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Shall it be the heart or the mind?

February 08, 2019

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SAYS Naeem, a father of five: “I wanted at least one of my children to study medicine and become a doctor. Though none of them is a doctor today, I am happy that all are doing well in their chosen fields. If they were not interested, on my insistence or to please me they might have studied medicine, but they would not have been able to perform well and would surely not have been as happy today as they are.”

Naeem himself wanted to be a doctor, but circumstances were not in his favour, and perhaps that was the reason for his desire to see one of his children to be a doctor. However, Naeem did not force them and allowed them to study what they wanted, and says his children have done him proud as all have studied well. He does not regret his decision of not forcing his will on them despite his intense desire to see one of them donning a medic’s coat.

The decades of 1970s and ’80s were a bit weird. It was a time when most parents and even children aspired to pursue medicine or engineering as career, but now things have changed as more fields are opening up and children are seeking newer challenges.

On the one hand, unlike Naeem, many parents forced their children back then to follow their professions, while on the other many children themselves, inspired by the parents, chose to take the same field. There were – and are – families where parents, grandparents and children are engaged in the same profession, either by choice or per force.

Are children mature at, say, age 16 to decide their career paths? Is parental guidance critical or is it just a reflection of their own inner desire?

Dr Shershah’s family is one such unit where all children study medicine. Though his father was not a doctor himself, he made his wife study medicine after marriage and then asked all of his eight children to follow the routine. All of them are now accomplished doctors and their children are also either studying medicine or are doctors, bringing the number to above 40 within the immediate family.

The question is: who should choose what a child should study; whether parents should decide what field their children should pursue, or should the decision be left with the children themselves?

Some parents think that children are not mature enough to take such decisions. They think that at age 16 or 17 when the decision has to be taken before starting the Intermediate or its equivalent, the A levels, children are not able to understand a lot of things or foresee future trends. “How can a child at this age take a decision all by himself/herself about what they want to study?” wonders Hammad, a banker. “The child may be influenced by his/her friends and may be following the crowd. We are more experienced and, being the parents, we know what is best for them.”

However, children think that they know where the world is going more than the senior generation. That is why we hear of conflicts between parents and their wards.

Akhtar Rizvi thinks that children can decide after they have done Intermediate or graduation, but before that they are not mature enough to take such a decision. However, he concedes that they should have a say and neither they nor the parents should be adamant about any particular field.

Eighteen-year-old Ahmed believes that children should have the option to choose their career as they know what they want to do in life and what suits them. Some parents don’t understand their children and they may not have paid attention to the child’s interest or they were busy in providing for the family. Also, some parents try to fulfil their aspirations through their children, which is not the right thing to do. However, he agrees that the parents should “guide the children not only in this but in all matters as parents have more experience, wisdom and knowledge”.

Countering parents’ argument that when children decide about their careers on their own, there is the risk that they may go wrong, Ahmed says: “Even parents can take wrong decisions. I have seen parents forcing their children into certain careers and the students could not perform well as they were never interested in the subjects.”

He gives the example of his cousin who was forced to take admission in a medical college, but he dropped out after two years because of failure to perform. But when he joined an MBA programme, where his interest lay, he out-performed everybody’s expectations.

No doubt, parents have the best intensions when they take any decision about their children but they should consider their child’s interests. If a child is interested in music or painting, he can’t be expected to do well if he is forced to join a more paying and traditional profession. One should think what is more important: a satisfying career where the child is happy, or a career where the child will be stressed and unhappy.

Binte Zehra, who teaches at the visual studies department at Karachi University, is in favour of giving the students the option to select their careers and fields of study. “Most often when students take a subject just because their parents want them to study that particular subject, they cannot excel,” she says. “They are often intelligent but because they are not interested in the subject, they do not perform as well as their peers and begin to suffer from inferiority complex which can lead to depression. They often take out their frustration on their friends, picking up fights, etc.”

Agreeing that students doing Matric or O levels are not mature enough and are not aware of the scope of different subjects, she emphasises the role of career counsellors. “Career counselling is important during school from class VIII onwards. The counsellor can guide the students according to their aptitude and interest on what subjects to study and what career path to choose,” she says.

Whether parents should guide their children in career choice? Says Zehra: “Parents should definitely guide them but not force them to join any specific field. During the parents-teacher meeting, instead of teachers just reporting on the child’s performance, a session should be held with career counsellors who can guide the parent about various subjects and the pros and cons of forcing a child into some specific career.”

Rehana Ali, a mentor teacher in California, let her only daughter choose her own career path. “She was always good with writing and language arts, so she decided to study Public Relations, a branch of Mass Communication, and she is doing great and will be graduating this spring,” says Ali. She thinks that when children choose, they perform better. “She loves what she does and seeing her accomplishments, I feel that children should have the choice to follow their hearts and fulfil their dreams. I know if I had convinced her to select some other career, she would have taken my advice but she would not be very happy and wouldn’t do as well as she is doing with her chosen career.”

On the matter of teenagers’ capacity to take the right decisions without parental advice or guidance, Ali explains how the system works in the US and how it enables children to choose the right path. “In the US, students go to high school for four years and they are given the opportunity to choose different subjects and also discover their strengths,” she says.

“Parents do play a vital role in guiding them; counsellors at school also help them to choose their major according to their interest and capability. Some parents are determined for their children to go into certain fields, so they meet with the school staff and chalk out a plan so their child can get some special tutoring in certain subjects and strengthen their skills in those areas.

“When they enter college, they don’t have to choose their field right away. They can go undecided or choose it at the beginning. They have to complete the general education classes first. They also have the choice of changing their major if they are not sure by the second year of college.”

While most people would agree that parents can’t force their will on their children, parents should be more receptive to the dreams and aspirations of their children, and the children, too, should be more open to explore options rather than set their hearts and minds on any one field and understand that parental guidance is of vital importance. What is more important is that the child should do well and be happy with what he is doing in the long run.