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Trying Life On...
Editor's Note from Susan Richman: Jeannette Webb is founder of Aiming Higher Consultants, a high school planning and college consulting firm dedicated to helping homeschooled students reach their potential and successfully apply to their dream colleges. Learn more at www.aiminghigherconsultants.com. Jeannette has also been a keynote speaker at our Summer PHAA High School at Home Conference held in Central PA, and she always sends wonderful homeschool students our way for our AP Online classes. We know many families who have been truly blessed by Jeannette's down-to-earth guidance in thinking ahead to college and career and life goals.
I am troubled as an educational counselor when I come across a student who hasn’t really lived. Sadly, I have to report that it is more common than you might imagine.
The parents of these kids often operate at opposite ends of the continuum. The laid-back parents surround their kids in a bubble-like existence – protected from themselves and from others. These parents want their kids to be happy. They want them to have fun. They screen any potential problems or consequences. Thus these kids don’t challenge themselves. They take dumbed down high school classes, hang with the youth group, and play video games. They never really get out in the real world and figure it out. I have found this route doesn’t make kids happy even though it looks like fun.
At the other end of the scale are the ambitious parents who follow someone else’s checklist of “Things Teens MUST Do To Get Into Good Colleges.” These kids are forced to follow THE LIST and compile a killer resume that reeks of academic competition wins, multiple 5’s on AP tests, and near professional competency in an extracurricular activity only to realize they don’t really like any of the school subjects they performed so well in and don’t have a clue what they want to do with their life. These parents have mistakenly believed that real life is found in tests and competitions. This route doesn’t promote happiness or fun.
Either approach leads to some pretty listless living.
Real living is messy and dirty and often filled with mistakes. It is trying things that seem impossible and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. It is caring enough to make a difference. It is chasing something fascinating all the way to the end, whatever that end might be, good or bad. Real living asks that we help our kids confront themselves honestly - to celebrate the things they like, but also work actively to change the things they don’t.
Real living is about pushing up against perceived boundaries until they find their true potential. And the possibilities are much larger and richer than most students or parents realize. I’ve worked with kids for over thirty years now and I can promise you that most teens are capable of much more than people give them credit for! How can we help our kids really live?
Follow the Rabbit Trails
From the time my kids were small, we chased these trails. Interested in nature? We bought butterfly nets, rock picks, magnifying glasses, and microscopes and then proceeded to explore. Interested in crocheting? We bought yarn, enlisted grandma’s help, bought how-to books and mastered the skill. Interested in history? Three huge bookshelves later, we’ve read through most of the major time periods. Interested in physics? We found a mentor at the local college and for years my son spent several hours a week in his lab. Austin was eight when this started.
Built up a Repository of Experiences
When kids are young, rabbit trails are pretty much about skill development. I would see an interest flicker and quickly follow up with books, tools, and teachers. Our life was rich in experience. They became competent at many things from academic subjects to hobbies to public speaking. They were trying on different skills and discovering what they were good at as well as figuring out they could become good at something important if they worked hard enough.
As they get older, the trails become possible career paths. Be forewarned that you have to invest time and often money to get a clear picture of where this kid should head. Often you are a ways down the trail before you discover that you are chasing the wrong one. Sometimes interest dies and the trail ends. But, when rabbit trail turns into larger road, it is time to job shadow.
In my experience, most kids try on many possible selves before they find the one that fits. They take the interests and skills they’ve developed over the years and experiment to see which one is the real deal. When they have developed competency in an area and are fairly sure this might be a good fit, it is time to hang out with people who do this for a living. They need to start by doing the research to discover what the educational requirements are for this career, what the starting salary is, what kind of a future does this career have, and what the lifestyle is like as a new professional (most new lawyers are shocked at the 80 hours a week they are required to put in). They can talk to parent’s friends or someone at church who is in that career. They can request an interview with a professional they don’t know to get a feel for the job. Later, they can ask to spend the day following them around and maybe volunteer in their lab or business. The more your students submerse themselves in the career they are considering, the better the choices they will make for their future.
Let me give you several examples of how my daughter tried life on.
From the age of seven, my daughter loved her violin. We were on a rabbit trail. We went to hear famous violinists, purchased violin concerto CDs, and started saving for a good instrument. By the time she was 12, she was practicing 4-5 hours a day just because she wanted to. Her teacher started talking about music conservatory. The trail had turned into a road. We started taking music theory lessons, spent time watching a teacher instruct younger students to learn the skill of music pedagogy, opened her own violin studio to teach others, started entering competitions, auditioned and got accepted into the top youth orchestra in the state, formed a quartet group, and went to summer music camp. We spent an entire day each week on music: a 4 hour commute, 2 hours spent in pedagogy instruction, an hour lesson, quartet rehearsal, then youth orchestra rehearsal. She began to job shadow. She hung out with a professional music couple and plied them with questions. She observed their lifestyle. She talked to anyone who would talk to her about music.
All in all we invested a great deal of time and money pursuing something she loved. All her friends who were that serious automatically went to conservatories or majored in music at college. But Natalie had seriously looked at the lifestyle and at herself. She had asked a million questions. By the time she applied to college, she had decided that she wanted to keep music for love. However, all that effort was not wasted. Her fabulous musical skill set, coupled with stellar test scores and rigorous academics, landed her in a great college. She took violin lessons all four years at school and not only kept her skills up (most kids lose their skills once they leave home), but actually improved. Her violin was her de-stressor when her engineering classes were really frustrating. Now that she is a career woman, she has joined other professionals in a quartet group to play for pleasure. Music will be something that will enrich the rest of her life, thus I don’t regret any of the time or money we spent.
Music; however, was not the only piece of life she tried on.
After taking an amazing AP Biology class with PA Homeschoolers her sophomore year, Natalie found she really loved genetics. That spring she approached a genetics professor at our local university to see if he would let her conduct genetics research over the summer. He agreed and soon discovered her competency. She was turned loose with a graduate level project and allowed to use ultra-expensive lab equipment. She found out that she was really, really good in a lab. She also found out that she did not want to spend her life waiting on things to grow in a petri dish.
Because she spent so many hours practicing her violin, we took her to a physical therapist at a fairly young age to avoid repetitive stress injuries. After many visits and getting to know this wonderful therapist, Natalie started exploring the possibilities of that profession. Her hands, made strong by years of practice, were perfect for manual therapy. She was smart enough to handle the rigors of PT school. She loved the idea of helping people. It would be a great mommy job in that she could work part time. She started studying anatomy. Then she began to job shadow. However, after spending time with multiple physical therapists in the hospital watching gruesome wound care and observing patients who did nothing to help themselves, she decided she did not have the patience or the stomach for the job. Plus, there would be a lot of debt from the three years of professional school and she was not willing to encumber herself.
After exploring many possible career fits, Natalie finally made a list of her priorities in a career and then went in search of a job that fit. Here was her list:
1. She did not want to go to graduate school. My daughter is a fairly traditional woman and wants to homeschool the multiple children she hopes to have. Thus, the extra years required, the opportunity cost, and the debt often produced by graduate school did not resonate with her goals.
2. She wanted a well-paying job that would allow her to save quickly for the future.
3. She wanted a life. Translated that means a regular 8-hour work day with evenings and weekends to pursue her music and ministry commitments. She did not want to travel in her work.
4. She wanted something that would utilize her skill set. Natalie’s AP classes with PA Homeschoolers showed her that she had great skill in detail work. Math gave her an adrenaline rush. Science was a joy. Economics was fascinating.
5. She wanted something that would honor the way God hard-wired her personality (check out Do What You Are by Paul and Barbara Tieger).
After laying down these rules for her search, she found herself in engineering. Once again, she started talking to engineers. She did start college without knowing exactly what kind of engineering she would major in, but she knew she was headed that direction. Once she found her area, Operations Research and Financial Engineering, she still applied the above rules. Thus, the usual job for this type of major (found on Wall Street) was out of the question because of the crazy hours. Today, she is extremely happy working as an actuary. The job meets all her requirements and more!
Students need to try life on in high school in order to make a wise next step. The type of major they want will determine the school they choose. Not all universities are created equal, nor are all the programs at any one university at the same level.
Once they get to college, indecision can be ultra expensive. Mike McCormack of People Right Careers estimates that every time your student changes their major, it costs you $10,000. The average student changes majors 2-3 times in the college career. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have an extra $30,000 sitting around.
I’ve seen students get through a complete four-year degree and then not have job options because they majored in something stupid. I’ve also seen kids with new diplomas hate the field they are in or realize for the first time that the salary of the job they thought they wanted won’t support a family.
When you help your kids try life on, you add a rich dimension to their world so that high school becomes a meaningful time filled with discovery. College is purposeful and professional life is rewarding. Time spent early on prevents a great deal of pain later.
Jeannette Webb is founder of Aiming Higher Consultants, a high school planning and college consulting firm dedicated to helping homeschooled students reach their potential and successfully apply to their dream colleges. Learn more at aiminghigherconsultants.com
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