There are times in your parenting journey when confidence sets in and things hum along smoothly for a while. Then there are days when you lock yourself in your bathroom with a bag of Milano cookies questioning every interaction you’ve ever had with your kids.

I spend most of the time somewhere in between, but keep my Milanos close at hand, just in case.

These days, I feel like those confident parenting moments are less frequent. Perhaps because my role is shifting as my 17-year-old twin sons are figuring out their next steps.

Our sons, who just began their senior year of high school, are two very different young men.

One has multiple disability and medical issues and is the one I’ve lost sleep over with “what ifs” swirling through my head, including whether he will be employable. Turns out he’s found a passion for TV production, film, and editing. He films shows at our local cable-access TV station, and he’s starting to look at colleges.

The other twin, whom I assumed I had figured out, caught my husband and me off-guard, reminding us how little we know as parents.

Our son is levelheaded, responsible, gets up at 5 a.m. to study or go to the gym, gets good grades, is on his school robotics team, holds a job at Trader Joe’s, and recently took a free dual enrollment college-level management course offered between our public high school and local community college. He also loves cars. He spends the little free time he has immersed in car culture.

So we shouldn’t have been completely surprised when he announced that he has a passion to be a mechanic. He said he was researching taking a gap year post-high school by enrolling in a mechanics course at a local trade school to see whether it was a viable career option for him.

We had assumed he would attend a four-year college and study business or liberal arts. Maybe medicine, as he expressed an interest in being a doctor.

This announcement prompted me to question where we end, and he begins. And it taught me just how little my presumptions about my child and his world were true.

When my husband and I were in high school, you were “college material” or “trade material.” There was a sense that going into a trade wasn’t a goal that typical college-bound students should have. As time passed, I realized that many who went into a trade were the ones who were consistently employed, often ran their own businesses, and purchased their first home at an early age. The future for them was far brighter and steadier than our old high school guidance counselors had led us to believe. Meanwhile, many four-year college grads were still living at home with mom and dad and often had a pile of student loan debt.

Something didn’t add up based on what had been drummed into our heads by teachers and guidance counselors of years past. After my son came to us with his plans, I realized that a college degree doesn’t guarantee a student a job or a career, and that it’s time to rethink how we approach post-high school education.

My husband and I have bachelor’s degrees but ended up in different careers (journalism and IT) than our courses of study (both psychology majors). Sure, college is valuable for many reasons, and we all know that. But is it really for everyone?

There are many trade and/or certificate programs that allow young adults to enter the work world equipped and ready for success. Or some students may be better served by easing into post-high school education with a two-year degree and then, when they have more time to develop their sense of self, they can attain more education as needed.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the trades, as my son continued his research into his education:

Before too long, we will be reaching a crisis with the lack of tradespeople. Companies like Caterpillar are providing incentives like their ThinkBIG Technician program to get more young people excited about trade careers through education while being paid on the job. For those who are willing to work hard, the ThinkBIG program offers many possibilities for career growth, along with the chance to travel the world. Graduates will then apply their knowledge to service and repair more than 300 varied CAT machines and engines in various countries and industries (including agriculture, power generation and construction).

The other thing I’ve learned?

It’s important that we be open to every possibility and option during the post-high school years, particularly when it’s our own children who do the research, find out which programs interest them, and have an idea about their passion that they can turn into a career.

With time, our son thoroughly researched mechanics and realized it is more of a hobby for him. But during the process, he found a program for teens to attend a rigorous boot camp with the Massachusetts State Police at their academy in western Massachusetts. There, he learned a lot about himself and the direction he wants to go. That week clarified his desire to be a first-responder, so he is planning to attend community college next fall for its first-response and para-medicine program, and then he hopes to attend the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

What initially freaked me out has now made me so proud. We’ve fully embraced alternatives to the four-year track and have come to the important self-discovery that as parents, we need to guide but to be open to all options.

I’m so excited to see where life leads my boys. I’ll be here, with my stash of Milanos, watching.

Laura Richards is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts. She writes about parenting, lifestyle, health and travel. Find her on Twitter @ModMothering.

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