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When Junior Mulls a Career, Guidance--Not Control--Is Key


What's the matter with a 14-year-old boy wanting to be a police officer?

Absolutely nothing, according to career counselor Robert J. Ginn Jr.

Nearly everything, according to the boy's parents, who dragged him in two years ago to Ginn's Massachusetts office to straighten him out. Upscale suburban professionals whose families have attended Ivy League colleges for generations, both mother and father were aghast. "It was totally unacceptable to the parents," Ginn recalled. "Then it became a battle. They got stuck. The child shut down."

The parents said the problem had become the boy's passive attitude toward his future. Ginn said the problem was the parents.

In his experience, they were making one of the two biggest mistakes parents can make regarding their children's future career--trying to control the outcome. Equally destructive is absenting themselves altogether, assuming they have nothing to contribute.

What they could have done, instead, is let him float the idea of becoming a policeman, encouraged him to explore law enforcement in general and allowed his vocational identity to evolve naturally, said Ginn, one of three authors of the recently published "Career Coaching Your Kids: Guiding Your Child Through the Process of Career Discovery" (Davies-Black Publishing). "By saying he couldn't do it, they were saying, 'You can't be yourself. You have to be what we want you to be.' "

Time was, people chose their occupations by what their parents or their neighbors did, or--in the case of women--what fields would easily accept them, like teaching or nursing. Over the past two generations, as people have come increasingly to value meaningful work, that decision has become vastly more complicated. Not only is competition becoming more fierce, listings in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles are increasing at an "incredibly rapid rate," Ginn said.

Rather than committing to one career for life, experts commonly say job security now rests on "employability," a toolbox of skills, experiences and attitudes.

High school guidance counselors may be knowledgeable but overloaded with impossible caseloads. In some cities, a single counselor can be responsible for up to 3,000 students, said Ginn, the former director of career counseling at Harvard University who now has a private practice. And often, the specialists themselves are torn between advising students to study liberal arts and keep their options open, or reserve their vocational ticket into the job market as early as possible.

Parents can usually begin in elementary school to identify and capture their children's energy by paying attention to their interests, talents, skills and values. In middle school, they can nudge them into class choices that might fit. In high school, they can help them make connections with people in attractive careers.

Richard Kidder, an Orange County optometrist, said he has helped connect his daughters with some of his patients who work in law and fashion, fields in which the girls had expressed interest. He also signed up with a private career guidance counselor, who helped match the girls' skills with job and college possibilities.

Now a freshman at the University of Southern California, Tricia Kidder, 19, remembers being impressed with the success and professionalism of the woman lawyer she visited. An English major, she has joined a pre-law fraternity on campus.

"No one pressured me to make a decision right away, which was good," she said of her folks. "When it comes down to choosing it's hard for them to step back and say it's really my decision. But they've made the effort to support and not push. . . .

"A lot of parents don't want to spend $20,000 a year and not have the kid know what he wants to go into. But kids wind up resenting that and end up more unfocused," she said.

In career coaching, Ginn believes, parents should take care not to dismiss or ridicule a child's aspirations (if, say, he dreams of investigating paranormal activity for the FBI), forbid any activity (unless it's illegal), or assume they have no influence.

"Career coaching is one of those areas where parents and children can really relate and be together in a positive way that is mutually beneficial. Parents need to reassert their role," Ginn said. "It's one of the ways parents can show love."

After counseling, Ginn said the parents of the would-be police officer backed off, even finding acquaintances who worked for the FBI. "That kid was on cloud nine," Ginn said. "Now the parents, instead of having a passive person in front of them, have a person who is energized about work. He went to see the FBI agent, found out he had gone to law school. The last I heard, that germ of an idea had grown into a bush of possibilities. Now he wants to be a lawyer and possibly a judge."


Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at Please include a telephone number.

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