Que sera, sera?

IT'S THAT time of year again. Come summer, and children who have completed class x, and more so, their parents are in a tizzy, trying to decide what to do with their lives. Should it be the biology stream? Or commerce? Or math and physics? Or (and here, do I sense some hesitation?) could it even be history or literature? Teachers, friends, passing acquaintances, are all beseiged by questions: ``What should my son/daughter do?'' ``What do you think the best fields are?'' ``Where are the opportunities?'' Levels of anxiety are high, among both parents and children. One parent of a boy who just completed his ICSE examination says, ``Even if you have decided not to get tense about it, wherever you go, you are asked over and over again, and you can't help but be affected by some of that anxiety.''

It sure is a competitive world out there, and this anxiety is understandable, even justifiable, though not desirable. Many children and parents pin their hopes on getting through the competitive entrance exams for engineering and medicine, and are totally shattered when these hopes are unfulfilled. Even when children clearly show no interest or inclination for these fields, often parents' expectations (not to mention peer pressure) drive them into a one-way track where they are offered no other attractive options for the future.

``I think parents need to be counselled just as much as the children, when it comes to career planning,'' says one principal of a Hyderabad school. Parental anxiety sometimes leads children to have unrealistic expectations of themselves, adding to all the other stresses they are under. This is as true for bright and motivated children as it is for those who are less self-directed and academically less proficient. Simply because a child is very good at a certain subject at school does not automatically translate into a successful career in that field.

The child's true interests may be somewhat different from the performance on the report card. One high school girl remarked, ``I really want to go into the services, but my father is keen that I become a computer scientist - because I'm so good at maths and physics.''

A lot of career counselling focusses on aptitudes; but more recently counsellors have been saying that interests rather than aptitudes are a better indicator of how an individual might perform in a career. It has been suggested that one of the most common mistakes people make in managing their careers is basing their initial (and subsequent) career choices on their aptitudes rather than on their interests.

Such variables as skills and values, and market forces may change over time, but a person's deep interests tend to remain highly stable from early adulthood on.

A parent's role, therefore, is to identify, nurture and bring to the fore the child's real interests.

Parents can do this early on in their children's lives, by watching them as they play and study, noting how they choose to spend their leisure, and how they interact with their friends. Larry Gaffin, a Seattle (US) based career counsellor, says that children often provide, early in life, valuable insights of where they may eventually emerge in their adult careers. And rather than watching and taking their cues from the world around them, parents would do well to watch their children more closely, in the process helping them become effective self-directed decision- makers where it concerns their own futures. If you notice a spark of curiosity that appears consistently in your child's eyes whenever you talk about certain subjects, try to arrange situations where that curiosity can be more fully utilised to explore and discover. At the same time, says Gaffin, it's important not to force interests on the child. Just because you are a successful chartered accountant, for instance, does not mean your daughter will naturally take to accounting.

Giving your children glimpses of the real world of work also helps them give shape to their interests, and allows them to test the extent of their desire to work in a certain area. Some career counsellors suggest that parents take their children to their workplace and allow them to watch them at work, so that they can see what exactly goes on. The United States has a ``take your daughter to work'' day, which allows young girls to gain a sense of understanding and pride in women's work at home and outside.

This idea, extended to all children, can be a great way to either pique a child's interest or gently do away with any romanticised notions of work he or she may have.

If children can grow up with a strong sense of who they are and what they can be good at, career decisions - or, more correctly, educational path decisions - can be made with more confidence. The decisions can be directed from within, based on what each individual finds interesting and exciting, rather than forced upon from without, based on some absurdly competitive standards that have nothing to do with the future one really wants to build for oneself - or one's children.