Every semester, I see quite a few sad students in my college freshman English class at a large four-year university. They’re not bummed about a bad grade, or roommate problems; many of them are frustrated because they’re unhappy with their major. When I ask them why they’re studying medicine, pre-law or whatever their current field is if they’re not interested in it, I always hear the same answer: “My parents want me to.” Then it’s my turn to be sad. I know parents mean well, but insisting on a major that students aren’t interested in is a truly terrible thing to do to your children.
Having watched my students struggle through this kind of drudgery, I can see the toll it takes on them. One young man burst into tears during my office hours because he had a “C” in calculus and didn’t think that he could do better. He dreaded explaining to his parents, who wanted him to be an engineer, that he was at the height of his talent for math and it wasn’t enough, nor did it make him happy. “What do you want to be?” I asked him. “A zoologist,” he replied, and spent the next 15 minutes telling me about earthworms. He left cheered, but I wondered if his parents would grow to accept that it’d be better to have a passionate zoologist for a son than a halfhearted, at best, engineer. Sure, maybe making it as a zoologist is hard, but I’m pretty sure building a career as an inept engineer isn’t easy either.
Contrary to the bad rap most millennials get, I find that my students want to be in college: to learn about the world, make friends, grow up, and develop morals, ethics and knowledge. They’re willing to work hard, too. But so often they’re tied to a parent’s too-narrow expectations. Every semester, around the fourth week of classes, I’m approached by a student who’s realized that they hate biology, or who’s discovered that they love British literature. But they despair of sharing that news with a parent who’s dead set on having a doctor in the family.
College is exceedingly expensive, of course, and many parents foot the bill (or at least co-sign on the loans). It’s logical that the great expense would convince parents they should get a good return on their investment. But a reasonable result from four years at a good college is a smarter, more mature son or daughter — one who has developed strong critical-thinking, reading and writing skills, as well as a depth and breadth of knowledge in their chosen major. (And maybe they know how to do their own laundry by the end, too!)
In other words, a four-year liberal arts college is not a trade school, and the presumption that students should emerge from it as income-producing workers is foolish. No matter how our large universities may claim to produce careers as well as students, that’s not really what college is designed to do. Trade schools can produce workers, often those with specific training and marketable skills. Parents who are only willing to pay for their child to be trained for a career need to put aside their squeamishness over the supposed lack of prestige in a trade school degree and offer to cover the cost of it.
If the student will attend a four-year college, though, parents need to accept that part of the point of being there is to explore new interests and ideas, which might lead their child to a better understanding of who they are, what they’re good at and, yes, what work they might want to do. Few students who enter college have a real grasp on the wide variety of careers available today. College can be a place for them to begin to find their special niche, not merely join a group of supposed doctors- and lawyers-to-be.
Insisting that they stay in a narrow track — and I’ve found that parents who want to dictate a major almost always advocate for a field that’s saturated with prospective practitioners anyway — won’t help and isn’t kind.
From what I can see, many parents suffer from extreme anxiety over their college-age children, the kind of anxiety that blinds. Of course, good parents want what’s best for their kids, a desire that grows only more fervent the less the child in question fully grasps how difficult the world can be.
But truly doing what’s best for your children means letting go of simple solutions and allowing them to engage with the complexity of the world. Parents should channel their anxiety over their children’s futures into helping them find viable paths, not just dictating what they should do. That’s part of helping them grow up. College students need guidance while they navigate a difficult series of choices. The kindest thing is to support them, rather than taking those choices away.
Shannon Reed is a former high school English and theater teacher; now she’s a freelance writer and teaches English and creative writing. She is mainly known as a humorist for the New Yorker, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and BuzzFeed.
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