Verity Johnson: Time to ask questions, rather than give answers

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Photo / Jason Oxenham
Photo / Jason Oxenham

There are advantages in having a chest infection.

For instance, I can get a husky 30s jazz singer drawl, without smoking my way to an early death before I can pay off my student debt. I've also invented the classic game, "can I administer my cough medicine in the dark without swallowing my shampoo?"

But the other thing it's done, is let me reminisce over this time two years ago. It was coming up to my final school exams, and I was having violent dreams about the Chinese Communist Party.

I dreamed Deng Xiaoping was binding me up in twine. Obviously it showed I was suffering from an unresolved childhood incident with a fruit bat and a toaster. But it also reflected the suffocating feeling I had living with the constant discussion of what happened after school.

Should I brave arts at university? And what university should I be at? And should I even be at university? It had reached crunch time for the application process.

And everyone around me was doing law and BCom at Auckland University. Why? It's what you do in 21st century NZ.

If you're vaguely intelligent and 18, and not keen on medicine or engineering, then you're doing Law/BCom. And at this time of year, parents are pulling out all the stops to make sure this happens.

"You won't get a job with history," "you're too smart to do French!" and "but we agreed you wanted to do commerce!"

I've written on why it's a bad idea to tell your children what to do after school before. And all the reasons I had two years ago, about motivation, employability and happiness, remain true.

But I've since found another, deeper, more urgent reason why it's crucial to allow your kids freedom in their post-secondary options.

It gives us a chance to develop our own definition of success.

Of course, the chance to form our version of success doesn't just happen at the end of school. It can happen at any point, when you're about to have a baby or when you're eating yoghurt on the sofa.

But leaving school is the first, and one of the clearest, opportunities to define what success is to you. It's a natural break, a pause in the sprint towards ... what?

It's not an easy process, trying to figure out how that "what" looks like. You are, after all, asking yourself "what does success look like for me? In ten years, what will I say I'm proud of?" But if we don't do it, then we don't get into the habit of asking what we want from life. Or how we get to it.

Instead, we take the generic idea of "success", which in this case happens to be Law/BCom. Not only does this mean we aren't happy, because this generic plan for everyone can't suit our individual needs. But it also means we lose the first opportunity to take control of our lives, and that sets a dangerously passive precedent.

That's why it's crucial to spur young people into thinking, not following, at this moment. We need to ask difficult questions, not provide authoritative answers.

The only reason I started thinking about my definition of success is because my parents refused to tell me what to do. They told me I was too old for answers, and it was my job to figure out what I wanted. Otherwise, I never would.

It's one of the things, like the urge to collect plastic bags, that I'm supremely glad they gave me.

It helped me realise that my success is writing something more sophisticated than my early attempt, Harry Potter and the Octopus, and separating myself from the shadow of my spectacular brother.

When I realised that, I knew I had to do arts at university. I also had to go overseas, like my brother, but not to Cambridge.

And the only reason I had the chance to think about this, was because my parents made me. If they'd told me to do law, I'd have done it. I'd also feel incredibly lost, and would be doing what I normally do under stress - eating the chocolates in the selection box and leaving the wrappers. (God, I'm stealthy.)

Young people need an opportunity to be prompted to think about what we want from our lives. We need to know that if we want to spend our lives learning to make the perfect eclair, then that's what we need to do.

So if you have a teenager, and the immortal words "I know what you should do" are bubbling behind your lips, swallow them! Ask your teenager; "What does success look like for you?"

- NZ Herald

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