Your child has grown up and gone off to college. Now they’re trying to decide what to do with their life. You desperately want them to succeed, so you start giving them advice.
But guess what? You’re probably the last person who can help your son or daughter at this point.
I could give you many reasons for that. But one reason looms above all the others: because you’re the parent.
That’s right, the very fact that you are the parent almost immediately disqualifies you as the best source of guidance and wisdom at this moment in your young adult’s life.
How can that be? Well, I don’t pretend to understand all that I know. I just know that while there are a ton of things parents can do along these lines while their kids are growing up, once they go off to college a shift takes place. By the time the young adult is seriously making decisions affecting their career directions, parents have become about as useful as yesterday’s newspaper (are there any young adults left who even know what newspapers are?).
There are a thousand complex factors at play when a teenager leaves home for college. But whatever else college means in our society, it means breaking away from home.
Let me repeat that: it means breaking away from home.
At one level, parents dance a jig when that happens. On the other hand, many a parent struggles with the harsh reality that by going off to college and standing on their own two feet, their son or daughter is learning not to need them as a parent.
Let me be clear, we always need our parents. But not the way we needed them when we were children.
College has become a milestone in our culture. For better or worse, college de-marks the onset of adulthood. If adulthood means anything, it means tackling life on one’s own. Not being dependent on Mom and Dad. Making one’s own decisions and being responsible for one’s own destiny.
The career decision lies at the heart of that independence.
So when you as a parent try to get in there and help your young adult make that decision, you’re sabotaging the very thing they most need, which is to exercise their independence.
Face it, once your child leaves home, you’ve done all the parenting of that child as a child that you’re ever going to do. Now the relationships slips into a whole new phase: parenting your child as an adult. Which means treating them as an adult.
Adults make decisions and live with the consequences of their decisions. You may be very alarmed by the nature of your young adult’s decisions, but you have to let them make their choices nonetheless. It’s their life.
What If They Won't Make a Decision?
“But Bill,” I hear someone saying, “that’s the problem! My son/daughter won’t make a decision!”
Oh, yes they will—but not if you’re making it easy to revert back to the old days when you as the parent accepted ultimate responsibility, and your child complied with that arrangement.
There’s an excellent book about all this by Dr. Mel Levine entitled, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. Dr. Levine explains how parents, schools, and many other forces within our culture create an unfortunate scenario in which countless young adults suffer from what he calls “work-life unreadiness.” At the very time they should be blasting off into adult orbit, they fail to launch.
I strongly encourage you to check out the details of Dr. Levine’s extremely perceptive and well-researched discussion.
For now, is there anything you can do as a parent to help your son or daughter figure out what to do with their life? To some extent, yes. . .
1. Back Away From Giving Advice
If your young adult wants your opinion, they’ll ask for it. Otherwise, stay mum. Recognize that any advice you give will always be colored and cluttered by the longstanding emotional relationship you have with your son or daughter. In other words, you’re not a neutral, objective source. You’re simply not!
2. Allow Your Young Adult to Deal With Life As It Is
I sometimes can’t tell who is having the more difficult time in the transition from childhood to adulthood—the young adult or the parent. A lot of parents are basically terrified for their son or daughter, because they know how tough life can be. They know that stuff costs money. They know that there are no guarantees in life. They know that none of us gets to live forever.
And yet knowing all that, they somehow find it impossible to let their son or daughter deal with life as it is. Especially if they have enough means to keep underwriting their young adult while they “find” themself.
Look, if you did a half-decent job of raising your son or daughter and saw to it that they got an education, the odds that they will end up on the street starving are pretty slim. But if you shelter them from life’s realities and make it comfortable for them to stay tied to you, the odds are extremely high that they never will figure life out.
I’m not saying to just kick your kid out on the street (although I recently read about one couple that went home after dropping their son off at college and promptly sold their home and moved into a one-bedroom townhouse. That kind of said it all!)
But you can establish some contracts with your young adult. Contracts are one of the ways adults treat one another: you do this, and I’ll do that; if you don’t do this, I won’t do that.
So if you’ve agreed to have your young adult live back at home for a while, at least charge them room and board. You say they don’t have a job to pay room and board? Then set up a contract for how they plan to go about finding a job—not their dream job, just any old job to make some cash. And in the meantime, in lieu of money, let them actually do some work around the house, like mowing the lawn, washing the windows, cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floor. Why pay a cleaning lady or yard crew when you’ve got a perfectly able-bodied young adult around the house?!
I didn’t say your young adult will like any of that. They won't. But that’s good! That’s the strategy! At some point they’ll figure out that living on their own would be a lot more preferable to living with Mom and Dad—and they’ll redouble their efforts to make that happen.
By setting up contracts and establishing boundaries, you’re allowing your son or daughter to experience life the way it really is.
3. Pray For a Mentor For Your Son Or Daughter
By far, THE best thing that can happen for your young adult is to find a mentor—or better yet, for a mentor to find them.
A mentor is an older adult who invites a young adult into the adult world. If we had an army of mentors, we could change the game for the Millennial generation almost overnight. I believe that with all my heart, because I’ve seen it again and again with own eyes.
A mentor can do what you as a parent long to do but can’t do because of your emotional history with your son or daughter: they can speak into his/her life from a neutral perspective.
What young adults mostly need is not advice but perspective. A good mentor hears out what a young adult has to say and then says, “Well, let me tell you what I’ve seen.” And then they tell their story.
Young adults love stories. And when a young adult hears an older adult talk about their experience of life, they can do the math. They can see how choices matter. They can see that some courses of action work better than others. They can see that someone normal (as the parent, you are not “normal” for young young adult) has walked this path before them and survived, so maybe they’ll be able to do it, as well.
But even more than any of that, the fact that an older adult spends time with a young adult has a very powerful way of inspiring them to act like an adult and start taking responsibility for adult things. Like choosing a path.
Unfortunately, you can’t manufacture mentoring relationships. There’s too much chemistry involved. So I have no simple formula for how your son or daughter can find or be found by a mentor. If s/he were on the lookout for one, that could help. But most young adults are not at all proactive in this regard, and most probably have no clue that they even need a mentor.
If a lot of older adults realized how desperately young adults need mentors, and how they could serve those young adults by grabbing them for lunch or a Starbucks and building a relationship with them, that could help, too. But I’m afraid most older adults are either too self-absorbed to make the effort, or too self-effacing to believe they have anything to offer.
That’s why I urge parents to pray for mentors for their young adult. Because sometimes it almost seems like it will take a miracle to make that happen.
There is, of course, one thing you could do—although it has nothing to do with your own son or daughter. You could become a mentor to some other young adult. I’ll post more thoughts about this in the coming weeks and months. But the point is that whereas your own young adult will not be able to hear you, a young adult you’re not related to will.
And by that means, you may become an answer to prayer for some other parent out there. Because I guarantee there are millions of parents right now getting down on their knees every night and begging God to work things out for their son or daughter who seems so lost—kind of the way you beg God to help your son or daughter figure it all out.
Wouldn't it be amazing if most all of those prayers have already been answered—through the millions of Baby Boomer parents who cannot reach their own adult children, but could be invaluable to someone else's?
Question: What's been your experience in "launching" a young adult?
NEXT POST ON BillHendricks.net: The Answer to Every Question Is "Who?"