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Parents: Helicopter, Submarine Or Booster Rocket?

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A bright, articulate accounting major, just a few months away from graduation, visited my office. As we discussed what kind of position and in what type of accounting firm she wanted to work, it became increasingly clear that she did not have a passion, let alone a real interest, in becoming an accountant. My question: “What do you really want to be?” Her answer: “A writer!”

My follow up: “So why did you become an accounting major?” Her response really floored me. “Because that’s all my parents would pay for!”

Another time, a parent called me to say he wanted his son to become an accountant. Why? “It is a solid, respectable career where he can make a decent living. After he has a good source of income and fall-back position, he can study what he really wants.” Both of these students will have to earn 150 credits over a 4-year period studying something they have little interest in!

As parents, it is a given that we love our children and want what’s best for them. How do we go about making that happen? (1) The child makes his own career decision or (2) the parents make the choice. The best approach is somewhere in between with somewhat more emphasis on option 1.

A parent may say, “I’m paying for your education; therefore I need to have at least a major, if not the whole, part in the decision.” However, a parent has to be extremely careful not to be biased by:

(1) An assumption that I know you better than you know you. This “Father Knows Best” approach implies that I, the parent, have more life experience and it is in your best interest to listen to me, or you are too immature to make this decision.

(2) The fear that you will not be successful in pursuing your career choice. The toxic message here could be that you are not smart, ambitious or passionate enough about your choice to succeed.

(3) An unfulfilled dream on the part of the parent. Failing to become what you, the parent, wanted to be, does not give you the right to encourage or force your child to fulfill your dreams.

Given my dual role as a parent and Director of Career Services, I have a unique perspective that I want to share, along with some specific suggestions, on how to navigate this path. If a parent asked me for my advice regarding helping his young adult find the right career for her, here is what I would suggest:

Know the awesome influence you have as a parent. Children will hear what you say or don’t say; non-verbal messages speak volumes and are extremely potent. For example, rolling your eyes when a child says he would like to be a __________ may cause his idea to be forever discarded. There was a NY subway sign a few years ago that showed a picture of a child’s eyes and ears and labeled them as the “most sensitive recording devices known to mankind!” Think about the messages you received from your parents that stayed with you long after you left home. We need to be extremely careful what we communicate to our children. Our work and life experiences will certainly influence our views. One parent confided, “Finding a job is the most difficult task in the world.” A few days later his son was sitting in my office saying, “Finding a job is the most difficult task in the world!” We talk about parents being “helicopter parents” hovering over their child’s progress at school and even on the job. I would like to suggest another label, “submarine parents,” who can undermine a child’s choices without the child consciously noticing it; this approach in the name of love can surely sink a child’s real purpose.

Build your offspring’s self-esteem. Children are very impressionable and need a parent’s love, compassion, respect and patience as they progress through their growing years. Allowing children to practice their decision-making skills early on is excellent preparation for the more complex decisions later in life. You can be like the “booster rocket” that provides the initial lift-off for your child’s growth and then “kicks in” whenever there is a need for extra thrust.

Encourage exploration. Many times students come to Career Services and say, “I want to be a __________.” When questioned they often admit they do not really understand what it means to be, say, a financial analyst. As a parent, you can say, “I do not know what career is best for you, let’s explore the options together.” Make it clear that the final decision is up to them, but you are ready to assist. Encourage them to research what the career is all about. Contact us to find about doing an Informational Interview.

Be aware of what is “normal” when trying to find the “right” career; this should be a labor of love. It requires work, but when the direction is right for the child, it will be exciting and rewarding.

Know that just as life is not straightforward, searching for the right career can be downright messy! There is a statistic that is bandied around in the career counseling circles that people change careers, not jobs within careers, but actual careers, anywhere from 4 to 7 times. While I have not seen any studies that substantiate this claim, I know that people do change careers more often than in previous generations. Sometimes it takes a career or two to get to the best fit.   The work to find the “best fit” career is not always easy, but it is ultimately extremely rewarding.

Be a role model. Some students go about their day in a self-absorbed fog, like the world was created for them, and they are entitled to receive, but not give. For the most part this mindset does not bring success in the work world. What can a parent do to rectify this mindset? Help your child to be sensitive to the needs of others. Cultivate respect for others, good personal habits, common courtesy and being responsible; impart the crucial message that you, my child, are not entitled to anything in this world – you need to take the actions to achieve the goal you set for yourself – so, aim high!

Ask Hashem to help. Finally, if I could be so presumptuous as to propose a prayer for parents, it would read something like this: “Master of the World, with regard to helping my child find a career, may I honor my son’s desires, strengths and likes, and support him to look into the options without overtly or covertly coercing him to follow my ways. Let my son find his own way and let his career be aligned with his purpose in life, just like Betzalel in our Holy Torah. May I be a source of encouragement and a contributor to his self confidence that he will find what works for him. For the ultimate growth of my child, may I not be a helicopter or submarine parent, but rather like the booster rocket to propel him to reach great heights! Thank You!”

Your feedback is welcome. Please email your career-related inquiries and/or feedback to tourocareerservices@gmail.com.

Touro College’s Career Services assists Touro students and alumni in all aspects of their career search.  The author of this article is S. Ronald Ansel, MBA, Certified Professional Coach, Director of Career Services.

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