Many apparently or so-called well-intentioned people can be quite domineering when children are concerned. They have expectations for a child's future and push the child to abide by them. Even in teens, young people can be vulnerable to adult pressure, and living up to parents' expectations can be quite demanding. Yet pressure groups in society at large can also try to impose their ambitions on young people and use the school system to do it. A young person's career choices should flow from who they are, and so educators should not impose, but should attempt to facilitate self-awareness and empower children for their future choices.
A Child's Future
Parents and educators should enable children to choose their life rather than imposing career expectations on them.
The sixth form college at which I worked was having open night for potential students. For non-British readers, these colleges take students from sixteen upwards prior to university entrance. The routine was that staff sat at desks and students came to them to discuss career choices. Which is why I was there. A girl approached, followed by her beaming father. I took her name and began the discussion by asking what she wanted to be. She had no chance to answer as Dad spoke for her.
"She wants to be a doctor."
I replied that she had to answer for herself, and she sullenly concurred with her Dad. Yes, she wanted to be a doctor, she said without any enthusiasm. I knew what was happening. It was his ambition, not hers. Then I looked at her predicted grades, and I inwardly groaned. She was predicted some reasonable pass grades, Bs and Cs, but for medical school you need As and A*s. Medical school is hard. I had one very intelligent lad who attained six A*s and 5 As at his GCSEs, which you sit at sixteen. But Birmingham medical school refused him an interview, as they require minimum 7 A*s. He managed to enter medicine in the end, so all's well that ends well. But that's the level of the competition.
I told her the grade requirements and asked did she believe that she could achieve them. I tactfully [I hope] suggested that she might need a back up plan and that getting into medicine was hard.But she was confident of success [she said] and father beamed in delight. They went away and I do not know what became of her.
This was a classic case of a child being pressured into a career for which she was not suited. Sometimes the parents impose a career choice on the child, but at other times they encourage a child in an unsuitable career choice, and the main reason is their own ambition for status. There is a status game being played, in which parents gain social superiority according to how well their children are doing: which university they have got into, what career they have and so on.
Sometimes in some minority cultures it is a competition of family status, but the competition among mothers in some communities can be fierce. Mother wants to be seen as one who gets her children into the best university, and she has the one-up on a mother whose children are not so well blessed. Some fathers press their sons into trying a sporting career, as they want to see their son walk on the pitch for their favourite team. Often this ends in tears.
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The Fundamental Mistake
"You are intelligent, you should go to university and try for a top career. You could be a doctor, lawyer, executive and so and so on." The list goes on. Parents dream of their child having a great career in a profession. Yet we find pressure groups pushing their agenda. We now have people telling girls that they should aim to be a chief executive, because that would be a blow for female equality. Yet this sort of equality hardly addresses the needs of most people. There are few CEOs going round the world, and most people, I included, could not even dream of that position. I managed to reach chief examiner for three years before the small board for which I work was taken over and the exam ended.
There are problems with this pressure. Many children feel bullied by adult expectations. I remember when I was teaching careers a young girl saying that she thought I might tell her off for her ambition. I promised not to, and she said that she wanted to be a housewife. My response was "It's your life and your decision. It is an honourable choice, but get a skill so that you can work when you need money." She saw the strength of my explanation. Strangely, had she aspired to be CEO of a company dealing in arms rather than a wife and mother she might not have felt social opprobrium.
More fundamentally, intelligence alone is not enough. A child needs to be emotionally suitable for the career that they choose. A teenager with a high intelligence might not have the emotional strength for certain jobs. The trouble is that the parents do not have a knowledge of the inner depths of their child's mind, for no human can see into the mind of another, no matter how close they are to them. Often our teenage children are mysteries to us. So no parent an be sure that their child can cope with what the parent wants for them. Parents and educators need the humility to accept that there are aspects of their child's emotional life that they cannot know. The parental pride that does not accept that its knowledge is limited makes a victim of the child, for it drives young people down an unhappy path.
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When we hear educationists talking we often hear about success at examinations, careers and so on. But rarely do we hear them asking what makes a child happy. Parents as well have ambitions for their child, but often these ambitions are for top jobs, career success, high status, money and so on. Yes, they want their child to be happy, but too often they assume that happiness comes with status and wealth. Furthermore, many people assume that what makes them happy makes their children or pupils happy.
John Stuart Mill, writing in On Liberty, pointed out that the one best qualified to know what makes a person happy is that person, and he rejected the paternalism that claims " I know what makes you happy better than you do." Mill was adamant that this is wrong. I once heard the following statement, "Of course I know what makes him happy, I'm his mother." She didn't and to this day, years later, he resents the pressure that she put on him [I am not talking about myself here.]
Parents and educators need to accept that their charges are on a process of self-discovery, and what they want in life becomes clear over time, but to them not us. For example, my daughter dropped out of a university course, and abandoned her desire to be a teacher. I had had reservations about her teaching, but later on while working as a nursery nurse, she took an interest in social work. She returned to university, achieved a 2:1 degree and now is doing very well in a social work career. Neither I nor her mother had even thought that she would be happiest in choosing this path, and she had not thought of it, but it was right for her, as she found out in her twenties.
We parents and educators need to have the humility and wisdom to know that we are not mind readers. We cannot know the depths of our children's minds and the currents that flow therein. We should advise, but never impose; and we should have the patience to realize that our children need time for their decisions to be made. We do not own our children, we care for them. Our parental authority does not stretch to controlling their future careers. We should be primarily concerned that our children choose the path that makes them happy, rather than the path that gives us status. We need to facilitate the child's choices, not impose our own.
Photo at the top by Alexandr Vasilyev