Parenting a teenager who needs to make some big decisions
December 3, 2006 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Please help me to wisely assist my reluctant teenage son choose his future and take action to achieve his goals.

My son has just finished his second last year of high school (Australia). He turns 16 in February 2007. He’s usually B+ student with very little effort. He claims to have no interest in alcohol or drugs. His main form of entertainment is computer games. He is not fit, not interested in exercise but he’s not overweight. He’s tall – over 6’. He’s naturally blonde. He’s a pacifist. He’s shy. He’s never expressed any interest in girls (or boys for that matter). He’s not interested in part-time work. Other pursuits can be a little difficult due to our lack of a car and our minimal income. He’s normally polite and friendly to his parents, and willing to help out (when asked).

He has said in the past that he’s interested in either history or computer programming (and has enjoyed doing a bit of C etc in school but is not motivated to write his own programs at home) but he can’t decide which. His dad is in IT, which means he never had to open his computer to see what was wrong. We’ve told him this decision doesn’t choosing his career for the rest of his life, just for the next three years.

So the problem is this: whenever I talk to him about his future, no matter how gentle or tactful I am, and how relaxed he was before I started, he storms off and says, “Now I’m depressed.” Usually I don’t get a chance to ask why because by this stage his body language alone is so strong that I know not to keep at him. I respect his privacy and ease off.

Next year from early February, he will be starting his final year of high school and his grades from this year will greatly affect his entry to university. He’s likely, just from innate ability, to be able to pull up a good enough score to get into any one of the 4 local universities but not necessarily into a program he likes. He has to make a decision about which universities to apply to by August.

I’m worried because I’m his mother, and because I know how hard it is to try to get a degree after you’ve left home and are working. I’m worried because I don’t want him to end up only playing computer games and living off us forever. I’ve always encouraged my kids to make their own decisions and face the consequences, but it seems like he’s satisfied with the consequences of doing nothing.

I’ve suggested websites (like the local university websites, the government going to uni website) etc. I’ve suggested alternative career pathways, a trade for example or clerical work for the government. Any of these suggestions result in an uncharacteristic response of rudeness and a brush-off.

What should I do to assist my son in making wise life choices without being an overbearing (and therefore ultimately ignored) nuisance?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You may not think so, but you really sound like you're trying to get him to figure out his life before he's even moved out of your house. Assuming you aren't, there's a good chance that's what it sounds like to him, which is what matters. Perhaps a more "apply to some universities you like, see if there's something you think you might like" approach would warm him up a bit.

Currently, he's depressed, perhaps conditioned himself to be timid and unmotivated (through no one's fault, these things happen), and is suddenly being faced with THE BIG MOVE. It's intimidating to know that soon you're going to be out on your own, and it's likely becoming a giant rock in his path.

Unmotivated -> depressed -> OH GOD I'M LEAVING MY COMFORT NEST -> depressed -> unmotivated

It's a loop.

Tell him you don't want him to figure his life out yet, because it'll take him time to do that. University tends to help people figure out what they like and don't like. Not a rule, but damn close to one. Also, if this thread goes well, consider showing him some of the better responses. (Note that this may actually be a shitty idea, and I simply don't realize it.)

In the end, I suppose you could force him to apply to schools, but he might end up hating you and the resulting experience for that reason alone. That's not a good situation, either.
posted by Mikey-San at 8:36 AM on December 3, 2006

What should I do to assist my son in making wise life choices without being an overbearing (and therefore ultimately ignored) nuisance?

He's 16. The only way to avoid being ignored is to leave him alone on this. When I was 16, the only sure-fire way to stop me from doing something I planned to do was to make helpful suggestions about doing it.

Based on what I read on Wikipedia about Australian education, it looks like a standard undergraduate degree takes 3 or 4 years, depending on school and major. That's plenty of time for him to take what he likes and change his mind a few times in the first two years.

Be there when he comes to you with questions, and maybe encourage him (if he hasn't acted by the time the deadline gets much closer) to apply to a few schools "just to see."

Even if he picks the "wrong" major and doesn't switch, it's not the end of the world. The best English teacher I ever had graduated with a degree in finance.
posted by Partial Law at 9:12 AM on December 3, 2006

Only a very, very select few 15 year olds know what they want to do with their lives. And of those who do think they know at 15, I'd guess that most end up choosing a different path all together in the end anyway.

He sounds like a bright kid, but he's just that, a kid. Have him apply to everything and anything. Keep all his options open. When it comes time to make a decision, help him with it, but definitely let him have a say in what will affect him every day of his life for the foreseeable future. Maybe he is freaked out about moving now, but by the time he's 17, he might just be chomping at the bit to get out.

But when he does get to school, it's okay to flounder a bit. University is about finding yourself as much as getting an education. Hopefully, at some point he'll stumble across something he likes, and run with it. But at 15, he can't possibly even have a clue.

Personally, I was accepted into university, and changed my major twice before (ironically enough) I ended up with a degree in computer science. If you'd asked me at 15, however, I would've said I wanted to be a marine biologist and play with the whales. For the record - I quickly realized I HATE biology, and now have a science degree that didn't require a single biology course.

He's young though... and very much still a kid. Never mind that being that age is particularly hard to deal with without even thinking about your future. Getting through the week at that age can seems daunting enough.
posted by cgg at 9:15 AM on December 3, 2006

Just because he hasn't given you the latest update on the situation doesn't mean he's putting it off, or that he hasn't even very deeply thought about it. If I get interrupted during a great brainstorming session by some wacky lady reminding me of stuff I'm doing right now thank you very much for noticing, the fact that I'm so perturbed with the interruption will result in the derailment of my original line of thinking.

The fact that you're at him all the time about it replaces what could have very likely been an active consideration of what he might be doing with a thought-traffic-jamming discouragement that makes him lose his train of thought from what might have actually been a pretty good idea.

Playing video games also gives me time to think about things, by keeping the hands and eyes busy on something else while actually thinking about something vexing me. What you may have instead of a brain-gelled Net surfer is a deep thinker looking for something to distract his basic functions while be able to concentrate on higher ponderings. There typically develops an insatiable desire to provide for oneself, in males, and being reminded of something we're constantly at odds with ourself already is very frustrating -- like a man who calls a tearful woman a crybaby -- a seeming refusal to understand that he's already thinking about it a lot, and the constant reminders are the most significant hinderance. By reminding so often, you're building up the importance of this decision so that he may be more worried that if he fails you'll be severely disappointed that he failed to meet your standards, set by the fact that you reminded him so much about it.

Just because he doesn't actively discuss it with you doesn't mean it's not an ongoing consideration -- stop repeating the plea, I am positive he knows full well it is coming up. If you're so eager that he be self-supporting, quit trying to support him with your incessant reminders -- you may seemingly be trying to push him out the door with your words, yet are still firmly grasping his shirt collar without letting him take another step.

Consider this: You probably know that women tend to talk a lot about something in order to work through it, and men tend to stew about it for a while before saying something. Without this knowledge which I'm wagering he doesn't fully realize is so, your incessant verbiage about career hunting and prying to get him to talk about it may be an insane level of pressure to make him commit to something he's not ready to even answer yet. The fact that he hasn't said anything about it AND storms out of the room to avoid you is likely a good sign that is actually is a frequent consideration. It feels like you're making him sign on the line and check [ ] history or [ ] compsci. Just lay off, for a really long time.
posted by vanoakenfold at 10:16 AM on December 3, 2006

Hells, I'm a scientist and I didn't figure out my life until half-way through my PhD. He has plenty of time.
posted by gaspode at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2006

I know you mean well. My parents did, too. My father in particular was freaked the hell out about my perceived lack of progress and made a point of reminding me of this every day. It soon became less a discussion of education than an Oedipal battle - he did everything he could to corner me, I did everything I could to escape. It never got through to me that he was right, it never got through to him that his actions weren't helping.

But school itself was always fascinating. If there's a way to just get a course catalog in the lad's hands so that he can thumb through it without you hovering over him, then you might see some progress take place naturally. Though he may be a bit shy at school, I'll wager that as the end of the year approaches and he sees his classmates moving towards college and discussing it in his vicinity, his interest in higher education will increase.

Oh, and your son's introversion is not a flaw. In fact, at university, avoiding the social disaster that is children away from home for the first time will only be to his benefit. My grades exploded the minute I stopped giving a shit about "where the party was."
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:44 AM on December 3, 2006

He's a kid. He's almost certainly getting the whole 'choose your life destiny NOW, everyone!' crap every second day at school anyway. He doesn't even have to choose for the 'next three years', it doesn't really matter what he gets into at uni first off. If he can only get into Arts and decides he wanted to do Engineering (substitute as pleased), he can transfer. Basically - it is not that big a decision.

If you don't want to support him for his whole life, just make that clear. My parents used to joke that they were going to give each of us a set of boxes to move out with for our 18th, although as we actually hit that it changed to 'rent-free and your textbooks included as long as you're actually studying' (so that when my brother failed everything, he got to start paying for his own stuff and they'll pay it back if he passes this semester). Think about what you're actually prepared to do, and tell him (once). Don't bring up uni again, at least till next year or something.

When I was in year 11 and 12, I couldn't have cared less about what I was going to do at uni. I picked software engineering after about 10 minutes of thought, on the back of less interaction with computers than he's had, and it has turned out great. I hated the fact that my parents wanted me to 'think carefully about my choices' because they were 'so important' and blah blah blah bullshit, and you sound like you have the exact same attitude as they did (that it's not the end of the world, but it's definitely VERY IMPORTANT and you really need to focus on this and take it seriously and IT'S YOUR FUTURE and you can't afford to screw this up!!!!)

I'm in my fourth year at uni (in Australia) and a large proportion of my friends, all from the 'academically high achieving and motivated' section of private schools, have dropped out or transferred and so on. They haven't ruined their lives. They're still only 21 or so.

Also, as far as choosing by August - he can change his preferences right up until he gets the offer, if he wants. Remember that you've got 8 preferences*. Fill them all in, even if that last one is done by closing his eyes and pointing. It's easier to transfer within a uni than to apply from outside, normally.

*Assuming that your state is the same as VTAC/QTAC.
posted by jacalata at 12:31 PM on December 3, 2006

I feel differently from most of the posters here. My parents pushed me very hard to figure out what I wanted to do. I was exposed to everything, and once I showed an interest in it, I was encouraged, and even forced to participate in those activities. That's why I have shelves of books on astronomy and biology, but pretty much nothing about computer programming.

When I was applying to colleges, my dad sat me down and told me to pick a major. I crossed out engineering (much to his dismay) and was choosing between English and Biology. He explained that realistically there's not a lot of money in English, and if I wanted to do that, I'd have to do something else as well. Now this may seem pretty mean (and cruel) to some of you, but for the most part it is true, and I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without this input.

While I feel that accepting your child's interests and personalities are definitely a plus, and it's wonderful that you are respecting him as a person, you are still his parents. He doesn't know that he needs to start thinking about the future, but you know from your life that it will be much easier if he figures it out. Try pushing him. He's apparently a nice kid: smart, polite, just a little shy and withdrawn. Maybe with with a little shove he can be the kind of person he will be proud of.
posted by ruwan at 1:05 PM on December 3, 2006

Does he have to go to university straight after high school? He may be rather burnt out by schooling and want to take some time off.

My boyfriend (who is Australian) took a year off after high school to go on a exchange trip to Denmark. He absolutely loved the experience and credits it for a lot of his personal development; he used to be VERY reserved and shy and self-conscious, but now he's a lot more confident and independent. I'm not sure if it affected his choice of study (he went into IT, which he's liked since he was a baby) but it did affect his leadership skills (he frequently took charge in group projects) and his focus.

I too took many gap years before now - after high school I was totally burnt out and took a year to recuperate, doing all sorts of activities and travelling. I then entered university in Malaysia (where I'm from) for about one and a half years, but around that time I realized that wasn't the place for me, so I took another year off - half a year travelling on a global education program, another half a year working. That has since led to me changing my course somewhat and moving to Australia (and meeting my boyfriend!), which is more satisfying. I also have a better sense of what I want to do with my life, which is radically different from my choices before my global education trip (from celebrity media to non-profits and social change).

The time off may be beneficial to your son. Is that an option he's interested in?
posted by divabat at 2:37 PM on December 3, 2006

I agree with the rest that pressuring him about it does no good but lack of some kind of goal at this age would indeed concern me. One of my daughters was exactly the same way and would bristle if ANYONE brought up the subject of future plans. Unfortunately for her the lack of a goal resulted in a pregnancy and early marriage.

I'd investigate the depression angle if I were you. I might also require him to get a part time job, as well.
posted by konolia at 2:59 PM on December 3, 2006

If he's consistently slacking his way to B+, he's smart enough to get good enough at whatever he ends up being interested in that somebody will likely end up paying him to do it. Don't sweat it. Let him work it out, or not, in his own time.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 PM on December 3, 2006

Let your son work out want he wants to do with his life for himself. Tell him that if he wants your help that you're more than happy to provide it, but he might want to do the legwork on his own. I know I did.

[On preview, I think I babble a bit, but I also think that it is relevant babble :)]

I'm 18 and finished school in NSW last year. I really don't understand why society expects 17 year olds to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I'm a year into university and I'm still not sure what I want to do with my life.

I was really, really unmotivated all throughout high school, but had the natural intelligence to remain towards the top of my classes (I'm not sure what sort of grade average I would have had but I'd hazard a guess at A-/B+). I only started working toward any sort of goal about halfway through my final year of school when I realised that I wanted to get into university and needed a half-decent UAI to get there. That, and the competitiveness in me kicked in. My cousin who is a year older than me had gotten a UAI of 92 and I told myself that I would kick his arse. I did.

Not knowing what you want to do can be a huge demotivation factor. You don't know what you want to do, so you really don't know what you're working towards. I changed my mind weekly all throughout Year 12. It got to the point where my Physics teacher got into the habit of asking me what my career of the week was. I had one career in mind all the way up to when I had to finalise my university preferences in January. I totally turned around and changed the day before they were due. I then applied for a different course after I received my first preference. It was a little crazy.

You say your son doesn't know whether he wants to study History or Computer Programming. Why not study both? If he enters a combined degree course with computer programming and History he can make up his mind later. He will probably find that he can double major (or do a minor) in History within his programming degree if he feels that way inclined. I am currently doing a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Arts because I didn't know whether I wanted a degree in a Science or Humanities subject, and to tell you the truth, I like both so much I can see myself completing both.

Also, getting into university on your first year out isn't the be all and end all. My sister missed out on a place when she finished school, went out, got a full time job and worked for two years before reapplying. I sometimes envy her because of it as she has built up some savings to live off whereas I always seem to be running out of money.
posted by cholly at 5:37 PM on December 3, 2006

This boy sounds a lot like my brother was at that age - intelligent, but unmotivated and usure of what he wanted to do. After a spending 4 years at a "2 year" college, working part time on the side, one semester he just decided "I want to learn foreign languages" and applied to an international cultures program at a university. Now he's spending a year learning language skills in Spain, almost fully self-supported.

I think that some teenagers (especially boys) take longer to "grow up" and become adults than others. My parents were very frustrated with my bro, but they decided as long as he was earning money to pay "rent" and for his own gas and classes, they were going to support him (well, they did force him to move out after they realized he was earning enough to live on his own).

In short: what my parents did with an unmotivated teen: forced him to financially support himself, without forcing him down a specific career/university path. If you trust him to make the right decisions, then this may work for you too.
posted by muddgirl at 7:35 PM on December 3, 2006

If, as jacalata says, he gets ~8~ choices, why try to badger him into making a choice of ~1~? Maybe you'd like to point out that since he has so many choices, he should try to limit them to those 8. University is a chance to find out exactly what it is you want to do if you weren't born with an innate desire to be a particular profession until death.

Also, if he says he's depressed, perhaps you could have him talk to someone. A counselor perhaps? I know at that age the concept of suddenly being a "grown up" was terrifying and I couldn't cope, so I stuck my head in the sand and became incredibly depressed because it loomed over ~everything~. And people still pushed, even after I tried to explain that. Having a third, uninterested party to talk to would have been incredibly helpful. (of course, seeing a counselor would have somehow been shameful, so no one suggested it.)

Also - although I am admittedly from the US and have no idea how university funding works in AU, I would hope that there is some kind of assistance to help pay for tuition and books, and perhaps for a dorm or such as well? Is there some way you can help him secure this type of assistance? Independence is a scary thing, but once most achieve it, they would fight tooth and nail to hold onto it. (And, really, most people don't want to be 30 and living in their mom's basement. It screws with your social and sex life. And whether he has either now, I'm sure in 10 years he will. :) Or will want to. )
posted by Meep! Eek! at 9:33 PM on December 3, 2006

Meep! Eek!: As the OP is anon, I'll fill you in vaguely about the details of funding for university in Australia. Basically, most people get accepted into a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) place, where the Federal Government funds a certain percentage of your degree and you pay the rest (interest free) in taxes once your income exceeds a certain amount. So securing funding isn't a problem (provided you have the marks to gain entry to the course). Also, there seems to be a huge trend of people being accepted into universities locally (especially if they live in capital cities) and living at home for the first few years of their degree, so on campus accommodation may not be a factor, either.
posted by cholly at 10:49 PM on December 3, 2006

Follow up from the OP:

Thanks for all the advice. You have helped to remind me that it is not my decision, and to an extent, not my problem. We spoke today and I explained why I had been so pushy about him sorting out future pathways. Basically that I was afraid (because of other people’s lives) that he might choose to end up an obese WOW addict living in his parents’ basement. I told him that in my opinion he had nearly always made wise decisions, and there was no reason I should assume this would be any different. I told him about my plans for post-children raising travel, and whenever he wanted, I would help him with decisions and advice, and that he could count on a certain amount of financial and accommodation support. Everything is good between us.

Some clarification (this is a very long response from anonymous, but I can’t click best answer so here you go.)


I didn’t want him to figure out his life before he left home – just to investigate some tertiary courses before he needed to make a decision. I just checked and he was using the word depression as a figure of speech. I have in the past repeatedly told him that he doesn’t need to choose a life career, that he will have many jobs, he just needs to choose the first one. Around August next year is when he needs to start applying and it’s to the state body QTAC. I expect he will then.


Thanks. I shall only suggest that he doesn’t ever take out the rubbish or do the dishes again J


Thanks. It’s his decision, not mine.


You have some very good points. I have realised I was being illogical about this and am trying to let go. Luckily for my son, I’m not one of those women who incessantly talks things through. I think, on average, I have approached him about this perhaps once every two months for the last 6 or so.


Every day! What persistence! I haven’t that kind of determination. I don’t think introversion is a flaw (being that way myself, just trying to give sufficient info)


Thank you, I took your advice and made clear to him just what kind of financial support he can expect from us.


You’re absolutely right, he is a nice kid, smart, polite, and I can be confident in his decision making for himself.


Thanks for the exchange suggestion. My son has no interest in that sort of experience, but my daughter does. However, I doubt that as a family we would ever be able to afford it.


I checked re the depression. Also, I don’t really know how to make someone get a job if they don’t want to.


Thanks, I will


Rest of his life – not me! Thanks very much for the dual degree suggestions. It was something I passed onto him, as I doubt that he’s investigated any tertiary options, but if and when he does, he will remember and go looking. I’m not opposed to him postponing further education, it’s just that basement thing that chills me.


Thanks, useful tip.

Meep! Eek!

I wasn’t badgering for one decision. I was hoping for *any* ideas or plans.
posted by jessamyn at 7:26 AM on December 4, 2006

Not that I can contribute anything useful, but I just wanted to point out that I've got a 4-year degree (ironically enough, in Computer Science) and still don't know what I want to do if I grow up.

That living in my parent's basement thing sounds tempting, pity they don't have a basement.
posted by coreb at 11:09 PM on December 4, 2006

« Older Where to buy coffee drinks online   |   Major or minor key? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.