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When My Kids Grow Up, I Want Them To Be Flexible

When My Kids Grow Up, I Want Them To Be Flexible

By Mir Kamin

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but it appears that I have two children in high school. The good news is that those two children really enjoy and excel in academics—I imagine this would be more painful if they didn’t—but the bad news is that I’m astounded by the pressure on them to make decisions about their future right now.

Here’s a not-so-secret secret of mine: I didn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was in my mid-30s. I graduated from high school at 16, college at 20, and grad school at 22. At each of those points, I was sure I knew what I wanted next, and further certain that the thing I wanted was something I’d be doing for the rest of my life. I wanted, in chronological order, to be a professional actress, a research psychologist, and a human factors engineer. In case it’s not obvious, these three paths aren’t really related. But I went to acting school, spent years in labs, and later learned the ins and outs of software design. I worked as a human factors engineer (the supposed “final answer”) for years. I enjoyed a lot of it, even. Even that—the one path of the three that ended up as my official career—was not what I’d consider my calling. I wasn’t an engineer who later decided to make a career switch, I was a writer who finally figured it out. (And before you roll your eyes and think this is a hippy-dippy, artsy sort of thing, it has nothing to do with the career of writer, and everything to do with working in a field I sort of liked vs. finding the work that I love.)

The point is that my life has biased me, sure, but I think requiring teenagers to declare their life paths is laughable. Yes, some will pursue their stated goals with laser-like precision from now until the end of their lives (and maybe even be happy), but the vast majority of teenagers are—surprise!—still in flux in a hundred different ways. Why must we try to convince them that every decision they make today shapes their tomorrow in some indelible way? They should try to figure out what speaks to them and what their goals are, absolutely. But where’s the message that things can and will change and they can adapt to that when the time comes? That’s not part of society’s script.

So I think it’s bad enough that we tout college as the beginning of the rest of their lives; woe betide the kid who doesn’t have a clear vision for the next 50 years, because after all, the college you attend impacts the rest of your life! (Maybe.) (Another not-so-secret secret: I’m not sure I believe that.) My oldest is awash in collegiate junk mail (sometimes I wish they would just write, “Oooh! Oooh! Pick us!!” on their mailers, for honesty’s sake) and wants to know how she’s supposed to decide what college she wants to attend. My advice of “pick one that’s free/cheap and seems interesting” has her wondering if I’m joking. (I’m not.) I expected this milestone, of course, and as we inch ever-closer to senior year, we’ll have to discuss it more often and more in depth.

What’s chapping my hide at the moment, though, is that our school district has decided to pilot a “Pathways” program, wherein high school students must pick a concentration (or Pathway) on their way to graduation. This is not a formal graduation requirement—at the moment, anyway—but it’s being presented to the kids as something they “have” to do. On the bright side, there’s a variety of different Pathways from which to choose. On the down side, though, these Pathways are pretty hardcore. To wit: My son has chosen Science as his Pathway. This makes sense; science is his favorite subject and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he ends up in either a laboratory or computer science as an adult.

Guess what’s required for the Science Pathway.

In order to graduate from high school in our state, you need 4 credits of science. Everyone needs those 4 credits of science, so to make it a Pathway, they need to go beyond that. Maybe… 5 credits of science? Heck, maybe 6?

Seven. You choose the Science Pathway, you are expected to complete the equivalent of 7 years of science study in your 4 years of high school. Now, make no mistake: that’s completely doable within the requirements of the high school curriculum. For someone science-focused it’s maybe even an opportunity. But the idea that my 14-year-old was just encouraged to ensure that he has no free time in his schedule for, say, an art class or some other elective he finds appealing for the remainder of his high school career just rubs me the wrong way.

“What happens if he doesn’t complete all 7 credits?” I asked his guidance counselor, after he came home with this news. (Parents, by the way, were not involved in these “Pathway Days.”)

“Nothing, really,” she said. “It’s not a graduation requirement… yet.”

My daughter was absent for her grade’s Pathway Day and so hasn’t yet selected one. We are pretending she’s a conscientious objector.

I don’t want my kids picking out their futures right now. I’m not sure I want them doing it even when it’s time for college, either. They’re kids, and I want them to try and experience things outside of their very insular spheres of existence before someone tells them that they’re setting their life courses. And while I’m wishing for things, I wish someone besides their mother—who is viewed by some other people close to them as “flighty” or not as “serious” due to my particular history of career-hopping (despite nearly a decade in my now successful career)—was reminding them that people are allowed to change their minds. What you decide today will impact tomorrow, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone or that there might not be good reasons to make a different choice, later. This societal undertone of “Hurry up, make a decision, then do only that thing” works out for only a fraction of society. The rest of us then have to struggle not only with changing streams, but being judged for doing so.

I want my kids to grow up to be happy, productive members of society. If at any point they are unhappy or unproductive (or both), I want them to know that they can change that. Furthermore, I want them to view changes like that as strength of adaptability, rather than a supposed weakness of focus. Is this really such a crazy concept?

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Hi, I'm Natalie.

    March 11, 2014 at 11:56 am

    This is fantastic, thanks for the good reminders!

  • […] stop telling them they have to figure out the rest of their lives before they turn 18. I’m grumbling about it over at Alpha Mom, because that’s what I do. You know, between […]

  • Kelly

    March 11, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    As someone who wanted to be a math teacher, went to school for engineering, became a consultant, went back to school for business, went into finance and then strategy in different industries… and now is a photographer with her own business…. 🙂 I get the life changes the decisions you make path. Think I hopped quite a bit and not sure hopping is done yet.
    I think it is good to have a goal to help guide decisions, but that seems extreme for sure to be so locked down so early in life.

  • Jill

    March 11, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I love it.  Here it starts even earlier, in 8th grade.  Minimally trained volunteers from the community meet with 8th graders to discuss their career plans and their plan to get there.

    My daughter is 13.  I don’t WANT her to know what she’s doing for the rest of her life.  I don’t even want her to declare a major when she starts college for at least a year or so.  I want her to be thinking about it, sure, and start considering what kind of life will make her happy.  But the idea that people who may have very different views about careers are going to help her make a plan seems all kinds of wrong.  That’s OUR job.  But, sadly, this is mandatory for the 8th grade students.  Unless she happens to be sick that day, of course . . . hmmmmmm.

  • Karishma

    March 11, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    That’s awful. Admittedly, I was one of those kids who decided with laser like precision that she was going to be a doctor. Like, at the age of 5, had a specialty picked out by the age of 7 as well as any child who has no idea what she’s talking about can pick a career, and oh hey, look! About to graduate med schedule in a couple months and find out where I’m matching in that very specialty in 10 days. (Feelings: nauseated.) HOWEVER. Because I always knew that this is what I was going to pursue, I made a special point of doing *everything else* while I could. I was heavily involved in ceramics, orchestra, band, pit band, the dance department while I was in high school, and quite literally gave up my lunch periods so I could do those things while still taking a million “extra” science classes. No one forced me to, this was of my own free will. (Which is how I somehow ended up taking 12/13 AP classes during high school.) (God.) And then when I went to college, I knew I was going to be doing science for the rest of forever, so I very purposely picked sociocultural anthropology as my major. Still going to be a doctor! Do not regret any of it, in fact, I think it made me a much more well rounded person capable of actually holding conversations outside of my chosen career. 🙂

    • Mir Kamin

      March 11, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      I love it, Karishma! Of course, I think you’re the exception to the rule, both in knowing your path so early AND in having the foresight to do “other stuff” along the way.

      Fingers crossed for an awesome match! I have a feeling you’ll land on your feet. 🙂

      • Karishma

        March 11, 2014 at 11:24 pm

        Aww, thanks Mir! Keeping my fingers crossed 🙂

  • Lucinda

    March 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    I taught for 7 years and even completed my master’s in Education before having a baby and leaving the profession entirely.  Now I run a business with my husband involving fish eggs. Just a wee bit different. So I get the changing paths thing.

    However, back in the 90’s Oregon did something similar.  The decision was to be made sophomore year for the last two years of school  Students picked a career strand and their electives fell in place accordingly.  The idea was to let kids explore an area they thought they might be interested in.  It was broad enough that nothing was really binding and it was killed before it was fully implemented but I’m not sure the idea of exploration was misguided.  It just wasn’t sold well.  

    I think three extra years of Science is excessive.  Certainly.  But the concept of having kids explore an area before they leave high school isn’t altogether bad.  However, as a society, we can’t seem to find a way to allow that without feeling like we are trapping kids into a rest-of-their-life decision which is totally ridiculous.

  • RuthWells

    March 11, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    You’re hitting some of my buttons today, woman. I have a relative who keeps sending me articles on the lack of ROI with a fancy (private) college education these days — as if landing the highest paying job possible in one’s field is the only goal of attending college!

    My hopes for my soon-to-graduate Aspie high schooler (who’s been accepted at Hampshire, !) is that college a) teach him how to live independently; b) expose him to a much wider field of study than he has access to in high school; and c) give him a piece of paper at the end of it that shows that he is curious and well-educated.

    (I took 2 years’ leave of absence during my undergrad career to be a professional actress. Now I work in finance. That’s just how it goes sometimes!)

  • Ann Garniss

    March 11, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    In terms of picking a college (hopefully a few years down the road for Chickie), I’d suggest she read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath. It’s all about the benefits of being the underdog, including a chapter on ‘big fish in the small pond’ and how many students who get into the Ivy League (especially in STEM degrees) drop out because they feel marginalized after being so awesome in high school that they can get into Ivy Leagues, and then are surrounded by only people smart enough to get into Ivy Leagues. My Vv is only 11 months old, but when the time comes, she’ll be reading this.

    His writing is way better than my description…

  • abbeyviolet

    March 11, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Concur.  I was lucky enough to go to college for free, chose a random major full of bits of things that interested me (one of those now glibbly lauded as interdisciplinary studies).  I spent college growing up, volunteering, learning about the world.  Then I went to grad school b/c it was fairly clear that I had no marketable skills, at least not ones with the kind of salary I wanted.  Longer story short I ended up being the very one thing I always refused to accept as my future career even though every adult was convinced years in advance.  Better still, when I was old enough to make that choice and see the possibilities I ended up loving it despite myself.  I am a lawyer and a mom.  I work part time and telecommute.  All of those things would have blown my teenage mind 🙂

  • Karen.

    March 11, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    The comments are fun to read. Maybe, as a very focused math and chem major right-turned into a parent and home-based editor/designer, I’m more the rule than the exception, in a lot of ways. 

    p.s. “Let kids be kids” is one major argument I respect in my choice to not send my kids to preschool. 

  • Jan

    March 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    This isn’t limited to academics, either.  My 9 year old daughter loves and is good at ballet.  The ONLY option available to her next year is 8 hours a week of ballet class.  I get that you will get better faster if you do more, but what if we’re OK with just loving the hell out of it and getting better slowly?  There’s no option for that at all.  It’s the same with soccer (is your kid any good and wanting a challenge — he must have practice 3 nights a week and games every weekend ALL YEAR LONG.)  What ever happened to doing something you love, sure, but also trying out a little bit of everything else.  It’s called being well-rounded, and we used to all aim for it as young people.

    • vanessa

      March 12, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      there are certainly problems with some preschools (and some public school pre-k/k programs) but good preschools WILL let kids be kids, and will offer them lots of other benefits, besides.


  • AmyRenee

    March 11, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I actually think this isn’t such a bad idea, because it allows the kids to pick extra academic electives. I WISH WISH WISH my high school had even offered 7 science classes – I was a science/engineering major and I was so far behind when I started college with only 5 science courses (2 of which were really just a rehash of what we learned in middle school).

    Also, I worked at a mentoring program for students who were freshmen in college, and one of the major issues was that although they took the courses required to graduate from high school, that wasn’t enough. It was very common for them to have to pay to take a whole sememster (or year!) of remedial coursework that didn’t count toward their major requirement, because they weren’t pushed to take an extra Math or English class in high school (or were possibly even discouraged from it, because the higher level classes were full and the school couldn’t afford to hire more upper level teachers).

    I think this Pathways idea is really a way of saying “if you want to focus on A, here is how to lay out your schedule to do so, in order to get the appropriate pre-reqs”. Makes more sense to me than “pick the bare minimum required to graduate and then fill up the rest of your day with fluff because we don’t offer anything more challenging”- which is what I got in high school. Even if your kid doesn’t know EXACTLY what they want to do for a living, they probably have an idea whether it will be STEM, fine arts, etc. And if not – well maybe getting extra classes in high school will help them narrow it down slightly in college.

    • ladybug

      March 12, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      We found this with soccer, too.  If your kid is good at it, after a certain point  you get harassed by the other kids and parents in the rec league – they want you to leave for a higher league, but that means a much bigger time commitment.   Once my son hit middle school, he couldn’t continue with two sports.  We’re fortunate that the local hockey program has done well with keeping their rec program open to all skill levels and he has been able to manage that with his schoolwork.

  • Nancy

    March 11, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    I was one of those teenagers who picked a career path and stuck with it all the way through. Here I am 28 years later and still in that career. I think part of my sticking to the path was some fear of not knowing or of trying something new. I wish I had been exposed to more career options before it was too late. I had no clue about that mny jobs even existed until after I finished graduate school. Hopefully my kids will feel like they have the time and opportunity to explore their choices fully.

  • Nelson's Mama

    March 11, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    My 22-year old is graduating in May and now applying to grad school.  She’s an excellent student, but doesn’t test well, as a result, her GMAT scores just aren’t going to get her into the schools she has her heart set on.  How I wish I could get her to see that her path in life might change, or, that “less than perfect school” might turn out to be for the best.

    Being a mama is hard. 🙂

  • Mandie

    March 11, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    I’m quickly approaching 50 and still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up.  Maybe I just don’t want to grow up?

    My eldest is a senior and headed off to college in the fall.  He has been focused on computer science, planning to major in compsci and minor in music.  However, in the last couple of years, he’s become exceptionally passionate about politics.  Political science is certainly calling his name.  However, he is choosing (at this point) to stay with the compsci path because of job options after school.  We’ve had several discussions.  I don’t know what he’ll do.  Maybe he’ll absolutely love compsci and stay with it.  Maybe he won’t.  Maybe he’ll do something else entirely.  I’ve tried to tell  him it’s a journey.  

    My other son is a sophomore currently forecasting for his junior year.  He doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do, other than be a professional musician.  Oy.  

    Oh, and that pathways program would not have gone over well.  Son #1 has mixed equal parts technology classes with band classes throughout high school and would never have dropped band to focus on technology!

  • Brigitte

    March 11, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    I also still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and i’m already 50. Maybe work in a library . . Even though my major was math.  I guess the next step is to just assign them their future careers at the age of 5 or so, as if we’re in North Korea or something . . >:-(

  • Jill

    March 11, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    And tonight I went with my 13 year old to the parent/student orientation night at the high school she’ll attend next year, and learned that she has to submit her requested schedule and her career cluster choice by Monday. It’s very similar to what you describe, just with electives instead of core classes. It’s beyond ridiculous. She is THIRTEEN. Conscientious objector sounds pretty good right about now.

  • ladybug

    March 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    At least they’re being organized and honest.  

    I’ve found you have to ask a lot of questions, because the information at our schools is not well-publicized.  It’s little stuff, like the schedules being set so that you have to be in the higher math class to schedule the advanced science classes. (one kid loves science, hates math).  Or that you can take AP Environmental Studies instead of spending a year on Earth Science.  Or that if you want the IB program, you need to take AP World History as a sophomore, which means you take Civics and Economics as a freshman, not World History.  I’ve also heard from the neighborhood high school that due to budget cuts, foreign language is only available for upperclassmen – so if you want to meet the college recommendations for four years of foreign language, you’d better be able to pay for a tutor.  And at my son’s school, the only art available is sort of art history in support of common core.  (son takes extra math & science classes in lieu of art/music/theater & plays sports outside school).  No computer programming is offered, which blows my mind.

    So the kid whose parents aren’t paying attention, or isn’t socially connected and observant, can end up without options.  I’ve tried to focus on keeping their options open, so they have the freedom to change their minds.

  • Susan:)

    March 12, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Yeah, this is a tough one. I knew from age eight what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a teacher. I adored my teachers and wanted to be one of them. I was absolutely certain for years. Then, one day in my junior year of high school, I changed my mind. I saw how crappy teachers had it, the large unruly classes, the lack of creativity in curriculum, and other issues. I didn’t want to be part of that. I still wanted to teach and work with kids, just not in a regular school setting. So I was a bit lost for other ideas. But I did know for certain that I wanted to take classes I enjoyed and not get stuck with useless and boring math classes that I didn’t need. My guidance counselor forced me to sign up for calculus for my junior year, although I already had enough math credits to graduate. Fortunately at the beginning of the year, I got a new guidance counselor who let me drop calculus and take drama instead. Have I regretted that choice?  Not once!  I also opted to take creative writing and sociology my senior year, instead of more AP courses. Definitely a good choice. I still graduated fifth in my class and got a full scholarship to college. 

    Then there was college. I had no clue still what I wanted to do. I made up my own liberal arts major, comprised of a variety of history, literature, anthropology, sociology and creative writing classes. I enjoyed most of my classes but I wasn’t prepping for any particular career. During my junior year of college, I decided I would like to be a librarian. Until I found out I’d have to completely start over since I had none of the prerequisites. So I gave up that idea since I was tired of school and just wanted to finish. So I graduated. I began teaching preschool. I discovered I loved it and was good at it and continued to teach preK until I became a nanny for my nieces. My preschool teaching experience made me a pretty good nanny and my nanny experience combined with it has fully prepared me for future parenthood!  But what am I going to do when my ices no longer need me?  Well, it’s been about 12 years since college. I might be ready to go back and earn that library science degree!  Either that or open my own bookstore and educational toy shop. Or something. Who knows?

  • Erin

    March 13, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    I am a career counselor for liberal arts undergrads at a large public university and have this discussion very often – “what can I do with a major in communication studies?” or “My parents don’t want me to major in psychology because they heard that you can never get a job in that”. We usually discuss that it isn’t the major that gets you a job or helps you find satisfying work – it’s the people you meet, the internships you do, volunteering, studying abroad, etc. I don’t really mind the concept of the program you’re describing per se, it might help provide some direction to students, but it is a troublesome mindset that you have to make all the “right” decisions now… or else. 

    I definitely agree with the recommendations on college too – I know it offers some advantages to go to a “better” school, but I see so many happy and successful people who went lesser known colleges or none at all. I do think that finding a college that is the right fit is important – a place where a person will feel engaged and want to do well, want to go to class, meet people who will challenge them and help them grow – but that is not the same for everyone.

    I know one person who knew what he wanted to be in middle school and actually did it – just a few months ago now he finally became a surgeon! Good for him, but that’s by far and away the exception. I absolutely love what I do now, but I know this isn’t it – I have about 30+ more years of work ahead of me and know that it will change several more times.