Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: I am frustrated with my son. Now is the time to be submitting his college applications, and he is telling me now that he wants to lay out a year. We have a lot of this paid for because we have had 529 accounts since that law was created, but the rest he needs to earn in scholarships. I’m afraid he’s wasting an opportunity. He says he’ll be more ready to go in another year. I say he’ll never go if he doesn’t go now.
Wes: This is one of those situations where you’re both right. I’ve really changed my thinking on this over the years, as kids seem more inclined than ever to squander great opportunities. If your son says he’s not ready to go to college, then maybe he knows himself better than you do. Maybe he’s heading off a disaster before it happens. I have a whole subspecialty of young adults who should have laid out a year or two and gained some perspective and maturity. Instead they wasted scarce resources on a college career spent drinking and flunking out. I’ve also seen kids who did OK in school but ended up at 22 with a degree they didn’t want or couldn’t use because they lacked the vocational identity to plan for a career. Once again, precious savings or student loan monies went down the drain. Typically the problem involves putting too much distance between the young person and the bill. No parent should pay every dollar of college expense. If kids don’t carry at least a small part of their expenses, they are less likely to value their educational purchases. Free things aren’t usually taken as seriously as those we earn ourselves.
On the other hand, your son should give some serious thought to why he’s doing this and what he’s going to do instead of college. If the plan is to sit around your house, eat your food, play your XBox and be underemployed, he should seek a little more guidance before blowing off college. One of the joys of getting an education is not having to be out in the “real world” quite so soon. If he wants to work 30 to 40 hours a week, live at home under reasonable rules or move out into a cheap apartment, that might work for a couple of years. Just be sure not to stake him. If you want to spend your money on college, keep it in reserve and release it at that point. He can fund any other adventures he wishes. I’ll just warn you that it’s easy to get “stuck” with a young adult who wishes neither to toil or spin. Sam offers some good guidelines below for avoiding that situation.
As for never going back — nothing is a greater motivation for attending college than a couple of years out in the world of work, trying to make ends meet. What your son really needs to watch out for is deregulation. Without the structure of college, kids may drift into a lot of unfortunate things, some of which are difficult to reverse. As long as he avoids debt, legal problems, accidentally starting a family and addiction, he should be plenty eager and able to get back to school when the time comes, which it inevitably will.
Samantha: I can completely see why you’re worried. You don’t want the highlight of your son’s daily learning to be “The Colbert Report.” However, if you want to maintain a relationship with him, you need to at least listen to his perspective. What is his plan for the year off? You need to discuss the following:
• Work: What job would he like to hold in his year off? (He HAS to have one.) Have him meet and job-shadow someone who has his desired job. Help him brainstorm questions concerning paychecks, promotions and hours. If he plans to do volunteer work, decide if you are financially able to support him, or if you need him to take a side job to make money.
• Expenses: Does he want to live at home? Set up a rent payment. Look online for a reasonable rate in your area for a room and bathroom the size of his. Don’t forget to add costs for food, laundry and other expenses. Does he want to get an apartment in town? Don’t pay the rent. At most, give him money to pay for the apartment while he looks for a job. Remember, you don’t have to do this in a hostile way. You can help him move in and bring him a housewarming gift of his favorite food. But past moving day, your dwellings are separate. As a general rule, don’t let him visit more than once per week.
• Goals: What is his long-term plan? Find out how this time off fits into his plan for the rest of his life. Have him make a list of useful things he thinks he will get out of this break.
• Finally, have a backup plan ready for him. Have him apply to at least one school you think he is likely to get into. Tell him he does not have to go, but you don’t want him to regret not applying anywhere when all of his friends get acceptance letters in April and are gearing up for college.
Next week: How much of my daughter’s behavior is being a teenager, and how much should I intervene: This will be the first of a two-part series.