Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Graduation Plans

This is a hard column to write. I find myself holding back, re-thinking whether I want to admit on paper, for the whole world to see, what I really feel about the huge process of sending kids off to college. I fear I will be seen as a bad parent, an irresponsible parent. But the thought that keeps returning to my head is that I may not be the only one who feels this way and maybe, just maybe, some other parent out there will read these words and nod their heads in agreement.

Here’s my big confession: My kids know they are not required to go to college. There, I’ve said it. Sure, I understand that college is a great option. My husband and I both have college degrees. I found him in college, as a matter of fact, and I consider him to be even more valuable to me than the official degree that lives in my file cabinet. And of course it is great to encourage your children to be the best they can be, to aim high when they think about the future.

But my kids know that there are other options beyond college. The trade school catalogs are filled with interesting classes that can lead to some satisfying and lucrative careers. I would not complain at all if one of my children became a plumber or an electrician. There is a good chance they would make as much money, if not more, than their friends who had college degrees.

I am fully aware that the years right after high school are the best years to get an education, before marriage and kids tie you down and limit your options. It is also the perfect time to discover who you are. I often preach to my children that I found myself in college. Sure I earned a degree, but even better, I found out who I was, outside my family structures. I went away to a new city and became the person I had wanted to be for a long time. It was the most valuable part of my college career.

But I think you can achieve the same result by several paths. Just moving away from home ,and being in charge of yourself for a while, can prompt a world of self discovery. And sure, making plans for what career you’d like to embrace should be done during these critical years, but who says college is the only way to get there?

There is so much pressure once a teen hits the last years of high school. Pressure on them and pressure on their parents. It is assumed that every child who lives in middle class America will apply to twelve different colleges and ultimately dream of going to Harvard. But that’s not reality. There are some kids who go that path. They have top grades, get great SAT scores and have their top college choices ranked on a computer spread sheet at home. But there are also a whole lot of kids who are just average. Great grades in a few classes, good grades in others, struggling grades every now and then. They will have average SAT scores and be happy with an acceptance letter to the local community college.

The question I have is why should they be seen as any less ‘successful’ than the kid who goes to Harvard?

Helping our children be successful in life involves helping them find the path that fits them best. Don’t we want the end result to be a young adult in their mid twenties who is a good person, content in their career? Sure, having a job that makes good money is a lofty goal. But who says it can only be found in a path that leads through an ivy league school? If my child loves animals, why is it assumed he should be a veterinarian? Maybe he could be just as happy rescuing abused animals, working for the SPCA. If your child loves the field of medicine, why is she instantly pegged to be a doctor? Sure, it’s a noble profession, but so is phlebotomy and nursing assistant.

One of the things I want my kids to learn from me is to find peace with yourself. Find the career that suits you best, brings you fulfillment, and then set up a life, a content life, on that income. Being happy with a modest home and modest income is nothing to be ashamed of. My children will leave our home with many happy memories, of a peaceful house where they laughed a lot and were loved a lot. Yet we never had a lot of money. No big screen TV hangs on our wall. They watch our regular old TV on a couch my parents bought before I was born. They could have had so much more, in material things, if we had lived up to our full earning potential (meaning me teaching full time while they were young) but I don’t think they will look back and remember our family as being poor.

I guess what it all boils down to is being confident in my kid being ordinary. Feeling pride in the fact he is a good, kind hearted person, whether he chooses to go to med school or plumbing school. Being happy that he is happy, doing what he loves to do and making a difference on his tiny little piece of the planet. It’s up to me to show him the options, be there to discuss their pros and cons, but in the end step back and let him decide.

It’s his future. Maybe more of it should be in his hands.

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