Keating: The Parents’ Role in Career Discernment

September 23, 2014

By Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

Stories abound of school dropouts who consequently fail to establish themselves in jobs because of parental attempts to force youngsters onto a particular career path. Less noted are young people presenting in the offices of their undergraduate advisers with no interest in a particular major and indicating that all their parents care about is the diploma.

Parents question what they, as a shelf-stocker, truck driver or home-care aid, have to offer a bright young son or daughter on track to climb a corporate or professional ladder. The answer is almost everything. Getting along with people on the job, dealing with bosses and navigating employment searches are similar throughout occupational and industrial classifications.

Furthermore, who is in a better position to speak candidly about appropriate work attitudes and transmit job-retention skills than parents?

Consider, as well, the situation of children in both high- and low-income households in which circumstances preclude the dominant parent from wage income. Here, parents together with their children meet the challenge of paying bills on time, purchasing and preparing food, and maintaining homes. In addition, they watch over a calendar scheduling medical care and educational milestones for family members. In the workplace, such “housekeeping” skills are highly valued and pay good salaries.

Because of affection and interest in a child’s long-term well-being, parents tend to check their fantasies and constrain projecting a vocational choice onto the next generation. Similarly, parents are best positioned to guard against overly enthusiastic teachers, coaches, uncle-managers or interfering grandmas who, even if well-intentioned, point a young person in a direction inconsistent with that parent’s understanding of a particular child. That said, we may never know how much the good example of a relative, teacher or neighbor influences a child’s development.

Like physicians treating members of their own family, parents are acutely aware of their inability and cluelessness on career orientation. Some children appear to be born knowing exactly what they want to do, and go after it. Retrospectively, for most of us, connecting career dots is like Monday morning quarterbacking. Much appears to be random, dynamic or simply the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Nevertheless, parents are essential partners on a young adult’s career journey, but not infrequently taken completely off guard and surprised by the outcome.

Upon personal request, some colleges offer vocational-interest tests followed by a one-on-one session to interpret the results. Matching interest inventories with persons in a particular field can be amusing, but, like eharmony.com matches, it provides valuable information. In addition, most faculty members are pleased to discuss career options with individual students, but expectations must be reasonable.

U.S. schools are precluded from releasing performance information to third parties, such as a potential employer, unless a student grants permission. Juniors in college, especially if they are undecided on the next step in their career, can be encouraged to complete one or more graduate-study entrance exams. At a minimum, seniors should enroll with the university placement center, seek letters of recommendation, and sign-up for on-campus interviews.

In March 2014, the Career Development Quarterly published the results of a study based on 231 college students on vocational identity and career decision-making. As expected, it found fewer difficulties with career decision-making among students who had emotionally established themselves as individuals, the “I position.” Interestingly, however, emotional independence and realistic career choice were significantly associated with a healthy level of attachment to parents. It appears that separation alone does not lead to healthy career development. What is significant is the quality of family interactions surrounding the separation process. Young adults make educational and vocational decisions in the midst of differentiating themselves from their family of origin. Anxiety, symptomatic distress and an inability to make personal decisions are correlated with family over-involvement, on the one hand, and unresolved family dynamics on the other.

The authors of the career development study admit that a young adult’s emotional fusion with parents can actually lead to a certain level of borrowed certainty about career choice, but, unless alternatives are considered, autonomous decision-making is delayed. They recommend facilitating open discussions between parents and students on career decision-making and working together on this process. They warn that premature or emotionally charged cutoffs between parents and young adults are inversely related to career development.

Parents, you see, serve although they only stand and wait.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell, 2009.

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