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  • Writer's pictureYPR

My #1 Piece of Advice for Parents of Teens: Help them Pick a Path

Updated: Feb 26

When my father was a boy, he disembarked the USS Aquitania at Ellis Island and made his way to live with family in Chicago. His path was clear: He needed to go to school to learn English, and he needed to get a job ASAP to help support his mother and sister. At the age of eleven, his first job was working at Lazar’s Kosher Sausage Factory on an assembly line, tying strings around newly formed bratwurst (although he is 97 now, he still remembers how to tie that knot). When World War II broke out, he was eager to serve. He excelled in mathematics, so as soon as he was of age, he enlisted in the Navy and became a navigator on the aircraft carrier USS Antietam. After the war, he received a full scholarship to USC, eventually earning his PhD and becoming a professor of physics where he met my mother. He left academia when he was invited to help form a new aerospace company where he helped design and launch some of our country’s early scientific satellites.

As you can tell, I am very proud of my dad. Now, as a father of three, I marvel at how, in contrast to my father’s story, kids of today seem to be relatively lost and without clear direction. I believe this is one of the factors that is contributing to the epidemic of depression among teens[1].

When my daughter was around 14, she came to me and said, “Dad, what should I do?” At first, I wasn’t sure what she meant—until I realized she was looking for some life direction. She was fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive and strong middle-class household, but these blessings deprived her of the urgency and direction that my dad was faced with as a child.

For some reason, I thought back to one of my favorite movies, The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin (written by the great David Mamet). In it, the main characters’ small plane goes down in the Alaskan wilderness, and they must find their way back to civilization. When lost in the woods, one of the worst things you can do is wander aimlessly. As happened in the movie, after several frantic days of hiking and being chased by a man-eating bear, they stumbled right back upon one of their old camps. They were struck with the gut-crushing realization that they had been walking in a great big circle. The lesson: pick a point far off in the distance (such as a tall mountain peak) and use it to establish a fixed direction to head toward. It might turn out to be the wrong direction, but at least it is a direction that can perhaps lead you to a river you can float down, or to another mountain peak with a better vantage point.

As a father and parenting advisor, the ‘lost in the wilderness’ analogy has worked well for me. Kids today are in school because they were put there, are frequently bored and disinterested, and are easily distracted by addictive brain candy like social media and video games that eat up their time, attention, and energy. Too often, they graduate high school without aim, passion, or direction (let alone much of an education). Some may go off to college without any particular career in mind, and get a degree in a subject with little real-life value, often with a mountain of debt to boot.

My advice to parents of teens: Help them pick a path as early as possible. It doesn’t have to be a perfect path. It doesn’t have to be their ‘forever’ path—they are welcome to refine it along the way as they learn more about themselves and the world. It doesn’t have to be a path that they are particularly passionate about—passion may develop along the way, or perhaps they might discover a passion for something else and make a lateral shift or pivot. Their path may lead them to a mountaintop from which they can see an even better way to go. But for God’s sake: Pick a path. At least they won’t be walking aimlessly in circles like so many kids are today.

In my daughter’s case, she chose the path of medicine, not because she had a particular passion for it at the time, but because it was a smart path that could lead to lots of other possibilities. Picking this path immediately laid out before her a series of steps for her to follow for the next many years, like a bright fat line on a GPS. While many of her peers were partying at school with little direction, she has been walking her path with purpose and self-assurance, and is about to receive her bachelor’s degree in biology/physiology. From the mountain peak that she has reached, she now has a thousand different options before her, and is carefully considering her next goal.

For a teen, choosing a path doesn't need to be stressful—it is not as if they are going to be locked into a fateful commitment that they might later regret. Make it a fun mental exercise: Ask your teen to imagine themselves as a successful adult…what can they envision themselves doing for work? What are the necessary steps that lead to that destination? Help them choose a smart goal: one that leads to a career that will support a future family comfortably, and one that presents a palatable vision of the future. Regardless of the particular choice, just having a path can give a teen a much-needed sense of direction, and a reason to get up each morning. In my daughter’s case, whenever anyone asked her about her future, she confidently said she was studying medicine. Just having an answer at-the-ready built her confidence and self-esteem, which helped reinforce her decision.

If you want to talk about strategies for working with your kids on their life direction, feel free to reach out. In parallel with my other entrepreneurial endeavors, I work with clients one-on-one to build custom programs for them and their children to follow, and we make adjustments along the way to ensure positive results. In our career-centric society, we spend so much time and effort on other parts of our lives, often to the inadvertent neglect of our role as parents, not realizing it until there is a problem. By investing some energy into purposefully improving our parenting skills, we can avoid challenges down the road, and better achieve our goal of raising healthy, happy, noble human beings.

-YPR is a business and personal advisor to clients around the world. He is the author of the two book series, Happiness and Heroism: The School of Being, The School of Doing.

[1] In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

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