An illustration of adults and children in a park with the adults overlooking the children.
Not only are there many more choices, there are also careers that no one has thought of. Illustrations by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada.


Give Your Child Direction, Not Just Instructions

"Give your child the freedom to ask questions they want answers to."

Parents want the best for their child.

No one disputes it. The question though is this: do they also automatically know the best for their offspring? Do all their years of experience give them the right to choose for their child? What gives a parent the authority to assume that a child should do as told?

Ask yourselves these questions before you begin hounding your child about their choices as they  figure out which college and courses they’re putting on their shortlist. No one is doubting your ability or value as a parent and no one should pass judgment on what they choose, not even you. Yes, they’re young, but the bottomline is that it is their life and they will have to deal with the consequences. They may regret it, but consider the possibility that they may not.

Look around you and you’ll see the world has changed substantially since you were in your child’s position, picking out your college. Not only are there many more choices, there are also careers that no one has thought of. Careers related to artificial intelligence and machine learning have mushroomed. Uber drivers didn’t exist just a few years ago! Take it a step further: the careers of tomorrow are yet to be invented and it is more than likely your children will have multiple careers during their lifetime. You picking a career for them will be neither effective nor permanent!

So what should you do?

Help your child explore

It’s likely that your teenager has some clue about what they want but it’s more likely that they know what is not a top choice. This is really important. Given how much time we spend at work, it’s truly important to be passionate about what we do. Being forced to work in a career path they didn’t pick is going to lead to unhappiness. Let the child shadow a few people at work in the jobs they’re interested in. Check in your network for opportunities for your child to spend a day at someone’s workplace. If not, they could sit down and share what they like and dislike about their jobs. Don’t be in the room when this discussion takes place. Give your child the freedom to ask questions they want answers to without you hovering and try to guide the conversation.

Set some broad guidelines

Discuss what your expectations are, but don’t ram your choices down the child’s throat. Assuming you will foot the bill for their college years, you should have some say on what the budget will be and maybe even the radius acceptable to you in terms of geographic distance. There is a lot to be said for avoiding flights over six hours!

An illustration of an adult rolling dough on a table. A child is walking towards the table with a tray with three bowls. There is a speech bubble around the child that says "Thank you for letting me help!"

Children these days have a lot more options than their parents did, which is why it is important to stand by them when they explore their choices.

Be prepared for a few ups and downs

All of us hope life runs smoothly but in case it doesn’t, show your child that you will provide support. After all, your bond with your child is more important than the time it takes for them to graduate and the type of internship they find. Just the way you did not leave your child crying in a dark room in the middle of the night, you cannot ditch them if they stumble in college.

Don’t freak out

If your child chooses a path you deem less than ideal or “safe,” calm down. I say this with some authority because of two reasons. First, my parents weren’t exactly happy when I declared I was going to be a journalist, but I spent 20 years being a business writer in three different countries and loved every bit of it. I then followed it up with a second act as a university administrator. Who knows, there may even be a third, entirely different, section to my working life! At each stage, I’ve added to my skills and used everything I learned because I love what I do. (My parents did come around eventually and became ultra-supportive so there is that!)  Second, I’ve dealt with students for the better part of a decade and counseled many who felt trapped because their parents chose for them. They were miserable. They didn’t thrive. You don’t want to be that parent.

Be encouraging

If you are dismissive of your child’s choices, you could damage their confidence. That’s not what you want. Forget about what your neighbour says. Don’t listen to the all-knowing colleague. Be a little like your child and allow yourself the freedom to think for yourself. Explore the world with your children and show them how different lives are led. Something will spark their interest and they will know what’s right for them.

Dare I suggest you may find you want a career change, too?

Anusha Shrivastava is the Director of Career Development and Alumni Relations at the Department of Statistics at Columbia University. A business reporter for over two decades across three countries, she got her second masters degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2002.

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Give Your Child Direction, Not Just Instructions