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My son decided against college. To my surprise, he's where he should be

The author's son, doing production work for a client. (Courtesy Erica Youngren)
The author's son, doing production work for a client. (Courtesy Erica Youngren)

In my town, people don’t ask if your son or daughter is going to college, but where. It’s curious that, in so many communities, college is still the default launch pad to adulthood. It's as if we’ve learned nothing from the last 2 1/2 years.

What are you supposed to do if your child is bright and ambitious and has a low aptitude for academic life?

In 2021, his senior year of high school, my son realized he didn’t want to attend any of the liberal arts colleges that had accepted him. He had struggled with ADHD, substance use disorder and the disruptions of remote learning. He had a team of tutors to carry him to the finish line. At moments, I couldn’t wait for his academic career to be over — the end of emails about missing homework, ineffectual pep talks, stress stomach aches that sometimes made him vomit in the mornings. Still, I hoped he would go to college.

“It would be a waste of your money,” he said. “I’d be miserable.”

My mind immediately leapt to the extreme: Oh my God, what if he never leaves home?

If we didn’t push him to go, I wondered, would we be negligent?

I lay awake with the anxieties parents have for their children’s futures. My friends complained about the college decision process in the plural: We’re still waiting to hear from our first choice. The last two years of high school were grueling for them, the suffering shared all around. But it was generally thought to be worth it.
I wondered if I was over-empathizing with my son, trying to compensate for pandemic trauma by letting him decide his own future. If we didn’t push him to go, I wondered, would we be negligent?

I was raised in an academic family. My father taught literature and musicology at Boston College. During my junior year of high school, when I was slogging through “The Scarlet Letter” and puzzling over what to do after graduation, he said, “You don’t have to go to college. It’s not for everyone.” It seems especially true today, when four years of college costs a fortune, when the internet provides all the information in the world and we no longer need institutional access to books, knowledge or skills. College is not for everyone.

We asked our son what he would do instead. He had an idea. A craft. He wanted to learn music production, to work in a recording studio. He reminded us that he had been making beats on his own for years. Lots of young guys make beats, few make a career of it. It felt like a gamble but we took his idea seriously.

Where did this energized, prolific person come from? Was he there all along?

We helped him formulate a plan to seek an apprenticeship in audio engineering. We found a program to set him up with a studio. He told the interviewer that he could start working two weeks after graduation.

“Don’t you want to take some time off?” we said.

His response: “What for? I’m ready to start my life.”

A year and a half later, he’s a different person. It turns out he’s not lazy or unfocused — he just wasn’t inspired by the intangible rewards of school work. When his apprenticeship ended, he found an internship at an up-and-coming studio, which led to a head engineer position at a recording start-up, and launched his freelance career as a producer.

He found a professional mentor, created a music collaborative with his best friends. He’s living with us and saving his money. Sometimes he leaves for work at 7 p.m. and comes home (quietly) at 3 in the morning, and I don’t worry about him the way I did. Whenever he shows us a beat he’s been working on, we hear his growth in the layers and complexity of sounds. We listen in wonder: Where did this energized, prolific person come from? Was he there all along? By putting external expectations aside and listening to who he really is, we’ve all grown closer.

This fall, when college drop-off photos started to appear on social media, I thought about what it means for a kid to opt out of this rite of passage that just about everyone we know opts into, the courage it takes to say no to the done thing.

A student in a dorm picture usually perches on the edge of a twin bed. Sports posters or framed candids of friends decorate the wall behind him. The bedding is neatly tucked, the throw pillows arranged carefully, and a loaded shower caddy rests on the floor. His parents’ fingerprints are all over this staging. The young man smiles patiently, indulgently, while his loved ones snap a few more pictures before it’s time for them to go. They drive home, missing him already, hoping he is in the right place.

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Related:

Erica Youngren Cognoscenti contributor
Erica Youngren is a New York-based writer and the agency coordinator for County Harvest, a food rescue organization in Westchester County.

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