My son has just dropped out of university in the US, where he was studying engineering. He’s taken a part-time job working at a hotel and says he needs time to “think about what to do with his life”. As the parent who paid for this education, it’s a difficult pill to swallow. How do I get him to realise he either needs to go back to college or kick-start his career? And how do I help him “think” a little more quickly, so that he does not waste valuable time, without him believing I am applying pressure. KJ, Dubai
I can understand how being emotionally and financially invested in your child’s future and seeing that in jeopardy is a difficult pill to swallow. As a parent, you only want the best for him and will try anything for him to succeed. However, it’s fair if he needs some time to think about the direction he wants to go in and the route he would like to follow to get there. This may require you accepting that although there is the conventional journey from school to university and then on to a prestigious career, not everyone follows these steps neatly and in that order. We all know of people who are still young, yet in their second or third careers, or of others 20 years into their careers who return to studying.
Whatever confusion you are feeling at the moment is tiny compared to the pressure and confusion he must be facing. He may have studied engineering because he was good at it or because he liked the thought of studying it. He then found out through experiencing the degree that it wasn’t for him. This is difficult to accept and even harder to admit. It is always hard for children to live up to their parents’ expectations and many feel crippled with the pressure of pleasing them.
When I studied psychology at university, I had a friend who was bright, sociable and grasped all the core psychological concepts extremely quickly. Yet it was clear from the start that psychology wasn’t his passion and that he was more interested in playing rugby. He took the course on because his father was a clinical psychologist and he felt that following in his footsteps would please him. He completed his studies but soon after that started playing professional rugby and does the same to this day. He compromised and completed his studies, but still pursued the career he wanted.
During university and then on to the earlier stages of our career, it is all about exercising one’s intellectual and interpersonal energies and bringing enthusiasm, energy and curiosity to our studies, which then hopefully leads to identifying our real aspirations. Your son may have realised that engineering doesn’t exercise this curiosity or is not energising enough for him to pursue. Rather than kicking him back on to a career path that he has derailed from and seems unsure about, consider helping him make sense of what he really wants to do. As his parent, can you think about what really gives him joy? We all want our loved ones to have successful and meaningful careers, but is it our own view of their success we are preoccupied with? A parent sometimes has to put this aside and focus on what will bring satisfaction and contentment to a child.
Your most important objective at this critical time should be to coach him and try to not put a timescale on his “thinking time” (even though I understand why you don’t want him to waste this stage of his life). You can help him discover his strengths and interests. Ask him to reflect on what skills he is getting out of the degree, over and above the technical engineering knowledge. Hopefully he realises the extended benefits gained as a person from completing university. If there is no convincing, then he can use this time off university to try different part-time roles and gain different kinds of experience from each, and also get feedback from peers, friends and mentors to help him identify what he is good at.
Where you are so heavily invested in your child’s development, it is easy to try to push them towards making a definitive decision. The truth is they may not know the answers for some time and some experimentation is required to identify true aspirations. Your role as a parent and as a guide is to shine the torch on the map for his life, rather than forcing him down a route that seems satisfactory to you but may leave him dissatisfied and left in the dark in the long term.
Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues.
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