Help for Smart, Non-Ambitious Teen?
October 2, 2007 11:44 AM   Subscribe

How to help super-smart teenager with no ambition, goals, or direction?

I'm really concerned with my second son, who will turn 18 next January.

Parental pride aside, he's the smartest kid I know. He learns in minutes what takes others days or weeks. He has a high-level view of things which blows the minds of most adults.

He's currently taking his last 2 years of high school at a community college, taking 21 courses and doing well. Based on his SATs he's been flooded with with college information and applications, none of which matters to him in the least. Once college will be flying him coast to coast on their nickel to attend a preview weekend but I think he's going more to get out of the house than out of genuine interest in this particular school.

He cares a lot about making and teaching music, and about his clothes and his friends.

He doesn't want to talk about the future, make plans, or show any signs of ambition at all. A kid who devours advanced textbooks on math and physics says with all sincerity that he wants to be a magician or to run a taco stand. Given his intellect this would be a crying shame.

I sometimes get the sense that his over-sized brain has somehow gotten "stuck in a loop" and that he's self-optimizing himself into not expecting too much out of life. Does it sound like his thought patterns have somehow become derailed.

Last night he told my wife that he thought that he had ADD, and that he had self-medicated with either Red Bull or some prescription medication that he borrowed from friends.

This all bums me out and I want to help to get him on a better track. What should I do and where should I start?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (57 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Stop pressuring him. It will only backfire.
posted by chiababe at 11:47 AM on October 2, 2007

Given his intellect this would be a crying shame.

Are you sure you aren't pushing him a bit too hard? There's nothing "stuck in a loop" about this, and wanting to be a magician is not a "derailed thought pattern."

The only thing derailed is the pressure on him. What makes your track a "better track"?

Back off.
posted by dead_ at 11:49 AM on October 2, 2007

Finishing high school at a community college deprives a person of the advice of a guidance counselor. Maybe you could find someone like that to chat with him as a first step.

I also wonder about your own attitude. You say that your son would like to make and teach music; would like to be a magician; and would like to run a taco stand. You think that's a "crying shame" and probably tell him so. What's happening in these conversations is not career counseling; it's testing of whether or not your affection and support is unconditional. (You're failing these tests, by the way.)

I also think it's interesting that you picked those three lines of work to deride; I have an old grade-school friend who achieved his dream of becoming a professional musicologist and composer and is doing quite well. I have another friend who started doing magic tricks at Renaissance Faires on the weekends about two years ago, and just recently quit his dead-end tech support job to work as a magician full-time. He's turning clients away because he's in such high demand, making more money than he ever has, and enjoying himself more than he ever has.

I don't know much about running a taco stand, but I know it makes money and I know I don't think ill of the people who run the ones I eat at.

One of the problems with your question is that you clearly have a set of things in mind that would be acceptable for your son, but you don't say what they are. Do you know? Does he know? Are you sure that these are the only viable options?

Finally, abusing prescription stimulants at the age of 18 is not something to put down at the bottom of a question as an aside. I'd be about 100 times more worried about this than all the other things you mention put together.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:54 AM on October 2, 2007 [17 favorites]

What ikkyu2 said, all of it. Have the wife (mom?) take him in to be tested for ADD. But don't presume there's something wrong with the kid. You have the benefit of years of hindsight. Maybe you see that if you'd been as smart as he is at 18, you could have achieved more with your own life, and you don't want him to make the same mistakes. He's a teenager, and while he might be book-smart, he doesn't have the same perspective you do.
posted by desjardins at 11:58 AM on October 2, 2007

Last night he told my wife that he thought that he had ADD, and that he had self-medicated with either Red Bull or some prescription medication that he borrowed from friends.

Like ikkyu2 says, this is the only thing you should be worried about. Your son will never be able to succeed if he's bearing the burden of trying to deal with ADD on his own. You and your wife should get him to a doctor.

As for the rest of it, he's 17 years old. Give him a break; he's not going to sit around talking about his life ambitions with his Dad, especially not when his Dad is pressuring him to be (what? what do you want from him?). Here is your mantra for all things considering your son's future: "As long as he's healthy and paying his own bills, it's fine with me. As long as he's healthy and paying his own bills, it's fine with me. As long as he's healthy and paying his own bills, it's fine with me."
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:59 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's pretty common for people, after reading about psychological disorders, to self-diagnose. Most people always think that they're crazy in some way or another... But most don't try to self-medicate themselves. Most don't tell their mother (step-mother?) that they have been doing so.

I certainly agree with the others that your son probably is feeling tons of pressure. Being told that you're super-duper-genius and going to do lots and lots of brilliant things for the good of humanity and so forth can't help one feel relaxed. So, yeah, there's a good chance it'd help if you backed off a little bit. Give him some space. Let him grow into who he wants to be without any pressure.

But, with that said, can you get him to a psychiatrist, or anything? I certainly don't know if he's correct about ADD, but if he think he does, that probably means he could use the help of a professional.

This doesn't sound like a problem you can easily solve. A lot of it sounds like something he has to grow through. But if he's worried about ADD, get him to a professional who can help him out.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:59 AM on October 2, 2007

Send him traveling - not to college. If he doesn't find a passion out on the road, let him work retail and support himself for a bit. He'll find his own way to rise up, or he'll become bitter and cynical.

If you think about it, the results are the same as college, but without all the heartache for all (and money from you).

Just be accepting - and always glad to hear from him.
posted by terpia at 12:04 PM on October 2, 2007

There are a lot of colleges with great music programs and college radio stations etc. Talk with him about how he can pursue these interests of his, visit a couple of colleges so he can see the radio station or stay in the dorms for a night to see what it would be like. Places have great music and lots of artsy, smart, talented kids who would love to go to his magic show -- and the academic programs will be there for him to enjoy and exploit too.

On the other hand, if he's really not ready for college (ie, if you would pay a bunch of money and he would end up just not going to class -- this is happening to one of my students right now), taking a year or two off can be a great move for a smart but directionless kid. Let him get a job and see what adult life is like, and build his own enthusiasm for being around smarter people and getting challenged more than he will be as a pizza guy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:09 PM on October 2, 2007

He may feel that he's overloaded right now. Sometimes people with as many options as he has have trouble figuring out what to do. Taking some time off may be the best thing for him - he'll learn some life skills and have a better idea of what he wants to do with his life, which will give him a real leg up when he starts college. If he's smart now, he'll be just as smart in a year or two.

I'd advise letting him know that you expect him to either go to college or support himself after high school, but beyond that, it may be counterproductive to keep pushing him. Knowing that you'll help him with school even if he doesn't go right away may be the best thing to help him relax enough to figure out what he wants to do.
posted by concrete at 12:09 PM on October 2, 2007

ikkyu2 and Ms. Saint are wise. Do what they say. Other than the prescription drugs, there is no problem here at all.
posted by equalpants at 12:09 PM on October 2, 2007

City Year or volunteer teaching music to underprivileged kids might be another thing to try for him.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:10 PM on October 2, 2007

Leave him alone. Quit judging his choices, no matter what they are. My brother was in his position. He's crazy smart and was interested in art. My mom wanted him to go into science and not "waste himself." Yeah, that screwed him up but good and only now, at 25, is he finally settling in to what he wants to do. Which is, incidentally, still art.

When your kid says he wants to run a taco stand, you don't say "You're wasting your life and your intellect!" You say, "With your talent, that is going to be the best goddamned taco stand in the world." I mean, how do you know he won't be able to make a taco so good it brings about world peace? You are ruining these possibilities!
posted by schroedinger at 12:12 PM on October 2, 2007 [9 favorites]

I was pretty directionless at age 16-17 and only a little better at 18. My parents were wise not to push too hard. They pointed out some distant landmarks. My mother new I liked cooking, so she suggested thinking about being a chef and drew my attention to a few cooking schools. My father, in various ways, helped me consider what lives in various other professions would be like. Ultimately, I've taken my own path with some success but they helped me to broaden my gaze.

If I were you, I'd take the things you know he likes and use them as ways to start thinking about the future. I'm guessing though that you'll really have to work not to push too hard. If you focus on him becoming the next Penn Jillette or the owner of a national chain of taco stands, he'll likely tune you out again. Instead focus on good health, basic financial independence, having the time to do things with friends and to make music and having a little money to look sharp.
posted by Good Brain at 12:14 PM on October 2, 2007

My brother-in-law tested "genius" years ago. The family had great plans. He went to college. He is doing what he loves, and has been doing it for years, he works selling goods at renaissance festivals. Some family members say he isn't a success, but he'll argue he is. He's extremely happy doing what he does.

I think we all agree that if you are happy with what you for a living, not much else matters. I know, for me, I wish I loved my profession as much as he loves doing what he does.

Give him some space, let him figure out what he wants to do. I know that's hard as a parent because we all want "what's best" for our children. But it is for the best to let him figure this out and not force him to do something he doesn't want to do.
posted by 6:1 at 12:17 PM on October 2, 2007

When I was your son's age, I didn't really know what I wanted.
I'm 25 and I still don't know.
I'm pretty smart, also.
My mom pushed me to go to school and try to do something, that didn't work. It only made me quit school.

Just leave him be.
posted by PowerCat at 12:19 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

"As long as he's healthy and paying his own bills, it's fine with me. As long as he's healthy and paying his own bills, it's fine with me. As long as he's healthy and paying his own bills, it's fine with me."

Worth repeating (a little mantra humor there). Just remember that there are as many ways to live as there are people in the world. Us very weird types who really did grow up to be magicians (and whose mothers gradually became very proud of us) counted on that being true in order to become the very happy people we are now.
posted by hermitosis at 12:21 PM on October 2, 2007

Hmm, I would say this sounds like a nice normal kid with a bright future ahead. It would be one thing if he was dumb as a stone and had no desire to make anything of himself but this guy seems to have any ticket he decides he wants. The word to focus on here is "decides".

I don't know anyone who, at 17, ended up becoming exactly what they set out to do. This fellow sounds like he is keeping his options open and rightly so. I think he is pretty smart for that alone. If I was in his place I wouldn't want to tell my parents what my plans were for the simple fact that I wouldn't want them riding my ass to get them done. If he is as smart as you think, and it would seem that he is, then you will probably be impressed with what he decides to do.

If, in the end, he is running a taco stand and doing magic tricks so be it. He will probably be damn good at it. Futher, I would say it is far better to be happy and smart doing that which makes you smile than miserable and stupid trying to impress others.

Relax and let nature take its course- he still has a lot of growing up ahead of him.
posted by bkeene12 at 12:26 PM on October 2, 2007

Wow, some of this advice is fucked up. 'Back off'? You have a right to be concerned about your son's apathy, and you have a right to intercede - in order to help him find sustainable activities that'll awaken his passion.

Importantly, he doesn't need to run off to college right away if he has no interest in it, though it's good to keep his options open in case he changes his mind in the next six months. That would seem to be your main job here: helping him see his options, letting him know you'll support his pursuits as best you can, but making sure he realizes he's a young adult in a close, lasting relationship with a caretaker adult (you) and he owes it to you to give a little more in terms of communication.

He likes playing and writing music: OK, does he have tools to do that in a way that'll grow with him? He's sharp in school: OK, is he wasting time taking high school classes then? Could he be doing much much harder work to keep him engaged? He's interested in magic: does he know what that's like as a career path? (I was 'interested' in physics until I wandered off to tech school and found out what the profession consisted of.) That said, is he indulging his interest in an organized way? Is that avenue open for him where you guys live?

ikkyu2 brought up a good point about guidance counselors: Does he have adults he can talk to about the next few years? If he doesn't feel he can approach you about those things (for any of a million reasons), is there someone he can go to? Someone, perhaps, who's in a field he's shown some interest in?

In high school I was the Bright Kid who didn't want to waste his time on classes (e.g. precalculus) that struck him as boring. In college that bit me on the ass - regardless of what career path you follow, you've got to learn how to work. If your kid's breezing through his schooling and doesn't give a damn, maybe he just hasn't been presented with the right kind of large-scale problems to solve...which could mean some sleight of hand he just can't get down, or a short film to score...

...or maybe he just isn't getting laid and can't stop thinking about it? Or is and can't stop thinking about it?

I don't know how to approach this talk of ADD; all I know is that it's easy for smart kids to find themselves in environments where they meet no intellectual challenges and kind of go flaccid - and if they don't know how to give themselves interesting things to do, they can fall into the rut you're describing. I know how that shit feels and I know I appreciated my parents' efforts to help me get up get into it get involved.

Kids who have meaningful problems to solve find ways to do so, and grow in the process.

You're asking the right questions and I don't think you should back off at all.

(Even if 17-year-old boys are mostly fuckups! :)
posted by waxbanks at 12:26 PM on October 2, 2007

I was like that until I was about 25. Then I snapped out of it and did something with my life. I still haven't gone to college, even though my parents pressured me constantly about it.

Here's what you need to do: Ask him what he wants to do, and then help him do it, letting him mistakes along the way.
posted by anildash at 12:27 PM on October 2, 2007

(Incidentally, you should consider the possibility that class grades aren't a great measure of your son's interests and capacity - you may indeed have little idea what sort of 'intellect' he possesses, as vague as that term is. Has he really shown you what he can do? What gets him most excited?)
posted by waxbanks at 12:28 PM on October 2, 2007

A college education is wasted on most 18 year olds. Let him take some time off while he gets his medical issues straightened out. He can always go to uni next semester or next year.
posted by happyturtle at 12:36 PM on October 2, 2007

I am in the same boat a PowerCat. Except I struggled to finish college.

I liked taking things apart and seeing how they work. I thought I would do well as an engineer. Turns out engineers need to know a lot about math. I don't do well in math. so i switched from an engineering major to...

Computer Science. I liked computers. I liked building and taking apart computers. Turns out I HATE programming computers. so I switched from CompSci to...

Business. I had to do this in order to graduate. Now I am stuck at a job that treats me well but I am just not passionate about.

I constantly wonder what my life would be like if my parents let me go to automotive school or let me become an electrician like I wanted to when I was 18.

Making Tacos is an art form! Not too many places do it well...
posted by remthewanderer at 12:36 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

What's happening in these conversations is not career counseling; it's testing of whether or not your affection and support is unconditional.

I want to second this. As I've posted elsewhere, I grew up with parents and grandparents who praised me constantly in terms of my brains, talents, and presumed glorious future going to Harvard and winning a Pulitzer. (Needless to say, I didn't do either. I went to therapy instead!) It meant that I suspected for a long time that I was lovable and worthy only as long as I was achieving something impressive. I know my family loves me and meant well, but it was really fucking damaging (and -- ironically enough -- actually had the affect of making me so afraid of failure that I didn't even try to do a number of the things that I probably could have accomplished at various ages).

So honestly: make it clear that your love is unconditional (it is, isn't it?), and that you love him for who he is. And if who he is turns out to be a magician or a taco stand owner, well, so what? If it would make him happy, isn't that what matters?
posted by scody at 12:38 PM on October 2, 2007 [10 favorites]

(sorry, that should have been "love him for who he is, not what he does.")
posted by scody at 12:40 PM on October 2, 2007

I would explore a year abroiad, preferabvly with a music input, to give him a little more time on his own to work out what really does it for him.

and slight derail /
but desjardin WTF , his Mom?
Have his Mom take him to be tested for ADD? Why, cos she clearly must be a stay at home Mom with loads of free time while the high-powered executive Dad is the Mefite. Ferchissakes!
posted by Wilder at 12:43 PM on October 2, 2007

How come everyone's kid is always the brightest kid they know?

I think that is a rule for becoming a parent. Your kid is the smartest, the prettiest, and the best.

Anyway, to clarify: I don't mean to say let him wander aimlessly and give no suggestions or help. If he likes music, make sure he has an instrument to practice on and give him blank sheet music as a present. You know, support his pursuit of his interests even if they're not what you want them to be. Allow him the option of taking a year, or two, or five before going to college--not in the "Let him sit in the basement and play video games without paying rent" way, but don't flip out if he gets a job at a pizza place.

If he is as smart as you say, he's got a lot more going on in his head than clothes and friends. You're just not privy to it. That's how teenagers are.

(Wilder--that is a little knee-jerk. I would suggest the mom take him in too, not because I assume she's Miss Susie Homemaker, but because she was the one the kid told in the first place.)
posted by schroedinger at 12:48 PM on October 2, 2007

So what's wrong with teaching music? Some of the best human beings I know are teachers, or musicians, or both.

I myself am a pretty smart kid who took a long time figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. To be exact, it took me till I was 24, and then I took a sabbatical of sorts for a year just to be sure I really had thought it through. Having the capacities is one thing. Knowing how to apply them autonomously, instead of as a trick pony on command, is another problem entirely—a problem which, frankly, the majority of schooling fails to address. And finding which of many, many possible applications will lead to the most good is yet another problem. The greater his capacities are, the more difficult this last problem becomes. Give him some space to work on it.

It is true that I owe it to myself, my family, and my species to make the most of the mind I've got. I know that. But the fact is, telling someone that, saying to your kid that he is feeling the wrong way about his own desires, is a tremendously hostile, depersonalizing act and will not be helpful at all. He's got to discover it, and that takes time.

In the short term, I see two important things to address. The first is that prescription ADD meds are frickin' amphetamines, and he should be smart enough not to screw around with that. A parental lecture is not the proper way to communicate this, however. Get him going finding out what these pills are, how they operate, what their side-effects are, what ADD is, whether you can have different attentional mechanisms than the average person without it being a Disorder, what variety of treatments is available if it is disordering a person's life, how caffeine affects the nervous system, whether tolerance develops to it, and so on. There are a dozen questions to investigate and your son is smart enough to figure out what they are once you get him going. Make sure he gets healthy and balanced doses of kindness, knowledge, and respect, and he will sort out what's a good idea and what's not.

The second immediate concern is getting him into a university, or a subculture within a university, where they still believe in education. By this I mean, get him around people who believe that learning is a primary good, and not just a stepping stone to making more money; who trust that a person can and should acquire a broad base in both sciences and humanities, broad enough that if he can't dive into every specialty he can at least ask a specialist good questions and understand the answers; who will give him a sense not only for the vast array of things he could learn, but for why they matter. This is not a trivial problem to solve, but it is solvable: Most any university has got some educationalists somewhere, maybe in the Honors department or maybe 'dotted everywhere/ironic points of light/flash[ing] out' among their higher-vocational-trainingist colleagues (T. S. Eliot, 'September 1, 1939').

Repeat: Do not lay a bunch of guilt on him for wasting his brain. Use the carrot, not the stick.
posted by eritain at 12:49 PM on October 2, 2007

Wilder: as Schroedinger pointed out, the kid told his mother, not his father, for whatever reason. Therefore he may feel more comfortable going to a doctor with his mother.

By the way, I'm female, and hardly subscribe to traditional gender roles.
posted by desjardins at 12:51 PM on October 2, 2007

when I was 17, and in the middle of my Junior year of high school, suddenly the focus shfited from (what i knew) to (what i was going to do for the rest of my life). I was probably one of the last kids to realize this, I knew it, and I froze. I didn't apply for any schools. I didn't even apply for any scholarships. I ended up joining the navy, and hated my life for the next 6 years. definitely don't steer him in that direction, because once you sign up, quitting is painful.

I'd tell him to get a job, at least for a year. It definitely would have gave me a little perspective.

What you really want to avoid, though is something like what scody went through: I know my family loves me and meant well, but it was really fucking damaging (and -- ironically enough -- actually had the affect of making me so afraid of failure that I didn't even try to do a number of the things that I probably could have accomplished at various ages).

A kid who devours advanced textbooks on math and physics says with all sincerity that he wants to be a magician or to run a taco stand

What's wrong with running a taco stand? It'll teach him how the buisiness world works.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:00 PM on October 2, 2007

Oh, and I heartily support everything ikkyu2 has said, except about the guidance counselors, because the most helpful thing a guidance counselor ever did for me was hand me the class schedule and current enrollment and leave me alone to figure out how to fit all my classes in. Mostly they were so happy to meet a kid who didn't smoke pot and wasn't staking his life plans on making it in professional sports that they just kind of sat around and drooled on me, and mostly they had all bought into the careerist fallacy too. Listening, treating someone with respect, and being a wise mirror for him to look in as he tries on different prospective selves—that's a parent's job, not a certified professional meddler's. Go to it.
posted by eritain at 1:01 PM on October 2, 2007

I was kind of in this boat at his age. I didn't really know what to do and I think most kids at that age feel the same way. The thing that worked out best for me, was eventually going away to college and just taking gen ed classes until I found something I enjoyed. The caveat to that approach is that he has to be willing to study and learn on his own, knowing that he was doing it with no real direction. Working my way through college and taking classes in whatever I wanted to for a few years meant that while my peers were stressed out and crazy, I really enjoyed college and felt like I was learning and enjoying my time. College then became more about growing into the adult I am (or pretend to be somedays), which is what it sounds like what you want your son to do.
posted by Phoenix42 at 1:08 PM on October 2, 2007

I also have a brilliant son and daughter. I thought I was totally letting them find their own ways, and that I wasn't laying my own if-you-don't-score-a-genius-grant-by-the-time-you're-21 expectations on them.

Turns out they missed the cool mom bullshit I was handing out and went straight to the "don't disappoint me" subtext that I was feeling. And I was making a conscious effort NOT to impose my expectations, but they picked it up anyway.

You are skipping the supportive part and going straight to "don't disappoint me." So he's getting a double whammy. Leave him alone. If he's happy and not abusing drugs, why should you care if he's SWEEPING UP in that taco stand.
posted by nax at 1:11 PM on October 2, 2007

Tell him to go join the Coast Guard. Go rescue people for a living.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:14 PM on October 2, 2007

He doesn't want to talk about the future, make plans, or show any signs of ambition at all. A kid who devours advanced textbooks on math and physics says with all sincerity that he wants to be a magician or to run a taco stand. Given his intellect this would be a crying shame.

(Try to imagine me saying this in something other than a snotty pretentious voice)
I think that your son is a Humean. I think that I like him. The famous Hume quote that a lot of people know goes like this: "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." What Hume's getting at here is that there is a basic division between beliefs and desires: people change their beliefs to match the world, but they change to world to match their desires. To put it another way, beliefs aim at truth and desires aim at satisfaction. Or even more colloquially, we want what we want, no matter what we believe--desires aren't the kind of things that are criticizable for being irrational, like beliefs are.
This idea can help you make sense of your situation, because you have noticed that your son is really good at having true beliefs, and you do not understand how it follows from that that he has such disappointing (by your lights) desires. If Hume is right (and a lot of people think that he is), then true beliefs don't have the ruling power over desires that you wish they had. Desires don't serve the same master as do beliefs, seen in that light, your son's position isn't really so surprising.

Hume thinks that desires are governed by morals. He is a moral expressivist, which means that he thinks that what it means for something to be right is that people have and express feelings of approval; what it means for something to be wrong is that people have and express feelings of disapproval. So, you should abandon rational argumentation here--you're not trying to get him to believe something, after all. You're trying to change his desires, so you should focus on feelings. Get him to focus on the distinctive whoosh that accompanies the understanding of a mathematical proof for the first time. Get him to focus on the fuzzy satisfied coma that he gets when he blasts through a book in one sitting. Get him to focus on sharp tongued supple coeds in tight jeans and spaghetti straps who know from whooshes and comas and hang out on college campuses but not around taco stands. He'll get it.
posted by Kwine at 1:30 PM on October 2, 2007

My first reaction to this post is that I identify with the kid. I was pretty talented in high school academics, but the only things which meant anything to me were my friends, music, video games and TV. I applied to colleges because it's just what you do.

Now I'm about to graduate college. I never had any "ambition", and still don't. All I desire in life right now is to make music and play video games. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.

My two cents: show him unconditional love and acceptance in these years. But, on top of that, I think it's perfectly reasonable to let him know he's sending you mixed messages about the future. On the one hand, by taking all the community college classes and reading advanced textbooks, he's demonstrating that he wants to be successful and that he's got what it takes. On the other hand, he's backstepping by telling you he wants to be a traveling magician.

IMO, talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words, so there's really no emergency on your part to do anything. Chances are he'll realize at some point that you gotta make a living doing something, and if you're smart, why not make it smart-stuff? So, don't lose sleep over it :)
posted by Laugh_track at 1:30 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Tacos and music are noble pursuits. Leave him alone about that stuff.

He's a different human being than you, so he has different interests and desires. It's okay for a person to care more about friends than about a high-status career: just because you feel the opposite way doesn't mean that your values are right and his are wrong. They're just different.

Does it sound like his thought patterns have somehow become derailed.


If anything is a problem here, it's prescription drugs. I have a feeling that he might be laying this "I have ADD so I am medicating myself" line on you because he knows you think he has "no ambition, goals or direction" and he's trying to get your approval.
posted by lemuria at 1:43 PM on October 2, 2007

I was struck by how much these responses reflect an American, or least, Western view of parent-child relations. That said, I will assume that you, like me, are an American parent with educational aspirations for your children, particularly for a child who has the academic ability to succeed. I've watched my parents go through this with my sibling and now I'm dealing with my own teenagers.

I found that I have had to really think hard about what my children "should" do and let go of a lot of expectations in order to give them enough space to get to success in their own way (instead of mine).

Many teenage boys respond to the stress and pressure by choosing to disengage and claim that they don't care. Look past that to your son's basic character. He loves learning. He knows how to be organzied and work hard. He cares about his friends. He is curious. If left to his own devices, what kind of life choices do you think someone like that would make as an adult? Probably ones that end up pretty well.

Remember, you are a powerful, on-going influence on his life, even if you disappeared tomorrow. If you ease back now and let him make his own choices, he is still going to be influenced by everything you taught him in the past 18 years.

On the practical side, talk with him about what kind of environment he would like to be in next year. My guess is that a college with bright, curious (but not cut-throat competitive) students, a good music program, a compatible social life and interesting classes would seem attractive to him.

Many people only know the Ivy League and their local schools. There are about 3000 four year college in the US. If he limits himself to just the top 10% there is still a wide range of styles and cultures to choose from - many you have never heard of but provide excellent education. A good college counselor (as opposed to an overworked, fill-in the blank type) might introduce him to some possibilities that he could get excited about. If you can afford it, he will probably listen much better to counselor who seems to be on his side than to his parents where the relationship is much more complicated (even if you both say the same thing - the joys of parenting a teen).

Good luck!
posted by metahawk at 1:54 PM on October 2, 2007

I'd agree with anildash, ask him what he wants to do and support him in achieving that. Help him find his path and don't fret if it's not the one you believe or expect him to be on.

I was similarly directionless at your son's age and also the brightest kid that my father knew but I got pressured into going to university. I ended up getting a degree in electrical engineering and then got a job selling tickets at a cinema upon graduation to the disappointment of my old man. My mum in contrast said as long as you're happy that's all that matters to me.

I think I've finally found my path, I'm running my own company now, but it took me until the age of 30 to do so. I don't regret going to university but having an electrical engineering degree is immaterial.
posted by electricinca at 2:03 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

A tangential question is, "Does it really matter for your son to have ambition?" I feel like the bar for what is expected from children can be fairly arbitrary, anywhere from "Become a doctor" to "Stay out of jail." If your son's 18, it's ultimately out of your hands, and up to him to figure out what he wants. The time for instilling motivation and ambition probably ended at age 12. Wouldn't it be better to focus on just trying to be friends with your son rather than a coach?
posted by philosophistry at 2:08 PM on October 2, 2007

I was basically the same as your kid when I was his age.

He's bored. He's too damn smart to buy into the prescribed goofy notion that we're all supposed to go through school, school and more school just so we can get some piece of paper and finally "do something."

He needs to be challenged, and it needs to not be you who challenges him.

It's not a "shame" if he wants to be a magician - their illusions take a great deal of ingenuity and engineering and the really great ones are paid handsomely for it.

It's not a "shame" if he wants to run a taco stand, because if running a taco stand makes him happy, you have a happy son, and that sure as hell isn't a shame.

He'll grow out of it.

I ended up going to college and getting my degree because I realized I had to as part of the whole getting by and having security thing. However, it wasn't the degree or my career that changed my life - it was the social experience and enrichment I got going away to college. I ended up starting my own student organization, leading a huge group that promoted the music scene, and doing something I loved while proving to myself that I could be a leader and that I could come up with ideas that other people would get behind.

Your son will find his place, but only if you let him. Quit telling him what he should do, and ask him what he wants to do. Then give your honest perspective on what you think is a necessary compromise despite his desires (getting a degree, perhaps - school sucks, but let's face it that piece of paper is worth the boring 4 years of classes).

Then let him go do his thing, and support whatever the hell it is whether it's running a taco stand or even just making the damn tacos.
posted by twiggy at 2:11 PM on October 2, 2007

You should do your best to find David Gilmour's book The Film Club. I'm not saying that what Gilmour chose to do with his bright but directionless teenage son is exactly what you should do. You may not have three years to let him drop out of school and do whatever he wants as long as he sits down with you and watches three films a day, then discusses them with you. If neither one of you is that interested in film, it would be pointless, really.

It's Gilmore's willingness to let go of his original expectations of his son, and to really get to know him again, that impressed me, and which could give you a different perspective on your son's present and future. Michael Enright interviewed Gilmour on Sunday Edition this past weekend. You can hear his pride in his son's potential and faith in his innate good nature, as well as his fear that he could alienate and lose his son by repeatedly trying to force him down a path he wasn't ready to follow.

For the next few days, you can find a link to a RealAudio (sorry! It's the CBC) stream of the entire interview on this page. Take 26 minutes to listen to it if you can.
posted by maudlin at 2:30 PM on October 2, 2007

(OK, three films a week, not a day. You aren't going to do that, but is there some other way you can connect with your son weekly, even?)
posted by maudlin at 2:32 PM on October 2, 2007

Being smart and young is an extremely hard thing to deal with. There is so much that is going on in these young peoples minds that fly over the heads of less intelligent/ less interested people. Time is the only thing that can really absolve the "issues" you think your son is having. I put issues in quotes because they are more your issues and societies issues than his issues. 18 is around the arbitrary age in which everything changes for a young adult whether he is ready for these changes or not. Many smart young people need a longer amount of time to soak in all this new esoteric knowledge and to start and realize that they can do whatever they want to do. Let him wander, try things out, travel, put off college, anything but push him into starting up something he isn't going to be passionate about. Handling it this way will lead to a successful outcome.
posted by pwally at 3:22 PM on October 2, 2007

Desjardins, apologies if my comment came across as knee-jerk, but "last night he told my wife that....." did not strike me as particularly significant, given the evident involvement of both parents in this particular conundrum.

But, you know, if you and Shroedinger are right, then the poster needs to look at why this young adult felt more comfortable saying this to the wife.
I didn't assume anything by this, as it seems to me both parents are putting pressure on the young man, but maybe I'm not reading between the lines here.

I personally know two young men who seems to have been "forced" early, like plants. And just like plants, it almost never transfers well to real life.
posted by Wilder at 3:59 PM on October 2, 2007

Your son sounds a lot like me. I once had a high school math teacher tell my parents, "he's the brightest kid I've ever taught, I just wish I could give his brain to somebody who'd use it." Because I was good at math, science, English, etc., I was heavily discouraged from pursuing my interests in writing, music and especially drawing. Not only by my parents, but by almost all of my teachers. It almost seemed like most people thought that being an artist was only OK if you didn't have something better to be.

I ended up giving in to the pressure to go to college, but I didn't even last a year and I barely bothered to go to class while I was there. I managed to (barely) pass all my classes, but it quickly became obvious to me that I was not at all interested in it. I happen to be good with computers, so my out was to take a full-time job as a programmer during the .com boom and that made it OK for me to drop out without too much backlash.

After a few years of working, I realized that wasn't really for me either and took a year and a half off to just kind of hang out and work on music. The problem was, I wasn't really that happy drifting aimlessly, but it was almost like I was subconsciously making up for years of not doing what I wanted by just doing nothing.

After this got old, I finally had to go back to work as a programmer and that was once again OK at first, but got pretty boring pretty quickly. I was coasting by doing just enough to not get fired when one of my best friends died in a car accident. This kind of snapped me out of it and made me realize that I need to take charge of my own life and do what I want to do. I ended up saving money for a few months and planning out a trip around the world. True to form, though, I only made it to Berlin where I found complete happiness as an electronic musician hanging out with wonderful people and traveling around Europe.

It's funny that you point out him caring about his friends, because I find that having a lot of friends is always a driving factor in my life. Maybe the problem is that, as somebody else suggested before, you're not giving your child unconditional love and supporting him doing what he wants to do, so he's rebelling by saying he wants to do things you consider worthless and in turn seeking his approval elsewhere (from his peers). I know this is pretty much how I worked for years.

So, my advice-- be supportive (without being a pushover) and try to give helpful advice without projecting too much of yourself on your child. Telling him what life goals are acceptable is no different than those obnoxious dads who make their sons play football against their will just so that they can attempt to relive their own glory days. Your kid is young and has a lot of time (and a lot of brainpower) to figure things out.
posted by atomly at 4:20 PM on October 2, 2007

Magician and Taco Seller =seem= too random - I would bet that your son doesn't know what he wants to do, so he made up some stuff to get your goat, or maybe a laugh.

this all reminds me of Good Will Hunting: the prodigy who must overcome stuff before he can start focusing his own life and using his potential the way HE wants to.
posted by mrmarley at 4:42 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

A kid who devours advanced textbooks on math and physics says with all sincerity that he wants to be a magician or to run a taco stand. Given his intellect this would be a crying shame.

What's wrong with either of these options? I think people who run taco stands are just as good as anybody. I think that much of the problem is that you have told him that he has to be "somebody" and that if he isn't "somebody," given his intellect, he will be "nobody."

From experience, this is what is in his way.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:45 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of my parents, except they were first generation immigrants who didn't ask MetaFilter about how to raise their kid, so they pressured me and gave me hell and forced me into studying electrical engineering.

Man, I hate it, although I'm getting good grades and finally graduating. But, as you might have expected, I'm going in an entirely different direction, so it kind of feels like I was miserable and unhappy with my degree for the past four years for nothing, other than to get the obligatory undergrad degree. I mean, I could have at least been studying something that interested me. But I always regret that my college experience was boring, unexciting, and spent fiddling around with electronic things. I would have loved to go "take a year off" or "find myself" like all the other kids did.
posted by pravit at 4:51 PM on October 2, 2007

From another angle, you convince him to go college for something he isn't really interested in. In the second semester he realizes that he has no desire to be there or, more specifically, in the classes and starts skipping them all and pulling Cs, Ds and Is. He ends up on academic probation and then decides to quit college and work for a while. After a few years he figures out what he wants to do but has a much harder time doing it because instead of stellar grades from high school/CC, he's go a bunch Cs, Ds and Is from college.

It would have been much better for both of you if he had just held off on college and worked for a while.

Stop forcing this issue.
posted by 517 at 5:09 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Funny, I know someone who's both a remarkable magician and musician. I've worked with him in a very respectable business environment serving Fortune 500 clients. But what makes him remarkably good at his job can be traced back to his presentation skills, his ability to read an audience and his creative thinking.

Yes, he could have made money with his music, or his magic (both in demand), but he was able to parlay those into training that made him a unique commodity in the work world.

On the flip side, there are a ton of baker/caters that went to law school, business school, etc. Every time I eat a delicious cupcake, I think, "Wow, this is awesome." And then I think, "What a waste of money and expectation that they felt the need to get a law degree/MBA/etc. before they gave themselves the permission to do this."

It's his life. The more you try to steer it, the more unhappy one of you is going to be. Be there for him and trust that he'll settle where he needs to. Smart people succeed in what they set out to do, ADD or not.
posted by Gucky at 5:24 PM on October 2, 2007

I grew up in a culture very similar to yours - the parents had all sorts of expectations for their kids, and anything other than doctor/scientist/engineer was a major disappointment. My parents backed off a bit when they realized I wasn't going to ever be any of those things and didn't care, but many of my peers weren't so lucky.

Chill out! There's nothing wrong with being a magician or a taco stand owner or an owner of magical musical tacos. Every job - yes, even the street sweeper or the burger flipper - is legitimate and good and serves a purpose. Are you subconsciously projecting class onto him - that if he doesn't become Esteemed Genius Scientist he is in a lower class and that reflects badly on you? Because that's the common attitude my peers' parents had.

relax, your son will be fine. Though I do agree that the medicine is the most important concern now.
posted by divabat at 6:17 PM on October 2, 2007

A lot fo posters have said it was just like them and to lay off he will find himself eventually. I am 45 and still don't know what I want to do with my life. So what? Keep looking. Keep trying. Your son would be nuts to rule out possibilities without trying them. I also think his comments about ADD should be explored. His use of friends prescription drugs (adderall?) should also be pursued.

The only pressure I would put on him is to do his best at whatever it is he is doing and to try things before he rules them out. That includes the taco stand as well as college.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:09 PM on October 2, 2007

Taco (OK, burrito) stand owner.

(Who, incidentally, lacked direction as a kid)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:42 AM on October 3, 2007

Read this thread.
posted by Reggie Digest at 10:05 AM on October 3, 2007

You should understand something: kids have difficulty conceptualizing the future beyond a few years (this has been shown through psychological surveys as well as common sense). A lot of them can't even imagine living past the age of 25. Is it any wonder then, that if they're so in-the-moment, they don't have any grown-up plans?

Don't let your child's quick grasp of intellectual concepts fool you into thinking he can grasp other concepts that maturity and time haven't given him the perspective to understand.

Now, I myself have very little in the way of ambition. Never have, and probably never will. People seem to think that's a bad thing, and it used to worry me, but it's pretty peaceful, actually. I have interests and plans, even the lofty kind, but I won't hang my life's happiness on them. The way people do that to themselves is a crying shame.
posted by zennie at 11:17 AM on October 3, 2007

I notice that several commenters on this thread wrongly reinterpreted my comment under the pretense of agreeing with it. For that reason, I want to be more clear.

A teenager saying to his parents he thinks he might have ADD doesn't make it so. I'm not very concerned about that.

A teenager saying to his parents that he is abusing prescription ADD treatments should sound the buzzer, turn on the siren, run the big red flashing light. These drugs - amphetamines and related compounds - are some of the most addictive substances known to man. People with ADD use them under careful medical supervision to function better - and deal with the terrible side effects as best they can. But they are abused by other folks for their euphoric properties - by all accounts it feels very good to abuse amphetamine, much as it does to abuse cocaine.

Your kid might be taking amphetamine or methyphenidate and thinking "Wow this makes me feel good! Therefore I must have ADD!" Obviously this isn't a correct conclusion. What it is is a big problem and it needs to be addressed soonest.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:00 PM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another "I was the same as your son at his age" comment.

Nobody pressured me to do anything with my potential. Consequently I went seriously off the rails.

I'm 25 now and I'm starting medical school soon.

Let him find his own way. If he's as smart as you say, he will find something. But if he doesn't, it's his life, not yours -- so you're going to have to find a way to support him. Because you can't change him.
posted by mjao at 8:25 PM on October 3, 2007

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