It was a simple comment uttered by Eldest as were driving together, her toddler daughter buckled in behind us. It was also one of those remarks that grabs you by the scruff of your cerebellum and shakes loose an unheard huh? She was quick to note that that she was thankful for her education – a Bachelor’s degree – but increasingly she had found that she enjoyed the process and reward of working with her hands. I took – take – no offense despite the mental response but it’s a comment that has raised a larger question in the past several months: How do we, as parents, help our kids ascertain their educational path after high school?
The question is especially germane today. It’s now clear that some form of further education is necessary for most to avoid a lifetime of minimum wage jobs, but the pathway for such a crucial life decision is booby-trapped for many. The tripwire is that higher education – Big Ed, as an acquaintance referred to it – is a business that requires a steady stream of bodies to fill the seats of the lecture halls. The Claymore mine is the realization that there’s a clear discrepancy between the living-wage jobs available and the education required for hiring. We’ve turned out a plethora of liberal arts degrees but there are few of those graduates with the skill set necessary to run a CNC machine. The Punji stick is that the decline of the middle-class family has shifted the responsibility for educational financing back to the student herself; the likely accumulation of debt will eliminate the opportunity to repeat the process again. Don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for any college to say we’d love to have you here but we’re gonna give you a pass because honestly, it’s too much debt for you to handle. That depressing commentary will have to come from you.
Full disclosure: We have delivered this message to all three of our children and doing so sucks. Hard.
I’ve thought about Eldest’s comment repeatedly in the ensuing months. My second immediate thought was a defensive yes, you could always have opted for trade school but that’s really not the truth. It’s not the truth because the trades weren’t a pathway made clear to her as an option through the myriad conversations across the tween and teen years. My mantra from her middle school years starting in 2007 was we have to get you educated with as little debt as humanly possible; I was looking at the trends and numbers and recognized that student debt could be a serious impediment to a decent adulthood. I could follow the economic news and extrapolate that back to my family at the molecular level of the economy. I could even see that the living wage jobs were swinging back to a STEM orientation and skilled manufacturing. But the simple reality was that the skill set that I knew, with which both my wife and I were raised, was rooted within the route of college and the liberal arts and that was the consequent focus with our kids. My own upbringing was in a corporate mid-management level household and in my teen years, the parental conversation was to push for a degree that enabled me to make a living for myself. It was what my parents knew. My father was a product of the mid-20th century corporate environment and from his viewpoint, and my mother’s by extension, there were always going to be corporations that would afford a reliable income and retirement to dependable, smart employees. My final college decision was based upon a school with both strong journalism and business programs.
Many of our life choices are informed by what we learned in our upbringing. Working with my hands was not a significant part of my early life. I helped my father remodel the family basement and learned to perform essential maintenance upon my car but that was stuff that my parents considered what any functioning adult should know. There were other opportunities afforded to me by my father but I didn’t find them of interest and he didn’t push me to learn. When I did talk to him about following him into computers during my teens, his literal response was Hell, no. I can teach a goddamned monkey to write programming but I can’t teach one to write a proper paragraph or speak in public. So it was the liberal arts for me, which was good because I found in college that I was, in some respects, dumber than a goddamned monkey.
So, what if I’m raising a child amidst a time of tremendous change? What if my skill sets are not applicable to an economy in flux? Like any other part of parenthood, there are few exact answers but I will offer the following.
First, remember that there’s a goal to parenthood: you are raising your child to to walk out the door and support herself. It’s the goal from the first delivery room cry and one that threads throughout her years with you. What it means is that you don’t wait until her junior year in high school to attend a college financing night and then ask her so, whaddayawannado? I’m not saying that it’s the credo that you tell yourself every morning when you look in the mirror but it is something that remains within the back of your mind, especially as she ages and moves further along to more diverse options within the educational system.
You must become intentional in your parenting.
Second, you have to pay greater attention to the culture and politics around you. Foremost, understand the difference between news and news commentary and act accordingly. It’s telling that during the past week of this Covid-19 pandemic, the most watched news programming is now ABC Evening News and not the news networks. Pay attention to different sources of information and check for veracity. It’s time-consuming but the good news is that we now an insane amount of information available instantaneously within our phone’s grasp. Or you take to heart what my father said to me routinely: pull your head out of your ass and look around.
Third, you’re going to have to be almost countercultural with your child in terms of screen and electronic media consumption. The hours spent in front of a screen have obviously increased and there is little to indicate that the trend will reverse anytime soon and it will simply have to be part of your routine to monitor platforms and hours and listen to her kvetch around boredom (despite the simple fact that there can be value in children contending with boredom). But it’s crucial that she learn to pay attention to the world around her and she won’t do that immersed in a screen.
Fourth, try to provide a wider variety of opportunities for her. If you know hunting and gardening, then do those things with her. But don’t be shy about crossing things up and taking her to an art exhibition either. A large part of parenting is moving outside of your comfort zone. An inveterate reader? Great. Read to her and then go hiking with her. It not only provides a wider perspective of the world but also an opportunity to appreciate her budding personality. One of the eccentricities of the past several decades is the proliferation of expensive advanced-instruction youth sport leagues. The catastrophic loss of jobs and income from this pandemic is going to put a crimp in that business model and the opportunities will most likely devolve back to the parent coached/run Little League model. It’s going to be incumbent upon you as a parent to make those opportunities happen, even if you have no experience with that. Honestly, some of the best coaching that any of my kids had were parents with no previous experience. Thank you, Rob, Jeff and Scott, wherever you are.
Fifth, figure out how you want to handle praise and criticism. The first is critical for toddlers and small children but how are you going to begin balancing the two as she grows? Boundless praise is meaningless and boundless criticism is fatal. Ascertain the development norms for age levels and move from there. Think about your style of delivering each and what you and your partner provide. My kids learned that if they really wanted to parse performance for constructive criticism, the go-to person was my wife. I, on the other hand, actually gave at least one of my kids a rousing comment of Don’t Suck before games.
Sixth, pay attention to the guidance and course suggestions that she will receive from school, especially as she ages. Parents and teachers are natural allies but systems are built to serve the large majority of students and there are liable to be instances in which she is not part of that majority and will not be served by the recommendations. Pay attention to what she brings home and listen to what she’s saying, then don’t be shy about calling to verify what you’re hearing. Kids commonly mangle what they’ve been told but there can be circumstances in which they are absolutely correct. This will come into play with course selections and loads when she’s older. Fortunately, our experiences have been positive and the administration has been willing to work with us on multiple occasions.
But it wouldn’t have if we had missed the occasions.
Seventh, let her fail and hold her accountable for failure. Be clear about your expectations and then do your best to hold her accountable. It’s an immensely tricky and subjective topic: Are my expectations reasonable? Are the repercussions reasonable? Are there legitimate mitigating circumstances? How do you respond if you mishandle it (and believe me, I have done that)? The corollary is that you should be willing to share some of your own screw-ups. There is plenty of commentary about developing resiliency in kids but I think that the most critical element is learning that mistakes need not be terminal and that they can be overcome.
Finally, just because you believe that you are deficient in something doesn’t mean that she will be. Part of the joy – the adventure – of being a parent is watching your child develop into the adult that she becomes. If she comes to you with the wish to do something with which you are aren’t familiar, or just dislike, don’t automatically dismiss it. If possible, find an opportunity to let her experience that thing with someone who is both capable and trustworthy.
I’m sure that you’ll come up with other points after reading this, since this is truly only a point of departure. But remember the takeaway: you, more than anyone else, have the critical role in helping her ascertain her future path. The capacity to fund it, fully or even partially, is irrelevant. What matters is that through the next eighteen years of her life, you and your partner will be the ones to raise and guide her, who know the fullest extent of her capabilities and have her true best interests at heart. And the best interest is this: allowing her to enter adulthood as a productive and moral adult with the capacity to move ahead in her life.
After that, the rest is on her.