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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?

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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.
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Hi, I'm Natalie.

This is fantastic, thanks for the good reminders!

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[…] 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
Guest

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
Guest
Jill

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… Read more »

Karishma
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Karishma

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… Read more »

Lucinda
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Lucinda

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… Read more »

RuthWells
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RuthWells

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… Read more »

Ann Garniss
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Ann Garniss

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,… Read more »

abbeyviolet
Guest

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… Read more »

Karen.
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Karen.

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
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Jan

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… Read more »

vanessa
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vanessa

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.

/soapbox

AmyRenee
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AmyRenee

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… Read more »

ladybug
Guest
ladybug

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
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Nancy

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
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Nelson's Mama

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
Guest
Mandie

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… Read more »

Brigitte
Guest
Brigitte

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
Guest
Jill

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
Guest
ladybug

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… Read more »

Susan:)
Guest
Susan:)

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… Read more »

Erin
Guest

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… Read more »