College students are treated very differently than they were in high school. The entire system is geared toward making them responsible for their choices and actions. They are expected to really want to grow up. If they resist too much they are going to wind up confused, depressed, or out of touch with their peers. And the school will let them know if they aren't making the grade. So if you've prepared your child to appreciate the importance of college, you can expect him to do the right things. And the best preparation is to help your child set goals.
And the Award for Best Supporting Mom Goes to…
The best way for you to help your child set goals for college is to do a lot of listening. Your role at this point in your child's life is supportive, rather than directive. It's good to offer suggestions, but they should help expand an idea your child has, not undermine it.
Momma Said There'd Be Days Like This
God bless my mother, but to this day she says she should have handled my choice of college major differently. From the moment I was born I was creative and very artistic. Mom, however, was practical: “You need to earn a living.” I liked to gab, so I went to law school—not a place terrifically supportive of artistic desires. It wasn't long before I realized that I didn't like studying law. But I did start writing. When I realized I could actually make a career out of something I enjoyed I was ecstatic—and that was the end of my law career.
Helping Resolve the “Major” Dilemma
One of the biggest challenges your college-age child will face is selecting a major. While you may have opinions on the subject, this really has to be left up to her. You can help best by working with your child to identify her likes and dislikes, and help her set goals that are geared to her interests. This approach pretty much guarantees that you are going to have a motivated, happy, and very likely successful student. Children should be taught to look inside themselves for guidance as to where to take their lives. Their lives are not meant to be sacrificed to boredom and misery at the altar of a guaranteed paycheck.
If your child is primarily interested in studying an area that will ultimately make him a lot of money, that's just fine. At least that is an honest goal. But make sure the choice is his. The most difficult aspect of helping your child set goals at this stage is keeping yourself from overly influencing the outcome. Even a young adult wants his mother's approval. Even without uttering a word, if you give that look of nose-in-the-air disapproval, you will have a negative impact on your child's decisions. You want to be involved in your child's life, and you want to offer guidance if you're asked for it. But you do not want to cause your child to think you disapprove of anything that will really make him happy.
Modulating Your Mothering Style
The difficulty in finding a way to be supportive without pushing your own agenda is that it seems you have to learn this trick practically overnight. One minute you have a teenager with whom you're still doing the mommy drill at bedtime: Did you brush your teeth? Did you do your homework? Did you set your alarm? Then, suddenly, your child goes off to college, and you're supposed to be able to switch all those mom-worries off. That's hard to do: You can't stop mothering just because your child hits a certain age. And, in fact, you don't really have to. You just have to be more subtle about it.
Self-Reliance: the Gift That Keeps on Giving
You give your child a wonderful gift when you allow her to come to her own conclusions about her future. Let her do her own research on what is available in certain fields and what kinds of majors will take her in the right direction. But encourage her to keep her options open for a while: You don't want your child to feel locked into anything. Help her learn to make the kinds of decisions that will influence her future.
When you're making major decisions, the question you start with makes a big difference in the out-come. If you begin with the question, “What should I do with my life?” you are going to end up very confused. If you start with the questions, “What do I enjoy?,” “Who am I?” and “How can I create a life that best reflects me?,” you are going to build a foundation that can last a lifetime.
Above all, make sure your child takes her time in making important choices. Most schools don't even require students to choose a major until the start of the third year. The first two years are intended as a time of exploration, when students are encouraged to try different things and see what interests them most.
The most important thing you can do at this stage in your child's life is to help her see that making choices in life begins on an internal level and works its way out, instead of the other way around.
And It's Not All About You
This time in your child's life is not the time for you to relive or fulfill your own unfulfilled ambitions. You are helping your child set his own goals. However well-meaning you may be, if you impose your needs and dreams on your child, you're requiring him to sacrifice his own. We all have a path that's right for us, and although you can guide your child in his search for his own proper path, in the end he has to walk it alone.