Control vs. Influence: They’re Not the Same

Dear Mr. Dad: I have a 14-year-old son and I think it’s high time to start preparing him for the future. We want to ensure that he’s on the right career path, whether than means going to college, trade school, or something else after he graduates high school. Granted, he’s only a freshman, but I’m concerned that he doesn’t seem to have much direction. How do I steer him toward the right career choice?

A: Excellent question—one that brings up the ongoing struggle we parents have to reconcile the difference between control and influence. Of course, we want our kids to succeed in everything they do, from getting good grades to finding the right life partner to landing the perfect job. When our kids are young, we’re pretty much in control and we’ve got a huge amount of influence. As they get older, they take on more and more control over their own lives. We still have influence, but a little less every day. And by the time they’re around your son’s age, we have almost no control at all, and whatever influence we still have is much more powerful if we wait until we’re asked to help rather than offering unsolicited advice (which a lot of teens and young adults will see as an attempt to control them anyway).

So my question to you is, What’s motivating you to worry about your son’s future? Be honest here. Most parents who plan their children’s career choices mean well, but some subtly or not-so-subtly try to push the kids down paths they wish they would have taken themselves. The fact that you’re open to college, trade school, or other options is a good sign that you’re not trying to live your life through your son. But tread lightly when it comes to offering opinions. The more you push, the more resentful he’ll be—and the less likely he’ll be to do what you think is best for him. It’s his life. He’ll have to live with the choices he makes. Fortunately, he’s young, so if those choices don’t work out, he’s got plenty of time to make new ones.

Okay, here’s a dirty little secret: Whether—or in which direction—you push your son, won’t matter much in the long run. How many adults do you know who are working in the same job they started when they finished school? Most of us jump from job to job, career to career, endlessly searching for that perfect fit, a new challenge, or something else. Your son will most likely do the same thing, working in one career until it’s no longer interesting or he can’t advance any higher, then it’ll be time for a change. That might sound unstable to you, but it’ll help your son grow as a person, learn new skills, and keep moving forward.

Instead of trying to steer your son towards something, why not see where his own internal GPS is guiding him? What’s he interested in, passionate about, good at? The old adage that if you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life, is dead right. Sure, a nice paycheck is a great thing, but if what you have to do to earn that paycheck stifles your creativity, crushes your soul, and makes you miserable, what’s the point? So rather then set your son on some particular path, help him find the one he’s meant to be on. Then, stand back and watch him soar.

Previously published on Mr. Dad

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