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Why parents shouldn’t try to pick university courses or careers for their children

How hard should parents push their children when it comes to their future? Educationalists, teachers and psychologists say trying to decide your child’s career path can actually be damaging to their development and confidence

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 8:03pm

A friend recently spoke of her disappointment after her eldest son said he wanted to study environmental science. She would have liked him to go into law or medicine, she explained sadly.

“You know, something nice and respectable. Something useful,” she added.

My son, at 16, considered a career in education. Providing – of course – he didn’t make it as a professional cricketer; education being his contingency plan.

Where one might once have addressed a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, perhaps – considering parental ambition – one ought to rephrase the question: “What does your mother want you to be when you grow up?”

Research shows that parents are more involved in their children’s university course choices now than they used to be. Additionally, as Hong Kong-based psychologist Scarlett Mattoli observes: “Different nationalities have different expectations for their offspring.”

Julianna Yau, director of Ampla Education, says Asian parents usually tend to favour “traditional professions, such as doctors, lawyers and engineers” for their children.

Such involvement – however – isn’t necessarily always positive: parents could be accused of coercing their children to select degree courses based on their own wishes, imagining they can attend interviews with them, even phoning or pretending to be their children. Experts agree that trying to manipulate children in their decisions about life after school can be fraught with conflict. “This subject can be a bone of contention, as not every child, on becoming an adult, is happy with the pressure felt as a consequence of such expectations,” Mattoli says.

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James’ father learned as much when he tried. James was determined to pursue a career in the armed forces when he left school. His father was equally adamant that his son do a business-related degree, like him. Undeterred, James proceeded to contact armed forces liaison personnel and simultaneously gave up a business studies A-level on the advice of his teachers because he was clearly not interested. Naturally, the situation gave rise to a clash between father and son.

Parental sway is often the result of mothers and fathers, like James’, wanting their children to follow in their own footsteps. As was the case with Miranda, whose parents – both doctors – were keen for their daughter to embark on a career in medicine, too. But our offspring are not necessarily going to demonstrate the same interests or strengths as us – Miranda simply wasn’t up to the task academically. Such high expectations can lead to painful disappointment when school examination results fail to match requirements.

If my parents had had their way I’d be crippled by student debt now. Luckily at 18 – despite their insistence – I had the right to refuse to go to university
Jennifer (from an online forum)

An online forum acts as a warning to parents who feel compelled to drive their children’s future for them. Jennifer writes: “If my parents had had their way I’d be crippled by student debt now. Luckily at 18 – despite their insistence – I had the right to refuse to go to university.

“Of course, it meant finding my own place to live, but without a degree I’ve still outperformed everyone I went to school with, and without massive loans,” writes Jennifer, who secured a paid engineering apprenticeship. “Too many parents meddle with their children’s futures by trying to make their choices for them. If we’re old enough to vote, then we’re old enough to make our own decisions.”

Mattoli points to the value of careers advice services. “Areas such as aptitude, learning style and values of a developing student can be assessed by an expert and can be very different from parents’ expectations. The Self-Directed Search [an interactive assessment tool] is a great instrument with a sound history. The idea is that the student should feel confident about the skills they possess or can acquire, have an interest in one particular area over another, will be motivated to work with others or alone, and will value something in return for their efforts that is not always money,” she says.

Yau’s programme at Ampla strives to identify and “amplify” a child’s potential by connecting students with a mentor who has direct experience of their preferred academic institution to help youngsters tap their own passion.

Carol Wilson, who has taught at international schools globally, says that although there’s no doubt parents have a bearing on what their children aspire to be, a fine balance must be struck.

“One parent so badly wanted his son to go to medical school that he persuaded our head to up his predicted chemistry grade on his university application from the C [that she had predicted] to an A,” Wilson recalls.

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Years later, long after he’d left school, she bumped into the same boy and asked him what he was doing. “He was very happy working on the stock exchange. When I said that I thought he was going to be a doctor, he replied: ‘Oh, I never got into university as I only got a C.’”

She remembers feeling sad. “He only implied he felt he should have achieved higher – and had let dad down – when in reality a C grade in chemistry was a great achievement if it wasn’t his passion, and besides, he was forging a successful career for himself in a field he enjoyed. Surely that is the key: happy independence.”

British educationalist Professor Alan Smithers says “the most important thing a parent can do is to allow a child’s abilities and interests to unfold”. He warns it can be damaging to try to influence a child’s choice, not only because the child might not like or be very good at whatever it is the parent wants them to do, but because by the time the child joins the professional world, the world may have moved on.

“Children who are at school now will be working in the mid 21st century, when the requirements for, and rewards of, occupations will be very different. Who could have imagined the internet and its great impact on our lives? And who could have predicted our planet would be in such dire straits that working to save it would become a necessity, not some vague hippie notion,” he says.

But how much of a free rein ought we give? What of those children who are passionate about becoming professional sportsmen, or actors, or pop stars? Should we massage such dreams or nip them in the bud for being – often – unrealistic. One careers adviser says not. “It can be crushing for children to have dreams dismissed,” she says. Instead, parents should introduce the reality: that such fields offer as much competition and potential disappointment as they do possible glory and high earnings.

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Smithers agrees. “By all means work hard with a child if they show real interest and talent in a particular direction. But parents do not have the comparative information that is available to schools and in the wider world, so they should aim to support their son or daughter in their voyage of discovering about themselves and not try to set the destination.”

Julian Willis, who plans to read medicine after school, has been fortunate; his parents have been supportive without being “overly involved”. Julian’s healthy confidence in his choice of career reflects this. The only time they were particularly “energetic”, he recalls, was when his careers profile suggested he ought to pursue accountancy. His parents – both accountants themselves – discouraged him.

“If parents can broaden their perspective to appreciate that the child is different from them and has a unique combination of skills and passions, then the child can be free to choose a career in which they have interest and the parent can feel less stress on behalf of their child,” Mattoli says.

“That kind of ‘letting-go’ or allowing them to ‘own’ their own sense of self, can be very challenging for some families. This has the potential, however, to enable them to be more likely to feel capable, appropriately challenged,” and ultimately successful and fulfilled.

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As Yau bluntly warns: “It is harmful to impose our own ambitions or expectations on a child because they may only come to the realisation years later that the path chosen for them is not something they want to pursue.”

Julian agrees: “I think that although it should always be the child’s decision and have no other motivation than what is right for the individual, parents should be there to advise and ensure that the all-important choice is not a poor one which will carry consequences for years.”