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Encouraging college-dropout son to find his purpose

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

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Carolyn Hax

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Q My son flunked out of college his first year at 18, losing all the scholarships he had earned. He spent the time instead on the internet. He came back home and said, “What do you expect? Everybody was on my case since ninth grade.”

He enrolled in the local community college (spending his own money) to get his associate’s degree and go back to the four-year college. He did well at first, but the last two semesters he did poorly, getting one A — in art — and a D and two Fs in the classes required for the degree. He retook those three and flunked them all! He took a break this summer but does not want to start again, not even one class, not even art.

He has a good work ethic. He has held a restaurant job for over two years. He has never missed a day and is held in high regard by his peers and bosses. He also never missed a class at the local college. He just can’t get himself to do the homework. He has said he doesn’t understand why his good work ethic doesn’t transfer to homework.

I believe he uses the internet as an avoidance technique. He is a good kid. He’s an Eagle Scout. He doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. I am a single mom and he is a big help. He pays rent and always has done a lot of chores.

I worry that he has no social life and no ambition. He is saving some money but not a lot.

He is now almost 21 and I am worried what will happen to him when I’m gone. I don’t know if I should just let him figure it out or keep pushing him. I feel like I’m not being a good mom if I do the former. — Worried

A I’m not sure if this will make you feel better or worse, but he has figured it out, in his way.

He’s stopped doing what doesn’t appeal to him — school. He excels at what does appeal to him — the restaurant job. He contributes to his household — rent and chores.

I agree the scant social life is concerning, and his lashing out at “everybody” for his college failure was not an auspicious start. However, he was 18 then and he’s at odds with himself now, so in context neither strikes me as unusual or irreversible.

As for ambition, that doesn’t seem like the right piece to complete his puzzle. Purpose is what drives us sustainably forward, and knowing, trusting and embracing what we want out of life are the precursors to purpose.

On top of all of this, we’re talking about a 21-year-old. Letting an adult child figure it out needs to be every parent’s default.

The sweet spot is encouragement: a message that you love him, you trust him to find his way, and you see honor in any productive line of work, not just the ones he thought he wanted at 18.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Your son might have flunked out because he picked a school-and-career path that doesn’t suit or excite him — or because he has some undiagnosed medical (depression?) or developmental (ADHD?) obstacle to getting work done at the college level. It’s not unheard of for people to compensate for such an obstacle throughout their schooling until they hit a point where the challenges are too great.

Internet addiction can be a key player in either one. People who are bored with their jobs or classes are more susceptible to it, as are people with emotional or developmental disorders.

Unfortunately, each possibility points to one message that can directly undercut the other if you’re not careful. If he’s just not interested, then you want to say to him that finding his purpose in the restaurant business is the great news you’re both failing to acknowledge. Hospitality requires its own set of skills, it’s valuable work, and it’s an industry that isn’t going away. Why aren’t both of you saying, “Yay, you’ve found your calling”?

But if he is genuinely interested in his onetime college path, and if that path is reversibly blocked — even just by treadmill fatigue — then you want to urge him to address any obstacles (when he’s ready to) so he can pursue what he actually wants.

The messaging overlap is tightrope-thin: You want to encourage hospitality as a valid career path if he wants it, and, if not, then screenings (health and career) toward resuming college.

No pandering in your delivery — “Some of my best friends work in restaurants!” — and no presenting this as a collegiate Plan A or the vastly inferior Plan B — as you have in your letter, I’m afraid. Instead, treat it as Plan A or the other Plan A.

Then: Back off, because ultimately his confidence is the missing piece. A mom who believes in him can foster that as surely as a hovering one can kill it.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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