Debate, discussion and disagreement – are the dreaded 3D’s that come with the territory of parenting teenagers. More frequent, more intense and without doubt louder and more animated. How to navigate them successfully can only be described as work in progress and remains a mystery for us all. Right now for us the focus of the 3D’s is university – its purpose and ultimately its value.
My daughter and youngest teen is in her GCSE year but already she is having to make a decision about her A’levels and inherent within that is a consideration of the long term impact that decision will have on her choice of university course. Despite having been here before with my eldest, I had forgotten just how much forward planning goes into this stage.
Unlike my son, my daughter is creative. Her strength is the humanities but she wants to explore new territories in her education at A’level, which means more of the so called “soft” subjects but by doing that she is putting herself at risk, or so the teachers say at least, of limiting her options at degree level and ultimately not only her attractiveness as a student but as an employee of the future.
Stuck in the middle of this conundrum as we so often are as parents, I am adopting the position of devil’s advocate and encouraging her to consider all the probabilities and outcomes, after all as parents we have the advantage of knowing that some mistakes are difficult if not impossible to rectify.
I made some bad choices with my own A’levels and went with a combination that made absolutely no sense other than they were the ones in which I scored highest in my O’levels. That was not the right route and I have tried to ensure my own teenagers’ decisions are driven by passion rather than scores or worse still indifference, but equally that their decisions are informed.
How can we guide them on this journey? The answer is clearly not to make them feel as if you are railroading them, but that is not easy.
My daughter is clever, not in the manner of a child who is just naturally bright and always top of the class, but in the inquiring sense. She thinks outside the box, is not afraid to stick her hand up and question the status quo, is widely read and devours the news and current affairs to the point where I am sometimes embarrassed by my own ignorance.
As a mother I don’t want her to throw that fervour for learning away by pursuing those subjects at A’level deemed more vocational. I want her to continue to challenge her thoughts, to change her opinions and not take a route that won’t allow her that level of intellectual debate or a change of heart.
The result is an impasse in which I suggest that maybe we should take some time to consider the avenues more thoroughly and that whatever she chooses now is still flexible, but for her that is not enough. Torn between what her head and her heart are telling her, she wants all the discussions and answers now. Again it is a scenario that is reminiscent of one with my eldest at the same age.
The immediacy of thought and need for decision among our teens is frightening. Theirs is a world that is changing faster than ever, is fiercely competitive and to keep up requires a new set of skills. There is no time to pause, reflect or deviate and therein lies the core difference between their generation and my own as a teen.
My degree is in English. What do you with that? Well nothing and everything, depending which side of the fence you are on. For me it was an inroad into a fabulous career with English at its core, but I wasn’t thinking that when I needed to make my decision. Yes there was a cursory nod to where it might take me but not in any real level of detail so early on. It was simply something I loved through every stage of my education and back in the 80’s, degree course decisions were largely made based on what you enjoyed. After all when else do you get the chance to indulge your passion?
Now as a parent to Generation Z, I am learning that their decisions are very much focused on the step after rather than the immediate one, after all they will leave university with a level of debt unheard of in my day and that in itself demands consideration of where it will lead them and what they will do.
Yet it saddens me to see this transformation. University is an indulgence, a privilege. It is a rite of passage for those who want to explore beyond the boundaries of straight line thinking in a way they will never be able to again.
It should be about broadening their horizons not narrowing them so early on, but this is exactly what this process is forcing them to do.
The university experience is of course unique and different for every individual and the value of a degree is about much more than the attainment of a piece of paper that certifies you have ticked all the boxes and reached a certain level of academic excellence.
It gives our teens and young adults an opportunity to not only think for themselves but to care for themselves. It is about them learning how to live as well as think and symbolises for many the transition into adulthood.
There is room for everyone in this educational world but when it comes to the value of university debate, in my opinion the real value lies in its provision of an environment for nurturing inquiring minds and the leaders of new thought and we should be encouraging that by ensuring our teenagers are able to do that free of the stress of what lies beyond the next step.
Editors Note: What do you think? If you have a view I would love to hear from you.