So you always assumed your child would go to
college. Since he was old enough to talk, he debated anyone he could and
dreamed of being a lawyer. You set aside funds in a special high-interest bank
account. You played over the day in your mind when you’d pack him up in the
car, drive him to school, and leave him with a dorm room full of new sheets,
reading lamps and hotplate-safe cooking goods.
But what if the dream takes a detour, and for whatever reason, Matt one day announces to you that he is, in fact, not planning on going to college—and no, you can't convince him otherwise?
If you’ve had your heart set on your child earning a degree, the absolute wrong thing to do is freak out when he announces his alternate plan.
Like any other time Plan A doesn’t pan out, it’s time to make some
decisions. Will you give him a pass and let him stay at home? Will you send him on his
way so he has to get a job and support himself? Or will you negotiate some kind
you’ve had your heart set on your child earning a degree, the absolute wrong
thing to do is freak out when he announces his alternate plan, says Marilyn
Belleghem, a marriage and family therapist based in Canada. She advises asking
a series of questions instead. “This is a time for serious communication, not a
tirade about your expectations. The more you ask questions, the more the energy
moves to your brain, away from the first gut reaction.”
Even if you’re sure college is the best path for your child, Belleghem
says, “Your child is in the stage of development where they need to make
choices and accept the consequences of the choices. They must feel they have
made the choice to go to college and they are not being sent off like an
obedient child, or the consequences will be a great loss of time and
One thing to clarify is why your child’s college career is so
important to you. Do you want him to follow in the family business, or did you
have a harder road by not getting a degree? “Being clear about your expectations
and listening to your child's reasons will help you know ways to support the
final decision," she adds. "All students have heard the message about the importance of
education many, many times by this stage in the process.”
Belleghem suggests calmly sitting down with your child and asking the
• How long have you been thinking this way?
• Why have you decided this?
• Who have you talked to about this?
• Is this connected to your boyfriend/girlfriend?
• Do you have any fears about being away from home?
• What would you do instead?
• Do you think it is the program or college in general?
“If you have trouble speaking like this to your child, ask a qualified
therapist to help with the decision-making process,” she says.
New Jersey-based psychotherapist Tom Kerstig suggests taking a tactical approach: Show your child statistics for earning power of
people with a formal education and how college helps to
develop a profession he can be passionate about.
family’s dynamic is a little different, he adds. “As a parent you need to respect
what your child’s wishes are, but you can’t give in. Try to encourage them and
shed light on the importance of getting an education.”
And if the answer is still “I’m not going,” a little
toughening of the rules and setting boundaries can make the difference between
a couch zombie and a productive adult, says Kersting.
a child wants to stay home and not go to school, Kersting says, it’s time to set
some ground rules. Will the child pay rent if he’s working but not in school?
Does he need to have some kind of job? How much hanging out in front of the TV
is acceptable? Whatever the arrangement you make, if you don’t communicate your
expectations and then follow up with consequences, you might end up with a
25-year-old still living at home, going nowhere.
“Parents are going to have to step up to the
plate and get a little firmer with kids,” he says. “As a parent you can’t keep bailing your kid
out and enabling them to do what they’re doing.”