From our panel of staff contributors
If this announcement is coming from out of the blue, a long discussion needs to take place to understand the change in plans. But both of you need to understand that college is not for everyone. If the announcement is not a surprise, it's time to talk about other paths for your child to follow so he can be a productive, independent adult. Trade school? Delayed college entrance? Other job ideas that may require some instruction and training but not necessarily a degree? What needs to be made clear is that what is not an option is carefree, parent-supported living. Define "adult" and discuss ideas/options.
Ask why, of course, followed by what he plans to do. Can't force a kid to go to college if he or she doesn't want to. You waste money. I would point out how difficult it can be to go to college later or get a job in a chosen career track, but it is his decision in the end.
The college application process is long over at this point, so the question is: Why now? Are friends (especially a girlfriend) making the same declarations at home? Something's up if this is the first inkling of doubt. And what is his plan for life after high school, which won't include the college fund handed over to the reluctant collegian?
"Have a reaction but don't overreact," says psychologist Anthony Rao, author of "The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys" (William Morrow).
"The knee-jerk impulse is to start down the road of 'You have to. This is important. I know best. If you don't go, there will be no car. If you don't go now, I won't pay for it later,'" Rao says. "That shuts the whole thing down, the boy digs in his heels, and this becomes a protracted problem."
Or, you could listen to what's on his mind.
"Calm it all down and give your son an opportunity to voice all of his fears and anxieties," Rao says. "It's possible he just needs to talk it out. Maybe he feels underprepared in today's fast-paced, hyperpressurized, competitive world. Maybe he's afraid of leaving you or his friends or his love interest. Maybe he's burned out and can't imagine signing up for four more years of intensity.
"Give him some space to talk about the fear that he can't handle college."
Now for the hard part.
"Don't parent the way you would have when your son was little and you were keeping him from something dangerous," Rao says. "This isn't running too fast on the playground. This is a young adult. You try to turn it into a lesson, and their ears just close up."
Instead, craft a game plan together.
"Treat it like a business meeting, where all options are on the table and all viewpoints and ideas are respected," he says. "Talk about internships, trade school, travel if it's constructive and positive, a job," he says. "Sometimes a crappy first job is the best way to get kids ready to go to school.
"Some kids need a cleansing of the mental palate between heavy courses of academics. Far worse to be pushed into college when you're not ready and then unravel and have to come home with $20,000 lost and all your friends off away at college."
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