by Ron Nichols
Each new school year brings excitement, hope and sometimes, uneasiness for our children. Recently my college-age son and I fell into a conversation that lasted the better part of an evening.
We talked about what he’s interested in, course work he’s going to take, and I tried to help him discover what he really wants to do in the future. I kept pressing him about what he really wants to do, not just finishing his degree, as if that were an end in itself, when his heart really isn’t in it; and not just so he has something to say when people ask him about his plans, because some college kids appear to have their futures laid out for them. I pushed him to think beyond and dream a little bit and really find something that’s his passion in life rather than letting the tyranny of the urgent take over his thinking.
We had a great time together. It was fun to brainstorm with questions like, “What are the possible careers that would capitalize on your main passions in life?” And, “Who do we know that you could talk to about that line of work, who could share their experiences and give you some ideas?” And, “What kinds of questions would you ask that person?” “What’s the most important thing you’d like to learn from him?”
Here at the National Center, we encourage all dads to be highly involved in their children’s education—at school and at home. And I’m convinced that our involvement should also include some discussions about longer-term goals for our children.
If your child is in his first few years of school, your number one goal for him should not be about learning to read at a certain level. (That’s important, but it isn’t number one.) It’s more important that he enjoys school and experiences success in some areas. Those will carry him further toward educational success through the years.
For older students, we can help them step back from the daily details of their education and look at the big picture. In the midst of term papers and quizzes, and “This teacher is hard,” and “That class is worthless,” it’s important to help our children think through longer-term questions—and the process is good for us as fathers, too. What are our children’s dreams, and what steps can we take now to help them reach those dreams? Extend their horizons and their vision a little bit.
I’m sure you know that kids feel a lot of pressure today about keeping up educationally. “So-and-so has already lined up a job for after college, and I’m still deciding on a major!” My son was really worried about his future. His uncertainty bothered him intensely; he really wanted to know how things are going to turn out. Even with younger kids, there’s a lot of comparing and wondering if they measure up.
Performance or Discovery?
So much of our culture is about performance, performance, performance—and we do want them to do their very best. But shouldn’t our children’s education be a little less about performance, and more about discovery? It’s okay to be different, and it’s okay to have uncertainty. It’s okay if they don’t know exactly what they want to do, because majors change, careers change, life changes. Those are pretty much a given. I’m more concerned that my children don’t start feeling overwhelmed by the choices they have, or burdened that they don’t have clear answers.
For some children and teens, graduating may be a huge accomplishment. Others might talk about a particular career, interest or calling on their lives. Keep asking pointed questions—not in a way that puts pressure on your kids, but to help them keep looking to the future and discovering how their desires and dreams might translate into a future calling. Also, remember that our children’s friends may not have anyone encouraging them to think ahead. We can ask them questions and influence their future as well.
And let’s not forget that these are times of discovery for fathers, too. I wouldn’t have known the depth of my son’s concern about his future had I not spent the time and made the effort to have that conversation. But now I have a greater awareness of what he’s passionate about and what he’s feeling. I can be more sensitive to that, and I’m doing what I can to help him address those issues.
I should mention, too, that this process has pulled us a little closer as a father and son. He opened up about something tough, and now I’m partnering with him on this. I’m utilizing whatever resources and relationships I have to help him.
Discovery is the word, dad. It’s the word for our children, as they grow and learn about the world and where they fit in it; and discovery is key for us as we grow in our awareness of our children and find new levels of connection with them.
● Get a calendar of your child’s class activities and field trips and start planning now to volunteer for one … or a bunch, if you’re able.
● Make it a habit to have small—but memorable—celebrations when your child succeeds in some way at school—in academics, athletics, matters of integrity and character, etc.
● Identify another couple near you who has children 3 or 4 years older than yours and make a point to talk with them regularly to gain insights about their experiences with their children, what they would do differently, etc.
● Do you have children in college? Call them and reminisce about their first day of kindergarten.
Ron Nichols is former Director of Training at the National Center for Fathering.