Parenting Your High School Graduate

By: Ellen Gibran-Hesse

I am a life coach for parents with young adults who have failed to launch and for young adults navigating the early years of independence. I am also a lawyer and single mom. I have two sons and my youngest, Richard, is just about ready to finish high school. We applied to about six colleges just before Thanksgiving, a rite that I had just done four years ago with his older brother, and now are waiting to hear back for the winning selections. It is worse than Oscar night. Many friends and family tease me about the empty nest. What will I do with the “kids" gone? I reply that is a fantasy that is one of the best kept secrets. No one wants to admit that in this day and age, we have many young adults not leaving home or coming back home after failed attempts out on their own or after college. The latest number is 18 million young adults living at home and not because they want to do so. The young adult leaving home after 18 was traditional for previous generations, but it is not reality for our generation.

What is going wrong is that no one is preparing our young adults for independence. We want to believe as parents that the schools and colleges are doing that, but they aren’t. We have both parents working these days and many single parents also working. As parents, we have been lulled into thinking that somehow the schools will launch our kids into adulthood. The sad fact is that our schools are doing a worse job than they ever have. As Dr. Mel Levine says in his book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, our high schools have become college prep institutions. This was not the case just 30-40 years ago. The high schools then had been to prepare the student with skills to enter the adult world. There is virtually no preparation in that direction today. The focus is to create better students for college and to obtain better test scores for funding. The student is a product, not a human. But without better parenting and parental involvement at this development stage, we are going to continue to see lost dependent young adults because the fact is, schools are not going to change any time soon.

Right now, according to a Time Magazine article in 2006, about 1/3 of our high school students are dropping out. I’ve seen statistics that about 1/3 of our high school students are going to college. That leaves about 1/3 who are simply graduating and trying to find their way. If high schools have become college prep institutions, they are failing 2/3 of our students. When I went to high school, there were three “tracks" to better serve students and their families. There was the college track in which students took honors classes to prepare them for college. In addition, there was the business track for those going into office related jobs, and there was the technical track which included car repair and the like. The focus very much was on where students would be going after high school and how best to prepare them to work in the real world. The key here is the word, “work".

In my coaching, I try to get parents to begin a dialogue with their students in high school about what do they want to do when they grow up. No one is asking teens how they see their life after high school. If you ask any junior or senior, they will say they are going to college because that is what everyone is supposed to be doing. Those who have no intention of going will say they are going to college. We used to be able to say to friends, “I’m going to get a job at such and such and maybe go to college after a few years." You can’t say that now. Somehow work before finishing college is disgusting. Is it any wonder we have young adults returning home?

Parents still need to be involved in raising their high school student. They need to be imparting and supporting a number of skills. Teens need to start living their lives, in part, as adults. They need to wake up on their own, manage time on their own, work in areas they think they might like as a career, drive a car, manage their own money, and pay some of their own bills. Of course, a little course in cooking wouldn’t be bad. Parents look at me as if I’m nuts. Work? At a job? There’s too much homework or they have too many extracurricular activities to be involved in so that their college applications look good. But every time I have a client put their teens to work and let them manage money and pay their own gas and other bills, a miracle happens. The teen starts to mature. Work ethics don’t come with a college degree. They start in the teens or as young adults. My sons both are getting into college and both have worked. Work should accompany college plans. It is a foundation of adult life. My sons have worked at several jobs and found out which ones they don’t like and why. This is how young adults figure out where they need to go. A college major is not a job. It is too late after four years, and frequently now, five years of college and thousands of dollars to find out that you aren’t going to be working in your major.

If your young adult just isn’t the college sort, that’s fine. In fact, that’s more normal than not. They have not failed and neither have you! This is a great journey for them and you. Help them to get the training and the sort of jobs they think they are interested in. I know of many grown adults and young adults who don’t finish college. The bottom line is finding out what career path you want and you can only do that if you try it out. College will be more relevant and meaningful if you know where you are going and what you want to do. Research out of Stanford and Brown University shows that the teen brain is continuing to grow until about age 25. These are learning and developing years in the most significant sense. Both of my sons may not go the traditional route of four years of college following high school and then getting a job. I didn’t either. My oldest son has gone to two colleges and about to go to a third. He is finding what he likes, where he likes to live and who he is and that is the real goal of growing up, not a degree.

Parents are relieved when I tell them there is no path, just the illusion of one. Their job for the next 4-8 years is one of supporting and helping their young adult to find their way to independence. It is a process to be involved in and enjoyed.

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