TOM WAS DRESSED in somewhat shabby attire, with a couple of small holes in his pants legs, a soiled mark on one shirtsleeve, and shoes whose appearance revealed they had covered considerable mileage. There he was, sitting in a fast-food restaurant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, relishing each bite of his sandwich and constantly commenting to my daughter, Sheri, and me as to how good the food smelled. When we had finished eating and departed in our separate directions, I inquired of Sheri if we shouldn’t organize some kind of a welfare campaign to help feed and clothe this poor, unfortunate, struggling student.

You can imagine my surprise when she explained to me that this young man was the son of a wealthy furniture manufacturing executive in a town a few hundred miles from the university. This led me to the natural question of why he was projecting such a poverty-stricken image. Was he pretending to be someone he wasn’t? Or maybe he just couldn’t manage all those bundles of green stuff I imagined his parents were sending him each month.

After assuring me that none of my assumptions were correct, Sheri explained that Tom’s father had, at one time, been very supportive of Tom and his vocational goals, while he was attending engineering school and preparing for what his dad felt would be a responsible position in their family-owned company. But during his sophomore year, Tom decided that this line of work wasn’t for him, and he switched into the college of fine arts and became a drawing and painting major. His father, enraged by the decision, which frustrated all of his vocational plans for Tom, immediately stopped sending him financial aid and announced, “If you’re going into that, you’ll have to make it on your own.”

So Tom’s world of wardrobes, sports cars, and ample pocket change had now been replaced by worn-out jeans and a longing hunger at the local burger place. Yet he had a sense of accomplishment. He had made a decision about what he wanted to do with his life and was now following through on it.

Your Choice or Theirs?

Tom’s story illustrates a common family problem: conflict between parents and teenagers on a vocational choice. Or, just as bad, the absence of any help from parents for teenagers who are beginning to make some career choices or at least express some interest in certain fields.

As Catholic parents, we play an important role as models and primary educators in the faith for our children. Just as we guide and nurture them spiritually as they grow, we do the same for their personal development as well. But what happens if your child doesn’t exactly toe the line you’ve laid out for him or her?

Catholic parents should recognize that every legitimate job is a divine calling. Each person in whatever job he or she may choose can be part of God’s work for accomplishing the world’s daily tasks. In making career decisions, teens need help, not control, from their parents.

As Dean Hummel and Carl McDaniels point out in their book How to Help Your Child Plan a Career (Acropolis Books), parents are the greatest potential helpers for their children’s career planning if they know how to help.

But if can be a very long word. Knowing how to help your teenager isn’t as easy as it may sound. Parents may have to make some changes in their attitudes. They may have to be willing to increase their knowledge of facts about vocations, and they may have to be ready to grow along with their teenagers during this crucial time of life.

Accepting God’s Plan

In my more than 40 years in parish ministry and college teaching, I’ve met many families in this situation. From these meetings, several key lessons emerged for parents who want to help their teenagers in this area.

Be a sounding board for their dreams and fantasies. One teenage girl remarked to her mother that she might like to be a brain surgeon. When the mother replied, “That’s ridiculous; you couldn’t pass the courses,” her daughter’s fantasy was dashed to the ground, and with it, her self-esteem. Don’t crush your children’s dreams, even if at the moment they seem farfetched. Who knows what plans God may have for them?

Accept your teen’s strengths and weaknesses. I think of the father who kept pushing his son to follow in his footsteps as a pharmacist. He could not accept the boy’s reluctance toward this type of work, or his poor performance in high school biology and chemistry. It never occurred to the dad that he should encourage his son’s interest in journalism based on the boy’s demonstrated ability to express himself in writing, particularly in the high school newspaper. Our Heavenly Father doesn’t give us all the same talents. Parents need to be open to their teenager’s strengths and weaknesses.

Help your teens discover a sense of worth by listening to them as they discuss vocational interests. This reinforces that you care about them and that they are important as people. When parents act as though they are too busy, they do real damage to their child’s sense of self-worth. As educational psychologist William Purkey observes, “The ways in which a person views him- or herself is a product of the way others see him or her.” So tell your teenagers they are important by listening to them.

Encourage them to try various work experiences. One of the best ways to do this is to look for jobs that may be at least distantly related to their vocational interest. For example, one young lady I know has hopes of becoming a veterinarian. She is testing her feelings for the vocation by working part-time in a local veterinary office. If your teen has interest in a certain field, you may be able to help him or her get work with someone already established in that type of employment. Many high schools have cooperative-education programs to assist in this.

Help your teen find literature on occupational choices. School guidance offices or the public library can help. Among the guides I’ve found helpful are Handbook of Job Facts (Science Research Associates), Occupational Outlook Quarterly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Solving Your Career Mystery by Muriel Schoenbrun Karlin (Richard Rosen Press), and What Color Is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press).

Accept your teenager’s decisions. The college major or job chosen may not meet with your approval. It may even throw a monkey wrench into all the plans you had for your child. But remember, God works in his own way to call people into many different fields of work. “Plans fail when there is no counsel, but they succeed when counselors are many” (Prv 15:22).

If you keep open the lines of communication, then living with your child’s decisions will become easier for both of you. And, in the final analysis, God’s plan for your teenager’s life will ultimately unveil itself.