Parenting Against the Stigma

We frequently talk with students, teachers, counselors, social workers, and parents about the pressures young people face as they are funneled towards college . Some young people clearly don’t want to walk this path, but parents struggle with how best to help their child succeed otherwise. Exploring the trades can still carry a stigma for both parents and young adults. Speaking to this, this month’s blog comes from Anna Walker, a mother who lives in Boulder, Colorado and shares her experiences supporting both her children as they explore different paths to preparing for an independent life after high-school:

While scrolling through Facebook in January, 2019, I came across a Lagom Landing post highlighting an article from the Chicago Sun Times, “Let’s Quit Brainwashing Kids that it’s a College Degree or Nothing,” by David McGrath.  The article champions trade school as an alternative for kids when a path to college is not a natural direction.  

This line of thinking, gaining steam with the support of advocates like Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe, is really more of a retro approach to choosing a post-high school path.  That’s because kids perched to leave the nest would likely find ancestors in their family tree wearing dungarees covered in dirt, sawdust, soot, or oil, rather than white-collared dress shirts. That is to say, within the past two to three generations, practicality and suitability have ceased to dictate a student’s educational and career choices. Instead, “it’s a college degree or nothing.”  If my kids’ great-grandparents were around to hear that nonsense I’m certain they would hand me a hammer and tell me to ‘get to work, with a little more elbow grease, if you please. ’ 

Over the years there have been rebukes of the prevailing mindset in the form of alternative paths, like taking a gap year, with or without a formal program, or pursuing a trade through vocational education. Based on the uptick in participation and satisfaction, a contemplative, thoughtful approach to what life can look like after high school is paying off for kids and parents willing to seek alternatives to the norm.

With two kids in the high school/college window, my husband and I have watched as they have stepped off the beaten path to find their way forward.  When our oldest daughter wanted to work in the very specific field of modeling after graduation, we had to wash our brains before we understood her life experience would be greatly enhanced, as would her desire to get a degree, once she worked in the real world.  Thankfully, she’s developed many wonderfully unique skills and is ready to begin college in the fall. 

However, in the educational system and the mind-traps of parents, there is still a cog that needs more grease: encouraging kids to pursue a trade through vocational school during high school.  Our youngest is a high school sophomore, who got stuck last semester trying to make school work.  The following is a Facebook post I wrote about finding a program for him:

“Here at home, Mason is trying some new things this semester: Welding class at Boulder Valley School District’s (BVSD) Technical Education Center (TEC) and online classes through BVSD Online.  Thankfully, this path seems to suit him. Fairview High School proved it wasn’t a great fit for him for a multitude of reasons, sending us on a search for an answer. Whatever reason a kid is derailed, we know firsthand it’s really difficult to rally and find something if a traditional route is a non-starter.  

Leaving Farview High School and starting trade school was well outside our comfort zones, but Mason was certain he was making the right decision for himself.  Though we are only a week into the semester, we already see an incredible change in him.

Attending TEC does not preclude him from going to college, should he choose.  And, just like with his sister, we would be very supportive if he took time after high school to seek experiences and work before digging into formal/traditional education. 

If it sounds like I’m trying to convince myself we’ve made the right decisions for the kids…it’s true…I am.  It’s so much easier to imagine sending our kids down the same route my husband, Dirk, and I took through and after high school.  As an example, even though we had lots of time to wrap our heads around Liv’s plan to work as a model after graduation, we still felt a ping and a pang when we heard about her friends’ college plans. Now, while we cheer on Mason’s former teammates playing basketball and listen attentively as their parents talk about campus visits, we feel anxious about his future.

Dirk and I thought the kids would follow our map, but it seems instead both Liv and Mason are content to explore this time in their lives with the orienteering skills we’ve taught them. The stress we feel as parents is two-fold: 1) Did we teach them well enough for them to find their way? 2) How do we know if they are going to find the right way? 

Ultimately, I recognize these are questions every parent asks as their kids individuate and head-out into the world.  That kinda makes me feel better.  Also, as I’ve shared this, I’ve heard over and over again about kids who opted-out of traditional high school/post-high school paths.  I don’t think Dirk and I will stop wanting our kids to go to college, but we are evermore open to many ways in which a young person becomes an educated and able adult.    

January 2019

Since writing the post, Mason has continued to work hard learning to weld.  He’s looking forward to taking an auto-body course in the fall, and then continuing with welding next spring. 

While I’m still apprehensive about what Mason’s life may look like without a college degree, I’ve also had time to think about how natural it is for him to work with his hands, learning a trade, just like my Papa and my husband’s grandfather, who both donned well-worn work clothes to make their livings.

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