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The launch: Parents prepare for child's transition to independence

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Brooke Morgan's career plans grew out of the balance beam and vault. The 17-year-old from Southlake, Texas, plans to become a physical therapist, to help others recover from injuries like she had as a competitive gymnast.

Jared Dickson, 17, of Oak Harbor, Wash., plans to become a dentist, but right now he's working on scholarships to help pay for college.

As these two stand on the brink of adulthood, they have concrete ideas about what they need to do next to reach their goals. Many parents and children pondering what comes after high school don't have a plan. Not planning, experts agree, is bad news for future success, even though plans may change. But how does one prepare and what's realistic in a tight and changing job market, where continued education and training are more important than they have ever been?

A recent Gallup poll found a very high number of parents think their children will graduate from high school; 96 percent strongly or mostly "know" it. That's higher than the national reality, 73 percent, according to Education Week. Those same parents, though, are far less sure their children will find a good job later — 38 percent are certain and 28 percent nearly so.

"Whatever a high school diploma meant when today's parents were in high school, it doesn't mean that any more," said Jeff Livingston, college and career readiness expert for McGraw-Hill Education. It's the beginning of education, not the end.

The starting point

A diploma used to signify readiness for a job that didn't require specialized training. "Employers don't believe it means that any more," he said.

To succeed, families need a plan, even if it will change as career goals do. Specific beats vague to smithereens. “ ‘Get a job and get a couple of years' experience and maybe go to college sometime' is not a plan," Livingston said. “ ‘Work at the factory down the street that will hire with a high school diploma, then go to state university' is a plan."

Students and parents often engage in magic thinking, he said. That describes the girl who wants to be a lawyer but doesn't know she'll need both undergraduate and law school degrees. Figuring out the steps is largely up to families, Livingston said. "Resource-deprived schools have less and less capacity to do that."

Meanwhile, the economic downturn is teaching a generation of graduates that "people without plans tend to be people who aren't doing anything," he said. It's a jobless and joyless situation.

Besides that, some 17-year-olds are treated like they are 9, which doesn't help, he said. Children need responsibility and guidance to assume it. "The families that are the least happy are those who allow their kids to think of the first year of college as 13th grade. It's a step on the path toward independence or it's not. Have conversations with students as young as 14 or 15 so they begin thinking in subconscious ways, 'it's my responsibility, not that of my mother.’ ”

Daughters Sierra, 21, Emily, 19, and Amy, 17, have been blessed to always find a job, said Rima Pfeil of Plainfield, Ind. Sierra and Emily followed high school with college, as will Amy and youngest sister Marina, 15. They know how to work and to network. Pfeil and her husband, Robert, gave them chores and responsibility and taught budgeting. They know college is their best bet for getting ahead.

Three kinds of skills

Success requires academic, technical and employability skills, said Steve DeWitt, spokesman for the Association for Career and Technical Education in Alexandria, Va. Everyone needs a foundation in literacy, math and science, which most schools provide, but kids must also see how to use that knowledge in real situations they might face. They often lack employability skills like ethics, working in teams, being on time. "It's not stuff you can test in a regular classroom."

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