With the spring semester upon us, many parents of teens are starting to have college conversations. Our 16-year-old son, Dixon, is looking to play baseball in college, so this conversation is in full swing.
As a parent navigating this with her first child (my son, Thackston, is 13 and soon to follow), I’ve realized there’s no roadmap when it comes to helping your child choose what college to go to or what to do after graduation. The process can feel overwhelming.
Navigating v. Controlling Your Child’s Decision
As with any big decision that involves my kids, I have found myself wanting to control this process for Dixon, making sure he makes the best possible decision. But I’ve been around the parenting thing long enough to know that whenever I start bending toward control, I’m parenting out of fear. That’s when I need to take a step back and reassess.
It's hard. When our kids are starting to think about college, they’re just that—kids! They’re 15, 16 or 17 years old. How can they know what’s best for their future? How much agency should I give them? How much authority should they have over their lives at this point?
What I’ve found, though, is if I take the time to ask my sons a thoughtful question about themselves, they will respond with an insightful answer. Our kids know themselves better than we think they do. That’s why my husband, Matt, and I have decided to take the question approach when it comes to navigating the college decision.
Rather than trying to control our son’s future, we’re trying to ask helpful questions that will allow him to think about what he really wants. In doing this, Dixon has learned a lot about himself and what he’s looking for in his future, and we have learned a lot about our son and how to best support him.
5 Questions We Asked Our Son to Help Him with the College Decision Process
Several of these questions were inspired by Dustin Lynn, the Director of College Counseling at Dixon’s school. These have been great conversation starters for us and have helped us narrow down what types of schools Dixon wants to consider.
1. Do you feel like college is the next step for you?
So often parents assume their child should go to college. But college is not for everybody. Some kids may thrive jumping right into the workforce, joining the military or taking a gap year. They may need to work and save up money for school. We want to present college as an option to our kids, not an assumption.
2. What kind of environments do you thrive in?
Your child may have no idea what college he wants to go to. Asking him an open-ended question like this will help him narrow it down. Does he thrive in studious environments? Does he prefer big crowds or small groups? This question is a great conversation starter that can help kids narrow down their decision.
3. How far do you want to be from home?
Brace yourself for any answer to this question. I was surprised when Dixon said he wanted to be in a similar climate that we have here in Nashville with all four seasons. This means somewhere like Michigan or South Texas is probably out of the question. Knowing what region or state your child wants to be in allows you to focus on one area of the map, rather than the entire country (or world).
4. When you think about your college experience, what do you hope to get out of it?
I ask a variation of this question in my professional life and when I’m mentoring. When you know your end goal, you can work backward and pinpoint the best starting place for you. When we asked Dixon this question, he said he wants to play baseball and be challenged in the classroom. Your child might be looking for a specific major, study abroad experience, friendships or job opportunities. Whatever it is, determine their goals first then work backward from there, looking at schools that would help them get what they want out of their college experience.
5. If you make this decision and you regret it or change your mind, how can I support you in that?
More than anything, Matt and I want to create a home that is safe and nurturing for our children, a home they know they can come back to anytime and want to come back to when they have the option. By asking Dixon this question, we are giving him permission to change his mind. We are telling him that we will support him no matter what. That takes the pressure off him to make the “perfect” decision, and it tells him that we’re on his team. We won’t be disappointed if he needs to start over. We will be there to help him.
Sons and Shoulder-to-Shoulder Conversations
A therapist once told me that boys prefer shoulder-to-shoulder conversations while girls prefer face-to-face conversations. This is certainly true for Dixon. He is more comfortable when I bring up these questions in the car or during an activity rather than face-to-face at the dinner table. That setting can be intimidating. Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them is crucial for us parents. What I’ve found is that if I choose a time when my child is comfortable and at ease, he is much more likely to open up, and we make much better progress.
At the end of the day, what I want for Dixon and Thackston is whatever will bring them the most life and joy. I can’t make those decisions for them, but I can strive to be a kind and loving voice in the process.