How I Helped My Kids Decide What to Do After High School

I plan to get very personal today. I want to offer you a summary of what my wife and I did to prepare our kids for their post-secondary experience. Perhaps it will be an encouragement to you and spark ideas of your own.

Both my son and daughter thought they wanted to go to college. But I knew enough from the narrative of so many teens that college isn’t right for everyone.  A recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article describing how so many parents put their kids on a “forced march to college.” The standardized tests, the language we use and the assumptions we possess all push adolescents to feel like second-class citizens if they choose to do anything other than a four-year university following graduation. The only choice some have is choosing which one.

“If you’re smart, you will go to college,” so says the narrative.

So our journey began in middle school with several experiences that we all hoped would pave the way for a wise decision. Let me describe the steps we took.

1. A Parent-Child Trip

Our first step took place when each of our children entered the sixth grade. When they turned 12, each could choose anywhere they wanted to visit, and I would take them there for some fun time and some conversation. Bethany chose Orlando, to visit some theme parks; Jonathan chose Minneapolis for some shows and Camp Snoopy. Along with the fun, I facilitated an experience about what it meant to become an adult and what choices lay in front of them. My goal was to simply set the stage.

2. A Rite of Passage Experience

At age 13, we orchestrated a yearlong “rite of passage” experience. Just like other cultures celebrate a child’s entrance into manhood or womanhood, we planned a year of meeting mentors with a variety of vocations and gifts. Each of my kids got to ask questions along the way, experience different locations, receive artifacts and take notes. Both of the years ended in a celebration of who they were and what they had to offer the world as they matured. Both of my kids recall it as a defining year for them.

3. Purposeful Extra-Curricular Activities

We did not allow our kids to sign up for several after-school activities each semester. Even though all their friends seemed to do five or six at once, we let them do one at a time, so we could process their day well and determine their level of interest going forward. We had dinners together—more often than not—where we used that time to help them learn to think critically about life and their future. From sports to theatre, they each focused on one at a time and we all remained sane. We learned that mono-tasking beats multi-tasking every time! We learned that staying focused on one activity at a time proved to be beneficial.

4. Meeting with Specialists

As each of them matured through high school, they got a clearer picture of what they wanted to do upon entering their career. So, my wife and I arranged meetings with people who actually served in those industries. Both of them came to the meetings prepared with written questions and lots of curiosity. Bethany is 30 now, but she still meets with the woman she met with in high school.

5. Personal Assessments and Meal Time

As high school students we introduced our kids to several evaluations that enabled them to assess their gifts and interests. After they took the tests, we had a rich time in conversation about their personality (MBTI), strengths (Gallup’s StrengthQuest), style (DISC profile), and their leadership approach. We also discussed Habitudes®, which I had begun to formalize. We even discussed their life purpose. Our goal was to liberate them from feeling they had to imitate someone else to be successful.

6. A Gap Year

Following high school, neither one of my kids knew exactly what they wanted to do, but they had a good idea. However, I wanted to take one more step before they chose to attend a college, go to a trade school or simply enter their career. They each took a full year and worked. They served as an intern at Growing Leaders, learning to talk to partners on the phone; ship boxes of books, travel with me on trips, work at a resource table and take direction from real supervisors full-time. It was rewarding to watch their skills and emotional intelligence sharpen.

So What Happened?

When each of my kids finished their “gap year,” they were more ready than ever to choose their next step. In the end, both chose to attend a university. However, it wasn’t until several real-life experiences (working with adults) informed them.

Neither of them made “straight A’s” in high school or college, but both were more equipped for “real-life” than many adolescents. Upon graduation, both were employed immediately. Education reformer Ted Dintersmith writes, “I’d love to see more colleges embrace applicants who can demonstrate that they’ve actually made a difference in the world instead of submit a bunch of scores or numbers that are, at best, loosely correlated indicators of downstream impact to life.”  Dintersmith goes on, “Our mantra is ‘higher test scores’ on more rigorous college-ready content, so that every kid goes to a four-year college. For every kid who succeeds at that, there are going to be five to ten for whom it’s a particularly terrible path.”

Let’s lead our kids well, based on who they are—not who we want them to be.

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How I Helped My Kids Decide What to Do After High School