Both my husband and I trained and worked as engineers. We’ve always been interested in science and math, and we encouraged exploration in these subjects for both our sons. We played math games at the dinner table, and enrolled them both (and volunteered ourselves) in Science Olympiad. We visited science museums, and made them calculate the tip when we went out to eat.
So it was no surprise when our older son excelled at STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects throughout his schooling. As he made plans for college, he applied to engineering schools, took Advanced Placement (AP) classes in math, and laid a solid groundwork for success at his chosen college. He graduated with a 3.7 GPA and an award for outstanding student in Metallurgical Engineering and quickly landed a job in his chosen field.
As our younger son went through elementary and middle school, he also did quite well in math and science. He even took accelerated classes. But then he got to high school and enrolled in algebra, and everything changed. Despite our best efforts, despite help from his teacher, despite his obvious intelligence, he just didn’t get it. He was foundering. In the end, he failed the class. And because our school system requires a certain number of math credits to graduate high school, his future looked dim.
One day, he sat next to me on the couch and, nearly in tears, said, “I’ll never get into engineering school.” I was dumbstruck, but not because of his failure. I realized in that moment that he had internalized the expectation that he’d follow in his brother’s (and parents’) footsteps. His teachers and Science Olympiad coaches had praised his skills up to that point, no doubt. They had seen his aptitude and assumed that he could (and wanted to) do what his brother had done.
But I had never seen him that way. He was good at math and science up to that point, but it was never his passion. It wasn’t what he talked about at the dinner table; he preferred to discuss history, particularly the Second World War. He could identify all the planes used by both the Allies and the Axis by second grade. In high school, he would have long conversations about the mistakes made by generals on both sides. All of this he discovered on his own through reading both books and internet articles. On the other hand, although he liked playing with LEGO, he never created his own designs like his brother did, and he struggled to follow the directions to build the sets in the first place.
When he lamented to me that day that he wouldn’t get into engineering school, I knew I needed to reassure him that he would not disappoint anyone if he didn’t become an engineer. I told him that I loved him for who he was, and that he didn’t need to be like his older brother. He needed to be himself. We brainstormed that day, and throughout his high school career, about what he was interested in and good at. I encouraged him to pursue more history and social science classes.
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My younger son’s story illustrates the traps that our society falls into. We think that siblings (especially if they’re the same gender) should have the same interests. We believe that early success in a subject predicts continued success. We expect that children will match or exceed their parents’ achievements. We imagine, from birth, what our children will be or become.
This is especially hard if one sibling is exceptionally good at something. Many of us grew up hearing, “Why can’t you be like your sister/brother/cousin?” But comparisons of children often set up expectations that they can’t (or don’t want to) achieve. And those expectations can be costly to everyone. It’s emotionally taxing to try to succeed at something you’re not good at or don’t care about, but it can be financially expensive, too. One of my own engineering classmates admitted that he was getting his degree to satisfy his father’s wishes, but that he would be going to work for the Post Office when he finished because that’s what he wanted to do. His father was paying tuition at one of the most expensive universities in the country, and the son planned to throw it all away and pursue his own dream.
Early success doesn’t predict future success, either, especially in a subject like math. Isaac Asimov, brilliant though he was, never progressed beyond calculus. He theorized that everyone had a limitation in math – some people never made it past basic arithmetic, some stalled at algebra, and some could go on to do breakthrough work in areas not even imagined yet.
It’s a disservice, too, to expect that our children will exceed our achievements. Many will, of course. But some don’t want to. And sometimes it’s hard to know what it means to be better than one’s parents. If Dad’s a lawyer and Mom’s a doctor, has the kid failed if they drop out of college but become a well-known author?
We can’t know from birth what our children will achieve. For one thing, technology moves so fast today that we can’t possibly envision what the future jobs will be. What will happen to our kids that will influence their choices of careers?
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My younger son’s story is a success story. He retook algebra through an online class and passed it. He completed his math requirements to graduate high school. He was not the shining academic star that his brother was, but he was far from the bottom of the class.
When we started talking about what he’d do after high school, he stated very firmly that he didn’t want to go to college. This was, for me, maybe even more crushing than realizing that he wouldn’t be an engineer. Our society assumes that a college education is imperative for success, and our school district, like many across the country, aggressively pushes for post-secondary education. But my son felt that he did not, as he said, need to go into debt doing something he didn’t really enjoy just to get a job.
My son is lucky to have an uncle, my brother, who never went to college but who has created a successful, happy life nevertheless. My brother has always encouraged my younger son in whatever he wanted to do. And, as my brother points out, many of the jobs that don’t require college educations are jobs that can’t be outsourced. Plumbers, electricians, car mechanics, hair stylists, and housing contractors can all make excellent salaries without higher education and degrees.
So my son and I agreed that as long as his goal was to be independent and a contributing member of society, college wasn’t necessary. He worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, an apprentice to a housing contractor, and a material sorter in a warehouse. He received excellent reviews and above minimum wage pay in all those jobs. And while he was doing them, he did his homework. He researched other, better paying jobs. He thought about his skills and about what he enjoyed doing. And he’s taken a job in sales. In just a few months, he’s exceeded his manager’s expectations and been told he’s being considered for management. Whatever he earns is his – it doesn’t go toward student loans. And he gets to pursue his passion for history by reading and researching on the internet.
Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. – Isaac Asimov