Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“You Mean My Kid Does Not Have To Go To College?”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 21, 2010

    Stacy, a 19 year-old patient, went to college for one semester, came home and decided college was not for her. Her parents, both physicians, both from families where no one else went to college, verbally exploded. Stacy is an only child, loved dearly by both her parents, was raised with the idea that she would one day go to a university and from there, decide on a career path.

  We have a family meeting. Stacy’s mother Lori, cries in my office saying, “I don’t want her to worry every time she has to spend five dollars.” Stacy’s father  James  says “today, one has to go to college to be successful” then, he starts to cry.  Stacy tearfully says  “I don’t want to hurt my parents.” I say “Stacy is not being rebellious.” With a stunned look on his face James says “she’s not?” “No” I say, “Stacy is trying to be true to herself.” I explain to James and Lori that Stacy is caught in a bind because she wants to please you, but at the same time, she does not feel like she wants to go to college. Stacy wants to design clothes. “Fine” James says, “then she should go to art school.” Stacy speaks up, “I don’t want to go to art school either, I want to be an apprentice and work my way up.” James begins to yell at her “well, what have you been doing; why have you not started doing that?” I offer an answer, partly to protect Stacy from her father’s wrath, and partly because I think I can explain to James something that he is not seeing. “Stacy feels bad that she is disappointing you. Her bad feelings make it hard for her to be motivated to pursue her passion. Maybe, if she felt your support, then she could move on with her life.” Immediately, James begins to cry loudly. “I do not want to stand in her way. I feel terrible. I did not know I was doing that.” Stacy is visibly moved by her father’s love.  The theme has shifted from anger towards Stacy to feeling bad for James since he is beginning to understand how he has made Stacy’s life emotionally difficult.

     I see how difficult it is to be Lori and James. I understand why sending Stacy to college has been a long-held dream. No one dreamed of sending Lori or James to college, so when they met each other in medical school, they swore that they would provide their child with the infrastructure to go to college. They never imagined that their child would not be grateful for the opportunity.

   I see how difficult it is to be Stacy. She loves her parents, but at the same time, she feels that she will not benefit from the college experience. She is smart, but she does not love learning. She is social, but she enjoys her friends who live here and she does not want to leave them. She loves fashion; she wants to work in the industry. She feels her parents look down on her for that, so she is paralyzed. She wants their support, but she feels like that is impossible, given where they came from.

    My job is to help this family understand each other and to  help them understand themselves. “Stacy is not Lori or James” I say. “She is Stacy.” I try to explain that all of us hope when we have children to correct the ills of our childhoods, but the problem with that is that what served us poorly, may not serve another child  poorly in the same way. I think about narcissism. Every parent wants their child to reflect well on them; there is something very fundamental about that wish. At the same time, parents need to be open to the idea that their child has an independent mind and their wishes and desires need to be understood as a separate entity. Lori and James understand that. Lori says to me “it is not like I think Stacy should go to medical school; I just want her to go to college.” I think to myself that although I relate to Lori, she still needs to understand that college is not for everyone, and it may not be for Stacy. I say “yes, you have a wide view for how Stacy can live her life, but maybe it needs to be wider still.”

    Lori, James and Stacy leave looking as though they have been through a deep experience. Mom and dad left looking at me as though  I could not possibly have said what I said.  Stacy looked at me with some relief that she has an ally and some skepticism that this discussion did anything to help her at home. As they left, I thought about how hard it is to have a family; about how hard it is to have long-held expectations not met.  A child is an extension of his parents and an independent being, at the same time. This apparent contradiction creates challenges for both the parents and the child.  I am eager to see  this family next week.

4 Responses to ““You Mean My Kid Does Not Have To Go To College?””

  1. Shelly said

    Interesting piece. While I understand your role in this family dynamic, I also can empathize with the parents: each parent wants their child to be both happy and self-sufficient. While not always the case, university degrees allow people to earn more than those without. As a parent, we want the best for our children and don’t want to see them struggle.

    • Yes. I agree. In general, I think college is good for both personal and professional development. However, each family faces individual issues which need to be sorted out. I see my job as providing clarity, not advice.

  2. Rita said

    I can relate to both parents and child. A similar thing happened with me, but it was the other way round. I have a stomach reflux and when I decided to continue my fourth year in college, I was paying a regular visit to the family physician to get my medication. After I got out, the doctor called my mom who was waiting outside to have a talk with her in private. I glued my ear to the door to hear what he would tell her and what I heard shocked me. He said, “I think your daughter is not cut out for college. There are people who cannot endure long hours of study.” This statement made me stronger. I was a good student throughout my first three years of college and ranked among the top five in a class of 200 students. I made up my mind to prove him wrong. I was working full time at that time from 8 am till 6 pm, and attended college from 6 pm till 7 pm after getting the approval from the college administration regarding my position as a working student.Coming home I used to give my full time to my studies. My work atmosphere was very challenging. I had a verbally abusive employer who tried several times to get close to me physically but to no avail. All of these stories my parents were unaware of. I had a goal in mind which was to take my law degree despite everyone’s expectations. No one in my entire family had gone to college. And I wanted to be the first. My perseverance paid off and I proved everybody wrong including my own parents. Then, I wanted to become a government employee. I participated in official exams for a post in one of the ministries. As I applied, I learned that there were 8,000 participants and they only needed 400. So my odds were 20 to 1. I did not care. I knew what I wanted and I was there to get it. I went through seven months of exams. I passed and my rank was 300 among the 400 that passed. In brief, when a child wants to pursue his/her own dreams and puts his/her mind to it, the sky is the limit and I hope parents will not try and bring that sky down.

    • Thanks Rita. Clearly, a family physician has no role is recommending whether you stay in college or not. Clarifying the issues of motivation and obstacles is the first step. Congratulations to you for sticking with your goals.

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