Dear Dr. Wes and Kelly: My 19-year-old son has decided that he is not going to go back to college. His father and I don’t know what to do in response. We set aside money for that purpose, not to keep him in an apartment just to work. We also don’t really know how to handle him moving home if we don’t support him in an apartment. We also don’t know how to respond to him not wanting to be in college anymore. It seems like he’s throwing his life away.
Kelly: There are some people in this world who, coming right out of high school, already have their own sense of direction and know what they want to do in life. Others tend to take a more ambiguous path, not yet sure of what the future will hold for them. As parents, it’s understandable that you want your children to abide by what you expect of them. Unfortunately, there are some kids who have quite the opposite supposition.
Although most of us appreciate the importance of furthering our education and urge others to do so, there are many who haven’t gone to college and others who have attended but don’t plan on going back quite yet. Your son’s decision raises much skepticism, but if he does choose this path, it’s not necessarily the end of his life. First, you have to find out where your child may be coming from. Possibly he wants to take a break and have the opportunity to get on his feet. He may not have lost sight of any of his ambitions and wants to take a different spin on life for a while. If you do attempt to force him into attending college, chances are you will be wasting your money.
I recommend you try giving your son an ultimatum or come to a reasonable agreement. Sit down and discuss the terms and costs of each option. If he expects you to pay for an apartment, then you should expect him to get a steady job and eventually earn the money to pay his own bills. Another option could be to have him live at home with you and he pay his board there, until he decides he wants to attend school.
As supportive as you want to be for your son, it’s more important for him to learn what it’s like to be an adult. Keep in mind that these are his actions, and he must bear the consequences.
Wes: Beneficence. It’s better to practice it than to know how to define it — but I’ll do so anyway. To be beneficent is to do an act of goodness for someone that actually helps him or her in the long run. This seems so simple until you have to put it into practice, at which time you realize that not all acts of kindness are really helpful.
Nowhere is this a more difficult lesson than when it involves our children. At this point in your son’s life you want to be sure you think very carefully about what is and isn’t helpful. Kelly is quite correct. Regardless of whether he goes to college or to work, your son needs to continue the transition to adulthood, and you must not accidentally get in his way. Every bit of the time, energy and money you spend on him right now should be working toward that goal.
In general, some form of post-secondary education is necessary for a young person to compete for a good job or to be successful in business. Obviously there are exceptions, but on average people who learn a trade or get a degree are going to make a LOT more money than their peers with high school diplomas. So setting aside money for school is clearly beneficent. Releasing that money for any other purpose is not — and it probably will cost you if you have it in a tax-exempt college fund. While I can’t know more about your case than you’ve shared, I’d suggest you resist any requests in that direction.
If your son moves home, it is not beneficent to let him do so without restriction. The reasonable agreement Kelly mentions must include a detailed list of what you expect your son to do in terms of employment, household chores, times he may come and go, guests he may wish to have over, banned substances, etc. At the top of the list, there needs to be an understanding that living at home is now a privilege and not a right. Next should be an exit strategy. Author Steven Covey suggests that we begin with the end in mind, so a move-out plan should be created before your son unpacks his bags. You should obviously be nice about this, but you should be firm. Set benchmarks along the way and reasonable deadlines.
As for college, I’d give him some time to figure that one out. Lots of people have found that entering college in their early 20s is superior to doing so in their late teens. However, crucial to that decision is you not providing your son with too much comfort in life. A few years working and paying his bills at $10 an hour and your son will probably find his way back to school. Luckily for him, he’ll have all that money — and a bit more in interest — waiting. He’ll be thankful that in your wise and beneficent way you did not indulge him before he was ready to use that money wisely.
Next week: My daughter is tight-lipped about boys.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.