How to help your kids find their career path

8 ways to help without "helicoptering"

You helped out in their kindergarten class, kept an eye on them at the playground, guided them through math homework and chaperoned at grad. It’s only natural that you’d want to set your child on the right career path.

But when does helping to choose a post-secondary program cross the line into helicoptering? And what’s the best advice to give?

As a NAIT career adviser and parent of a young adult, Don Stewart understands that angst. That’s why he’s offered countless sessions for parents over the past decade about how to help their kids make career and program choices.

“We’re all helicopter parents to some extent; it’s a reflection of our generation of parenting,” says Stewart. “But you want to be a functional helicopter parent. … [There] are positive ways you can still be involved.”

“We’re all helicopter parents to some extent.  But you want to be a functional helicopter parent."

At one extreme are parents who direct their kids into specific careers, whether they like it or not. But parents who leave the process completely up to their children aren’t doing them any favours either, Stewart says.

“When I ask parents what advice they’ve given their children, they often say, ‘Find something you love.’ But I don't think that’s enough. You can be more helpful.”

Here are his tips for supporting and guiding (good), without intervening or taking over (bad).

  1. Don’t be a snow plow. “Snow plow parents clear the way of any obstacles for their kids, and that’s where it gets difficult,” says Stewart. “We see students who are less resilient because they haven’t had to deal with many challenges and their parents intervene for them.”

  2. Help identify strengths, interests and values. You know your child better than anyone. “What are they good at? What’s going to excite them? What are they proud of that they’ve done?” asks Stewart. 

    In some cases, tools can help. Don’t look for a magic test that will spit out the definitive career choice for your child, he says. Instead, try free personality and interest tests such as the Alberta Learning Information Services website. Myers-Briggs and Strong Inventory tests also offer good insights. One of Stewart’s favourites is StrengthsFinder, a book that includes a code for an online personality inventory test. These can indicate the values and strengths that will help your child see a potential career direction.
  3. Let your child explore, and even drift. Counsellors divide young adults into three loose categories: navigators, explorers and drifters, says Stewart. Navigators (about 20% of the population) are clear on their goals and know what career they want. Most young people are explorers, meaning they’re unsure about their career path and are asking lots of questions.

    Drifters are the ones who cause parents the most concern because they seem to have limited interest in finding a career. Stewart recommends giving kids time to find their fit. Be concerned if drifting continues into their late 20s, or if a child is overly consumed with gaming or other addictive behaviours.

    nait open house
  4. Connect them to people in different careers. Maybe a relative or family friend has a career that might interest your child, suggests Stewart. Parents can help introduce their kids to people in fields that interest them.
  5. Encourage them to check out post-secondary programs. School open houses (like NAIT’s virtual open house – accessible until Nov. 17),  provide a snapshot of programs along with instructors and students who can answer questions.
  6. Any job is a learning experience. Even if it isn’t going to lead to a career, a job can help young people determine what they don’t want to do. “If they find out that slinging coffee isn’t what they expected, it might motivate them to find something else,” says Stewart.

  7. Passion is overrated. “That can be a real trap,” he cautions. “If you go into high schools and talk to students about passion, you get that deer-in-the-headlights look. I think there are a few lucky people who have that passion – they’ve found something at an early age – but I don’t know how many people find that in their careers. I think it’s better to look at likes. What would I like doing? Maybe it will develop into a passion.”
  8. Serendipity is underrated. Encourage your child to welcome new experiences and opportunities in their life, he suggests. “You have to be out there and try different things. You might just meet the right person at the right time.”

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