Monday, August 04, 2008

When children follow a parent's profession

In less that two weeks, new students will be moving into Anderson and other AU residence halls. For many, this may be the first independent step on a path leading to long-term gainful employment, a ‘career,; perhaps even a calling. Choosing a career can be a daunting task for young men and women, especially in the context of American culture, which values freedom of choice so highly.

For children in South Asian families, the choice is often easier, which is not necessarily so say that the outcome is better. Yesterday evening, I attended a party celebrating the birth of a grandson to a Sri Lankan family with whom I have been friends for more than 20 years. The young man who is the child’s father is an attorney, working for a non-profit organization. The child’s paternal grandfather, too, is an attorney. He spent most of a prestigious career at the World Bank. The family has two other daughters. Both are attorneys, though one no longer practices - she was unable to do so in her adopted home, Malaysia, and has become an art dealer. The child’s mother is a pediatrician and his maternal grandfather, too, is a pediatrician. The family is from South India. Father and daughter practice together which, the father told me, has contributed to a more efficient office and allowed him to begin transitioning to retirement. It was his daughter's choice to join his practice, he emphasized. Her sister is a pediatrician; their mother is a scientist specializing in cancer research.

This is a common pattern in South Asia and leads one to ask whether or not the two sets of parents imposed a career choice on their children. I have no doubt that these highly educated, professionals expected their children to choose professional careers and were pleased when they chose the law and medicine. But was the children’s choice dictated by parental pressure? Or was it simply that children experienced their fathers living rewarding lives and chose to profit from their examples? Obviously the answer is more complex than ‘either - or.’

This train of thought leads me to reflections on my own family. My father was a highly successful attorney, my mother a stay at home mom. Had she been born a generation later, however, she might have become a university professor - that career was not generally open to gifted young women born in 1913. She became a nurse, then an airline ‘stewardess’ as way stations on the path to being a full-time wife and mother. But she was a talented artist and possessed one of the most creative intellects of anyone I have known. Our home was was filled with history books and history lived as part of my mother’s daily conversations. My bedtime stories were about Napoleon, the Empress Maria Theresa and her family, Catherine the Great and her Prime Minister, Potemkin.

There was no overt pressure in my family to become an attorney and neither my siblings nor I chose that path. Three of us chose education. My eldest sister is a 4th grade teacher, my brother is associate dean of a business school and I, of course, am Dormgrandpop. My younger sister combined being a full-time mom, with part-time careers as a tennis professional and artist.

Educators sometimes use the term “helicopter parents” for this parental generation because they seem constantly to be hovering over their children. The depth of their caring, as I have written earlier postings, will be particular evident in two weeks - on ‘moving in day.’ Like every generation of parents, they are torn between giving their children freedom of choice and ensuring that they make the right choices. The ‘right choices,’ are often seen as paths that parents followed themselves, or paths they wished they had followed, but didn’t. Some parents, too, seem genuinely committed to having children follow their own lights, wherever they may lead.

Perhaps the best ‘career guidance’ a parent can provide is to live their own ‘careers’ - and lives - with authenticity and passion. Their great gift can be to fully include children in the process, mostly providing guidance by the example of a life well lived.


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