Secret Teacher: ‘I’m privy to parents’ frank remarks on their children’s career choices’

Parents need to allow enough freedom for independence but enough control to prevent disaster

Ken was a recent student of mine. He was born into a family of barristers, but no family law firm was ever established, so he naively believed he could follow suit – or not – as he wished. His maternal grandparents’s family farm in Cavan shaped his childhood summers.

He adored long breaks away from city life, and a passion for animals moulded slowly but surely into transition year work experience in a local veterinary practice and a desire to study veterinary science.

Ken didn’t specifically articulate this, nor feel the need to make any big announcement. Similarly Kevin’s father, though he had always assumed that Ken would follow in his footsteps and pursue a legal career.

The father-son relationship has never fully recovered

That the two men had plans that were so manifestly different only came to light when they were completing the CAO application.


Buoyed by years of experience in court, Ken’s father argued and won his case in the various rooms of the family home, and Ken’s choices on the CAO form consisted exclusively of law degree courses in the various universities around the country.

Ken sat his Leaving Cert and headed off on an inter-railing trip for the summer, and then stayed far beyond the Leaving Cert results and subsequent offer of college places. Needless to say, the father-son relationship has never fully recovered.

The how, when and why of career choices are capricious things. Even the who is not necessarily to be taken for granted. For some arriving at the decision can cost a fortune in career guidance consultations, and for others (like me) making the choice is easy and pursuing it only a matter of parental support and approval.

No idea

As a teacher I’m privy to parents’ frank remarks on their children’s choices. Some, rather alarmingly, claim not to have the slightest idea what their child wants to do after secondary school. This is only acceptable when not knowing means sharing the child’s burden of still actually trying to figure it out.

Others nonchalantly declare that the child will follow them on their own chosen path, and are often blatantly dismissive of my quasi-casual inquiry into how the child actually feels about that.

A whole other category takes the “not wanting to influence or even nudge” to such an extreme that they come across as too hands-off, presumably also to the child in question. This well-meaning group is undoubtedly influenced by the surge in awareness in recent years of self-harm and suicide among young people. Those deciding their children’s careers for them would do well to become at least minimally aware of this.

There is, of course, a cohort in the healthy middle ground. These parents are tuned in enough to know that the absolute fundamental at the heart of the matter is the individual child.

These parents cannot and would not take on the decision-making process on behalf of their child, but they know precisely how to play the situation. Having a clear idea of the no-go areas, they know better than to verbalise any of them, but somehow can be both on high alert and unobtrusive in steering their child around them.

Knowing exactly when to exercise control and precisely how much pressure to apply is a tricky business

Gently guided, children often eliminate the unsuitable options and arrive exactly where their concerned parents want them to be. When pushed too hard away from a specific profession young people can turn towards the rebellion that is so alluring when they feel that they are being told what to do.

In that healthy middle ground blunders are permitted – just nothing too high stake. Again, this is shrewd parenting – allowing just enough freedom for independence and maturity but enough control to prevent a disaster. Knowing exactly when to exercise control and precisely how much pressure to apply is a tricky business, and there is no guidebook because it all starts and finishes with that individual child.

What are the options available to someone like Ken, someone who has a clear vision of their own future but who is buckling under the pressure, often parental, to pursue an alternative course?

Keep the peace and “do the right thing” via the parents who have been so good to him down through the years? That may be the peacekeeper’s preferred option, but there will never be inner peace.

Asserting himself and insisting he knows his own mind and path best? This would surely result in conflict and tension so any inner peace would be soured by knowing that he had disappointed his parents.

Regrettably here, the road not taken will always loom as a potentially more attractive “what could have been”. In Robert Frost’s poem, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and we learn that at the end the speaker “took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”.

But was that difference positive or negative? With the benefit of hindsight would the speaker take that same road again if given another opportunity? Ultimately is it easier to tread a well-worn path than venture into new territory? Surely the answer depends on the individual, and the strength of their convictions and support systems.

And what of Ken and his diverging career paths? I can’t enlighten you on that and I don’t know of anyone who can. I taught his younger sister and was deeply saddened to learn from his mother that Ken hasn’t stayed in touch with his family at all, so I have no idea what route he pursued.

I do know that he has sailed his own course, as he should always have been allowed to. He is, however, sailing it alone, which young people should surely never feel is the best available option.