Brad E Sachs Ph.D.

Emptying The Nest

Holding Your Fire: Try Not to Shoot Down a Trial Balloon

Learning to generate ideas may be more valuable than the ideas themselves

Posted Sep 07, 2018

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One of the most formidable challenges for parents of adolescents and young adults is finding ways to supply fuel for the engine behind their decision-making when the decisions that they are beginning to engineer are not exactly ideal ones—at least from your perspective. 

From the very beginning of family life, all parents create in their minds carefully laid-out pathways that they believe, sometimes with religious fervor, are the ones that are best-suited for their children to follow towards adulthood. Sometimes there is a good amount of alignment between what parents and their offspring believe is the optimal map for the journey towards self-reliance, and, as a result, little friction between the generations emerges. 

However, the observation that I often share with parents is that most young adults would rather fail in an attempt to live their own life rather than be a success living someone else’s life—and those “someone else’s” are often their parents. In addition, what I generally find is that when young adults feel free to, in fact, live their own lives, they generally encounter success rather than failure, because they are not distracted by the internal conflict regarding whom they are meant to become and whom others insist they are supposed to become.

Amelie, for example, struggled mightily through middle school and the first half of high school but by the beginning of her junior year, she seemed to have locked into a workable approach to school and began to perform reasonably well from an academic standpoint.  Her parents, both college-educated, were heartened by her improvement and, as a result, set about making plans to visit a range of colleges, including the two schools that each of her older brothers, currently a freshman and a junior, were attending at that time.

Amelie, however, had different plans, and told her parents that she was increasingly interested in becoming a beautician.  She had gotten a part-time job washing hair at a local salon the previous summer and was enjoying her relationships with the hair-dressers, as well as with the clientele.

Amelie’s mom, Sana, who was an elementary school teacher, instantly attempted to talk Amelie out of this idea, briskly pointing out the many disadvantages of a beautician’s life and highlighting the numerous advantages of obtaining a college degree, just like her brothers were in the midst of doing. and her parents had done.

Amelie’s dad, Herve, an IT consultant, was not quite as direct as Sana was when it came to his disapproval of Amelie’s proposed career trajectory, but neither did he actively encourage her to more conscientiously explore it—the kind of man who eschewed controversy, he tried to adopt a neutral stance, one that would not antagonize either his strong-minded wife or his  strong-willed daughter.

What came as no surprise (to me, at least) was that, at this juncture, Amelie’s grades began to suddenly slide downwards. The mostly-B’s and sometime-C’s that she had been working hard to earn began to dissolve back down to the mostly-C’s, along with some D’s and E’s, that had characterized her scholastic efforts up until recently.

My understanding of this change was that underachievement articulated Amelie’s silent protest against her parents’ response to her nascent career decision—“If you insist that I have to forego training as a beautician and 'set my sights' on college, I’ll ensure that being admitted to college remains ‘out-of-sight’ as a possibility.”

I told Amelie’s parents that it was of course not up to them to be enthusiastic about her desire to become a beautician, and, as with any career, and any significant life-decision, there are always assets and liabilities associated with our choices. But it was up to Sana and Herve to reinforce and support Amelie’s embryonic vision of herself as an autonomous young adult. 

I also emphasized to the two of them that just because Amelie’s current plan was to pursue a career as a beautician, she was still only 16, and many other professional options were surely going to occur to her, as well, in the coming years. My thoughts were that the stronger the stance they took against her initial idea, the more likely they might ensure that she would insist on pursuing it and stubbornly forego other possibilities.

Adolescents and young adults often float a series of trial balloons past their parents, as well as past other trustworthy adults, and the experience of learning to do so is an important one.  Obviously, not every balloon is going to be able to stay aloft, and some balloons will be brought back down to earth by the individual who first floated them. But when parents themselves attempt to shoot these precious balloons down, they inadvertently discourage their child from trusting his/her own instincts, which usually leads to the most problematic decisions—or, worse, the inability to even make a decision at all.

When a young adult is finally starting to thoughtfully consider important life choices, parents are of most value when they display steadfast faith in her capacity to do so—even when those choices may appear to run counter to what they believe is best.

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