I have six children. I know, I know, crazy, right? And each of these characters that lives in my house is so very different from the others. I’ve got a couple of gifted artists, one with a nearly photographic memory, a singer, a couple of nervous types, and a couple that have probably never worried about a thing.
You don’t even need to have a bunch of kids to know that each child comes with a unique set of gifts, challenges, struggles, and skills. So, why do we often treat kids as cookie cutters, assuming a standard path for their future while acknowledging their differences?
This started becoming more evident to me when my oldest was in her last couple years of high school. Wherever we would go, the ubiquitous question directed at nearly every high school student was: Where are you going to college? My daughter rarely heard anything different, though she knew that those asking were doing so because they cared about her and were genuinely interested in hearing her plans. But, her plans weren’t following the typical path. Thankfully, she rarely encountered disapproval but often encountered surprise and confusion. It seems that if a high school graduate in America isn’t immediately college bound, something must be wrong.
It’s a pretty recent phenomenon, this expectation. College has gone from being a necessary means to an end for certain career fields to a rite of passage for every adolescent. Learning, studying, expanding your mind shouldn’t be limited to only a select group of people, but the ways to do that are more numerous than we advertise. When I look at the history of higher education in America, I’m immensely grateful for the increased access to college that so many enjoy. College should be accessible to everyone! But that doesn’t mean that everyone should go.
You’ve heard or sensed the stigma related to those who choose routes to a career that don’t fit today’s mold: trade schools, apprenticeships, even community college. Often, inherent in the stigma is the opinion that only those with lower intelligence will choose “alternative” routes, while those with brains will go to college. And I’m here to call that opinion what it is: nonsense. Yes, there are certainly people who can’t handle the academic rigor of college, but there are many more who will opt out or delay college for other reasons. Maybe their passions lies in an area where a degree isn’t necessary but specific training is required. Some realize that the incredible debt carried by so many college graduates is crippling, often taking decades to repay. Still others know that institutionalized learning isn’t where they will thrive and choose other ways to enrich their body of knowledge.
Here’s my question: Can we change the conversation? Can we support our young adults in their pursuits and journeys, regardless of whether or not they fit our expectations? I’d love to see high school students approached with the question: So, what are your hopes and dreams for your life after graduation? Do you have specific plans yet for after you graduate? If you know enough about a student, ask how he or she will use a gift or skill that you know he or she possesses as he or she moves into adulthood. You’ll be able to gauge quickly whether they are college bound or may possibly have other plans. And, what if they don’t have plans yet? Let’s encourage space for them to figure it out without judgment or disapproval.
My daughter is still working all of this out in her heart and mind. She has some pretty cool interests and gifts but isn’t sure yet how she wants to use them. While working, and enjoying her break from academics, she’s thinking, reading, and dreaming. I think she might end up taking some college classes at some point, but she might not. My expectations for her, as with my other children, are that she become a contributing member of society. That may look different for each of them, and that’s okay with me. Because my second child is fairly bent on engineering or architecture after high school, his path to a career will certainly include college.
As moms, while we’re encouraging our children to do their best, pursue their interests, and prepare for the future, let’s also encourage other kids. Let’s encourage each other! I want you to feel comfortable and confident to talk to me about what your child is doing, even if you know it’s not what I expect to hear. Admittedly, it’s been hard at times to hear the subtle insinuations and explain (again) why my daughter isn’t doing what all her friends are doing. But I’m also thankful that this has opened my eyes to an area where we need to rethink our preconceptions. And I’m thankful to be part of changing the conversation.