As a parent of two daughters, now aged 23 and 14, I relate to the challenges of trying to stay on top of what is happening in their lives and support them in their career journeys – while focusing on my own demanding career at the same time!
Back in 1985 when I was completing high school in Ontario, my dad (way ahead of his time!) offered to set up meetings for me with some of his business connections from his role as a bank manager, in an effort to help me decide on a university program of interest. My initial request for a gap year to find my true calling was vehemently denied by my parents and my dad embarked on a “campaign” to help me make an educated choice.
I was terrified and largely ignored my father’s requests to prepare for these meetings. I remember the exasperation in his face and his irritated tone with me as I floated along to complete my high school diploma and head off to university with my best guess at a major of study (which turned out to be French at University of Calgary!).
I had no idea about a future career or what my university studies qualified me to do in the “real world”! Thankfully, near the end of my degree, I landed a summer job with the federal Hire A Student program and my love of the career development field took off!
Fast forward 30+ years to my current career, helping over 800 students at three schools in southern Alberta explore pathways to careers they are passionate about. Through my own struggle to follow my parents’ expectations and land on a satisfying career choice, I have a deep appreciation for the responsibility I now have to both the students and the families I serve. I want to be able to provide ideas, information and support as parents and students work together toward the common goal of planning for a bright future. In a recent study, 48% of respondents felt that their parents strongly influenced their career path, while almost 40% felt pressured to follow their parents’ career advice. That is a huge responsibility to place on parents who may not have all of the answers close at hand. I feel that I have a duty to at least try to alleviate some of parents’ fears that they don’t know enough or will say the wrong thing and potentially shut down career conversations before they even get off the ground. It can be a very precarious place to be and from my own experience as a parent, I know we are all ridiculously scared that somehow we have already messed up, or have the potential to mess up our kids!
Below are five practical tips that guide me in my work with the families I support, with the aim of reducing their fear and encouraging solid research practices and positive communication with their students as they make career decisions.
- Respond to parent inquiries on the same day. If it weren’t for parents sending their kids to my schools, I would not have a job! I endeavour to respond, preferably by phone, to any calls or emails sent to me by a parent or family member of one of my students.
- Maintain a current, easy-to-access career services website as part of the overall school or district web presence. This has been so helpful in supporting good research practices. I am constantly updating scholarship lists, open house event dates and links to quality websites to inform both parents and students about career and educational topics.
- Offer a combination of in-person and online events for parents. Even if initial response is limited, events will grow in popularity when parents hear from others about how beneficial this programming has been in the past. Host in-person events in the afternoon/early evening and provide food to make it easy for parents to attend directly after their work day.
- Try to attend school council meetings and be available for parents to book appointments during parent-teacher conferences (and at other times!). While it may be difficult to add more events to your already full calendar, a couple of hours spent connecting with parents can have numerous positive outcomes in the long run. When parents feel listened to, they may be more likely to trust the work that career professionals are doing and will encourage their students to seek out valuable services. As one parent shared with me recently, “It’s been so helpful to have frank, open, non-judgmental conversations about [my high schooler’s] abilities, interests and plans with a third-party expert.”
- Involve parents in regularly offered career and volunteer fairs. In our school division, we are continually working to build a network of presenters who are willing to come into our schools to share their career stories. Our “human library” list features over 100 possible presenters from a wide range of career paths and is made up mostly of alumni and family members. It is so powerful to have these connections of people who are delighted to share their passion with current students.
In short, making connections with parents and providing support to them as one of the key influencers for student career decision-making can provide numerous benefits to high school career practitioners. Assisting parents in gaining current career information, recognizing biases and finding the time/energy for positive communication with family members can definitely move us toward the development of a stronger community and greater motivation for all of us to build brighter career prospects for our young people.