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Parents shouldn't push their teenagers into careers they'll hate

There comes an age when teenagers realise that they are independent people. It's that time of year. For those of us considering university the inevitable has arrived. "What are you going to do at university, dear?"

My response, "I want to do a BA in English and philosophy", is like saying "I want to be a streaker up Queen St". It gets the same shock, furtive interest, and head shaking that my parents gave their 18-year-old.

The correct answer is: "I'm doing a law and commerce conjoint."


I did consider a law and commerce conjoint. I also considered plucking out my nose hair.

My brother had the same aversion to these subjects. He did history at university. He got the response of barely concealed scorn: "And what are you going to do with that?"

Sociologists interested in parent-teenager battle lines may like to crack out the binoculars for a family's university debate. It is a parental experience versus teenage determination confrontation.

The parents start sweetly: "You're far too smart to be doing a BA."

Then there's the retort: "Well, what else am I gonna do?"

And here we find the two golden grails for vaguely smart Kiwis (unless you want to be a doctor). It's law or it's commerce. Or both.

A friend of mine, Celine, is blessed with remarkable intelligence. Children also flock to her and she adores their sticky selves. However, despite her wanting to take English and become a teacher, everyone is telling her to do law/commerce because she's smart.

She hates law and commerce, but feels like she ought to take them because that's how our society defines success.

Why are we forcing people into decisions they won't enjoy? Are we saying teaching is a worthless career? Is Celine wrong for wanting to inspire children?

Now, it would be much easier if we could ignore the fact that our parents care about us. Unfortunately, my mother, daring to poke fruit into the quagmire of my schoolbag, is daily proof that parental love withstands everything. Including festering feijoas. So, we know our parents are advising us because they care.

But there is an issue with parents thinking they know best. It runs dangerously close to assuming parents can still think for their teenagers.

There comes an age when teenagers realise that they are independent people. It's normally when they run out of money on a road trip and think, "Aw crap, the parental pot of Visa gold isn't here." But, it is deeper than that; it's an evolution of our own ideas and identity. If parents haven't realised this, then there will be blood on the floor when the "your future" conversation comes.

At this age, the most helpful, and prudent, thing is for parents to offer advice, not ultimatums.

And when giving advice ask whether this advice is right for your child? Have you thought about what inspires them? If we're spending all this money on education, then shouldn't we be enjoying it?

The most fundamental mistake parents can make is giving advice that would suit their 18-year-old self. Your teenagers are not you.

Realising and responding to your teenager's individual needs are essential. Last year, New Zealand Management magazine revealed 60 per cent of people hated or had a humdrum attitude to their jobs.

No parent wants to be the one who forced their teen into an unhappy lifestyle. If this 60 per cent of people were following their passion, would they be unhappy?

And so, back to university. If you want to be a lawyer, great, do law. If not, ask yourself, when was the last time you felt a rush of satisfaction, when you said "this is me" and "this is what I love"? (And I'm discounting finding a new flavour of Kapiti icecream.) That's what everyone should be chasing.

"Oh, but I can't get a job with anything apart from law." Well, in June this year Forbes revealed a study of 36,000 arts' graduates. Their unemployment rate was half the national average. It makes sense. Do you think a top-class degree in something you care about, or a half-baked law degree is more attractive to employers?

The point of a degree is to stretch you. You want to learn to create coherent, structured, powerful arguments. Now, you are more likely to do this if you are doing something you care about.

In 1969, the psychologist Deci investigated the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

He concluded, as have countless others, that intrinsic motivation consistently outstrips extrinsic motivation.

If you care about it, you'll try harder while doing it. If we want teenagers to excel at university we need to allow them to study what they're interested in.

Nobody wants to be miserable. Parents don't want it for us. The universities don't want it for us. And we certainly don't want it for us. Please, parents, help give us the courage to back ourselves.

We've always been told we can do what we want to do, not what everyone else says we should do. Now it's time to help us put the rhetoric into reality.

* Verity Johnson is an 18-year-old student from Albany.