We need professional advice on how to get our sons back to college. They started, and then 2020 happened, and gap semesters and mental health, and now? We cannot get them focused on going back to finish the degrees (one is two-thirds through and the other less than half). I spent a lifetime in academia, but they don't want to hear my advice or it is not swaying them. Thanks.
Your question is shared by millions of parents, so I (and they) thank you for bringing it to this column.
Your frustration and sense of helplessness are palpable; I feel for you. Parental helplessness is the hardest feeling to deal with, but I assure you that relief is available to you. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I want to contextualize what I think your boys are going through to help you make sense of what so many students and parents are navigating.
Covid has shaken the ground under the already rickety institution of education in this country. And students are hip to the rumblings. After two years of Covid, while they attended classes from their bedrooms (and didn’t necessarily learn much), the value of education in its centuries-old format has begun to seem anachronistic. Maybe it was good for us boomers and our ancestors, but not students born in the 21st century. And the Herculean effort to mobilize virtual tech to remedy its outdatedness has been unsuccessful.
Many are questioning the value of higher education especially because of its expense and ensuing debt. Students are not sold on the idea that college is necessary to get ahead in life, and they’re not even sure what it means to get ahead. “If y’all can just record your lecture and don’t have a reason to entertain my questions or interact with a classroom vibe, then what’s the point? And how exactly am I going to use Calculus in life?”
Remote learning shined a light on just how vital human interaction is to learning, and Covid has shined a light on just how much learning is missing from education.
So why aren’t they jazzed to be in school? Two reasons.
First: The fun and enrichment of learning has been drained from education. Students have had to become focused on the mechanics of getting good grades; that beautiful experience of being intellectually challenged and developing mastery has been sidelined.
Second: The path they’ve been told they should follow, that begins in Kindergarten and concludes in College and is paved by their GPA, is a hollow promise. Get your ticket stamped and move forward. Students are questioning whether the ticket has any real value if all they’re doing is following instructions and getting GPAs.
Covid has been like a rototiller grinding that reliable school-to-life path into a pile of confusing rocks. So it doesn’t surprise me that your sons and so many of their fellow student travelers are not feeling called to return to school. Because on that path they’ve been following, largely at the behest of others, some crucial questions have not been asked or answered. I've been coaching for over 25 years, which means I now know multiple generations of students. Few students in younger generations can answer these questions:
Much of “becoming educated” includes being told what should matter. Students are feeling the emptiness and more and more aren’t even sure they know what the point of living is. They’ve been walking that path, and Covid has them now wondering if its destination really matters to them. They’ve been walking that path without seeing that they have the agency to change directions. And they’ve been walking that path very often being talked out of the ideas and creative inspiration that is regarded as a “detour” but in fact might be the very best new path to take.
This yields good news and bad news. First the bad news. Brace yourself.
You can’t get your sons to do anything. I certainly haven’t been able to get my boys to do anything since they outweighed me in their early teens. Anything they’ve done that happened to align with my wishes probably had very little to do with me. I might like to think I was influential, and certainly parents always have some influence, but I know I’m kidding myself if I think it was my will they were following.
The GOOD news (the part that will bring you relief) is that You Are Not Responsible For Getting Them To Go Back To College.
You’re not responsible for doing anything except loving them and believing in them, and telling them twenty times a day that they are amazing, creative, wonderful human beings, who, like every other human who has come before them, will find their way and make a life that makes sense to them. You are responsible for one thing and one thing only: to show them what being a healthy adult is. If you choose, you can help them with housing, finances, tissues, and advice (if solicited). But it is your choice.
So what to do? First, focus on yourself.
Make your choices fit into what you need for yourself. How’s YOUR life? Do you have the resources you need? Are you doing what’s fun and inspiring for yourself?
This may sound selfish and neglectful of them, but it’s not. It’s good modeling. If YOU can navigate your own path, knowing as you do by now that there isn’t one single path to follow, then they will watch and learn from you. All of the anxiety and frustration will evaporate the moment you step back from this and see that you only have the power to live your life, and they have the power to live theirs.
Finally, don’t pick a focus for them and try to get them to align with it. Help them find their own focus. Listen to them. Be open to them. Trust them. Ask them questions about what is fun, interesting, entertaining, useful in their worlds.
And trust that you have been a fine parent who showed them a way to live, and now it’s their turn to find the way they want to live.