Teach Your Children Well (Spoiler alert! Your kids are going to hate this one)

So I’m just going to come right out and say it:

“In my opinion it is irresponsible for parents to allow their 18 year old to choose their education and career choices…unless the student gets LOTS of help with the decision.”

I’m not sure how we got to this college choice “right of passage” for youth (going from high school to college) but let’s think about this on a couple of levels. First, since these children were 5 years old we have told them when to get up, where to go to school, what to read, how to act, how to get an A, how and where to study for the test and what was coming next for them every step of the way. For 13 years these students dutifully do what they are told and trust that what their parent or teacher is asking them to do next is the right thing for them to do. The choices that they get to make on their own are limited to a few high school classes and whether to work part time at Arby’s or the grocery store. Virtually none of the decisions that we “allow” them to make have real life long consequences. Then we ask them to decide how to spend $10-$50,000 and 2-4 years of their life on a college and a major that will affect them for years to come from the glossiest of brochures and a 2 hour campus visit…are you kidding me? We wouldn’t allow them to buy a $1,500 car without consulting Consumer Reports and having it checked out by a mechanic but we let them make this life decision with what is in most cases only marginal parental guidance. Wow.

Secondly, think about your own decisions coming out of high school. How much guidance did YOU get in choosing a college or career? Most of the adults I speak with or work with say that they got no help at all. If their first choice of college or career worked out it was by accident. Many of them say their first choice for both their college and their major was a train wreck that they spent years undoing. We joke with students that “you’re probably going to get it wrong…I did!” In my work with thousands of adult mid-career job changers I find that only about a third of them work in any area close to what they originally went to college for. The evidence is overwhelming that something is wrong here.

The reason I am so passionate on this topic is that I personally got it about as wrong as anyone could and it took almost 20 years to recover. Long story short, I turned down the opportunity for a full ride scholarship to Marquette in order to play football at a small private division 3 college …what a mistake. I’m happy where my life is now but I often think about what it would have been like with a little guidance to make a different decision. Why did I make that decision? Because 18 year olds don’t have enough life experience to understand the consequences of their choices.

But what if there was another way?

Wisconsin has a new law in place called Academic Career Planning that will require every student to graduate high school with a clear plan for life after high school. My company had the opportunity to adapt the Human Search Engine process to fit these requirements for a group of 150 students at Neenah High School. For a semester we took them through a focused but individualized research project to identify their personality, beliefs, values and interests and come to some conclusions based on their findings. Interesting isn’t it? We have our students do a research paper on the effects of climate change but don’t have them do a research project on who they are, where they belong in the world and how to get there. Kind of misses the point doesn’t it?

We are so grateful to Neenah and the teachers there who allowed us to do this pilot. What we learned is that students want to do this work but have no idea how to do it or how important it will be to them in the future. More than 80% of them responded that the class was valuable and should be required for students. The news is full of students who leave college without a degree but carrying $20K in student loan debt…it doesn’t have to be that way.

This lesson is simple. Get involved in your child’s college and career plans by their sophomore year of high school at the latest. Insist that they justify their upcoming education or work direction choices with research and evidence. No, they do not get to do whatever they want because they are “adults”. How “adult” were you at 18? Even though high schools are working on this it is your responsibility as a parent to do this…and to steer them away from choices that will not serve them.

The joy of letting a child decide their future without being involved will fade quickly when they come back to live with you in your basement complete with a student loan payment. Believe it or not, we are the adults now. We have to do better than our parents did for us. Your children may stamp their feet and hold their breath now…but they will thank you later.

“Be humble, be sincere, ask for help…”


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