Dear Dr. Alasko: Our 20-year-old son dropped out of college a couple of months ago—he was an English/philosophy major-because he wants to work at something "meaningful." He said that studying was pointless and doesn't truly "help" people. We, of course, would support him in anything he wants to do. But now he's just living at home, hanging out with friends and playing video games. How can we help get him back on track in his life?
Dear Reader: It might be that your son is going through an existential crisis in which he's questioning the meaning of life. As a student of English and philosophy, we can assume he's done sufficient reading to know that people have been challenged by this question since the beginning of human conscious thought. So lots of significant thinking has already been done by others, from Buddha to Plato to Descartes to Dewey to John Lennon. Sometimes theuir answers are connected to belief systems that involve a deity, or, more recently, a political action committee. In short, if your son wants an authoritative answer to life's deeper questions, he can choose from the hundreds of belief systems already in place.
But I'm not sure that's what is really going on, and feel the need to challenge what might actually be self-indulgence and hedonism on your son's part. Is he hanging out with his friends because he can? Because it's easy? Could it be that your desire to support him during this time is a major contribution to his self-indulgence?
After all, if he didn't have a family indulging him, he'd be forced to support himself. He'd have to confront the daily problem of assuring an ongoing supply of shelter and food. These challenges would bring him face to face with life's ruthless realities. Within those realities he'd find plenty of meaning; what it means to be hungry, cold, grimy, and disrespected. His physical body and emotional life would come into direct contact with how this world really works.
Of course, as his parents, you want to protect him from those kinds of suffering, as well as the many other kinds life offers. So you allow him to camp out at home until he gets himself "back on track."
The fundamental problem with this approach is that it's the nature of human psychology to behave fluidly, like water, and take the path of least resistance. Because life is flowing so easily for your son, he's not learning the most basic lesson of life: you get back from the world what you put into it. Little effort in, little reward. Period. Play a video game, get momentary satisfaction. Nothing more.
Here's my advice: give him a deadline for moving out and facing the world on the world's terms. Confront his self-indulgence with actual experience in hard work and personal diligence. While young people will often point to someone (artist, actor, inventor) who made a fortune almost accidentally, overall that narrative turns out to be false. Endless biographical and personality research shows that diligence, perseverance and hard work are absolute necessities to succeed for the long haul.
Your son is not and will not be an exception to this fundamental rule. And the sooner you're firm enough to push this lesson onto him, the sooner you'll help him get back on track.