How important is it that my child has a career direction before going to college and how can I guide him or her through the career search process? This is a question many parents of high school students ponder. The topic was thoughtfully addressed by journalist Eilene Zimmerman in the New York Times Career Couch column which appeared on October 25, 2009: “Helping Teenagers Find Their Dreams.” You can access it at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/jobs/25career.html. I share Zimmerman’s belief that there is too much pressure on kids today to define themselves by a career before acquiring the tools to choose wisely and prior to gaining exposure to various options that might be right for them.
Students today receive so many messages, both subtle and overt, pressuring them to define their career interests before they are even out of high school. Consider the college application process: The first page on the Common Application is Future Plans! Many colleges want to know intended major as well as possible career or professional plans before they even see the GPA or know where the student graduated from high school! Anxious seniors who were hoping to use the next four years to figure this out come to me in a panic: Is it okay to put “Undecided?” I must confess that I, too, encourage students to put down an academic interest and possible career choice, though emphasize that they should view their college years as a time to broaden horizons and explore new things. The message I try to convey is that it is okay to change one's mind; in fact, it is expected. How can I say otherwise? I am on my third post college career!
In order to help our kids with this self discovery and career search, we can start by alleviating some of the pressure. Instead of projecting our own angst about their futures onto them, we ought to have conversations which begin to generate ideas, but also engage their interest. Talking about likes, dislikes, talents and strengths generally elicits far more enthusiasm and willingness to talk than Mr. Bradshaw’s put-off line in The Graduate: “Ben, what are you doing…? Be open, and try to listen rather than feel compelled to offer up answers.
Here are 5 tips you might consider the next time you find yourself engaged in a career discussion with your teen:
1) Help your child discover skills and interests rather than advise him or her to focus exclusively on career options – skills are transferable; careers come and go
2) Guide, don’t lead – Teens need to take the initiative. This is all about their dreams, not yours.
3) Take the cues and know when to back off; If your teen does not want to engage in this discussion when you want to, it won’t be productive.
4) Assure your children that uncertainty is okay and let them know that you support the need to explore. After all, they are still teens!
5) Accept that much has probably changed since you last embarked on a career search and recognize your own knowledge shortcomings. The career your teen ultimately chooses may not even exist today!