Jamie Chrien
Jamie Chrien

Letting them find their own path

By Allison Chrien

Our youngest son is a senior in high school.

I’m willing to bet that a fair number of you read that and immediately wondered what college he was planning to go to next year. I’m also willing to bet that the rest just didn’t think about it because this is a one-way conversation but would have totally asked me directly if we were speaking in person. 

Because it’s automatic. Totally involuntary. A no-brainer call-and-response way to make pleasant conversation. I know this in part because I’ve done it myself, and in part because our oldest son was a senior two years ago.

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The thing is, that son decided not to go to college. He’d made his decision the very moment he learned what college was. When I explained it to him, his reply was something along the lines of “Nope. No way. That is NOT happening. Absolutely not.” 

He was probably in grade school at the time but that decision never really changed.

He’s always been a smart kid. He generally got decent grades and he enjoyed learning and all, but only in his own way and in his own time. He bristled at being told what to learn, when and how, and he only really pushed himself if he saw no other choice or if he happened to feel inspired by something or someone. If he could have built an engineering career through YouTube and experimentation, I believe he would have, but the thought of paying good money to voluntarily sit through classes (particularly those that were more necessary than interesting) was simply crazy to him.

And we were fine with him not going. Well, I was fine with it. My husband wasn’t particularly thrilled, but he did agree that it was pointless to try to force the issue and that our son had to figure out his own path. All we could really do was be honest in our opinions and make sure he knew that parental concerns and random suggestions aside, all we really wanted was for him to explore his options and follow his heart.

That, and for him to know that if he planned to make a career out of playing video games all day, he had to do more than just play video games all day.

So, throughout his senior year, I braced myself for the inevitable “where’s he going…?” and fully expected confusion, disappointment or outright condescension after my “he’s not…” reply but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised almost every time – people were often downright enthusiastic in their support of his decision. They generally seemed to be impressed he had the maturity to know that either he wasn’t ready or that college just wasn’t for him.

(Yes, it has occurred to me that some people may have been laying that enthusiasm on a bit thick in an effort to support what they assumed to be a distraught parent, or that they may have simply been excited by the unexpected divergence from a well-worn conversational path, but I did then and still do choose to take that enthusiasm at face value.)

Let’s be real, though. It would have been a WHOLE lot tougher if he didn’t have a cool uncle in Los Angeles willing to take him in for a while and offer him a dream job building custom crates for artwork. He was beyond lucky and we’re beyond grateful. If the level of wear and tear on all of our nerves by the time he left is any indication of what life would have been like if he hadn’t had that opportunity, I can safely say that I’d be singing a very different tune right about now.

So, here we are, with our second senior, and I’m struck for the millionth time by how very different kids can be. 

As this one is considering his post-high-school options, he appears to be a little less sure of his path (or more specifically, less capable of clearly eliminating any potential path) but he does have leanings towards continuing his education. We’ve been working our way through the foreign lands of FAFSA and Common App. He believes he wants to go somewhere but the “where and for what” remains a bit of a mystery. There have been a lot of shrugs and sure-why-nots and random-feeling clicks.

His whole process feels a bit like throwing darts with a blindfold on. 

I must admit that I’m a little less fine with the way things are going than my husband this time around but we both just want to make sure he doesn’t just pick something to be picking something and end up feeling stuck, regretful and unfulfilled. We want him to explore his options and follow his heart, too, and it’s hard to know that we can’t pick a path for him no matter how aimlessly he might wander. All we can do is take the same approach we did before, offering both honesty and support for his decisions.

I keep reminding myself of things I said repeatedly two years ago: that kids rarely know what they’re going to do with their lives when they graduate high school and that most of the adults I know are living proof that the only way to truly know where someone will end up is to wait and see.

In the meantime, I’ll just stand behind him as he throws those darts and hope that nobody gets impaled.

Allison Chrien has followed many paths in the past but now works from home with her small business promoting small businesses, loopincopley.com. 

Photos by Paula Meeker Photography