“Push her into it; she’ll thank you later”

Overheard at McDonald’s: the worst advice imaginable regarding university


This morning my worst nightmare took physical form in the shape of a man of about sixty years old. He was sitting in a McDonald’s at Dundas and Bathurst where I stopped for breakfast (yeah, I know) and was speaking with a woman. He asked about this woman’s daughter and how she was progressing in school. Apparently the girl had expressed some reluctance about proceeding immediately to university. This man’s reply, with all the authority vested in him by age and experience, was this: “Push her into it; she’ll thank you later.”

I’ve been seething about this all day. I’m angry about it still. It isn’t so much that the man offered such awful advice but that he sounded so utterly sure of himself. He wasn’t even offering a considered opinion but was obviously just repeating a truism. A watched pot never boils. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. And teenagers should be pushed into school because they’ll thank their parents later.

As I turned this encounter over in my mind, during the last few hours, I’ve come to realize there’s another dimension to this issue. “Push her into it; she’ll thank you later.” When is that ever true? In what context is that ever a valid statement? I’ve been trying to think of some situation where that might be an appropriate attitude to take towards a teenage girl and I’m coming up blank. No matter that it might be the girl’s parents or other people that she trusts, I can’t think of any time when it’s fair to assume that once she’s been “pushed” into some experience she isn’t ready for or doesn’t want that she’ll obviously be grateful later. I can think of a few things a person should be stopped from doing and might be thankful for later (like crack, for example) but nothing at all a person should be made to do.

There are so many reasons why it could be a bad idea to attend university straight out of high school. Most people only have the financial resources (to say nothing of the psychological reserves) to try it once. Many professions and career paths now require graduate and professional degrees beyond the undergraduate level. Even students who finish their bachelor degrees (once they’ve been pushed into them) may well not have the grades to continue further. I don’t know of any admissions committee that takes it into consideration when students write, “but I wasn’t ready then; I was pushed to go.”

I don’t have children so I can’t fairly comment on what it feels like to be a parent. But I imagine it’s hard to let go and allow your teenage children to start making their own decisions. It seems as though this one decision, to attend post-secondary education (immediately or otherwise), occurs right at the end where parental control is waning. Parents feel this immense need to force their kids, while they still have the authority to do so, into this one last experience. But it’s wrong. I feel that in my bones. Not only is it frequently the wrong decision in any event, we understand in numerous other contexts that good results aren’t achieved by forcing people into doing things.

I respect young people who join the military. But no one should be pushed into doing it. Amateur hockey, baseball, soccer, and other team sports are all healthy and positive pastimes but only so long as they are voluntary. No teenager should be forced into dating. No teenager should be forced to go to summer camp, or participate in scouting, or to volunteer with the underprivileged. I don’t even believe teenagers should be forced to engage in religious worship if they aren’t so inclined. Bear in mind we’re talking about people in their late teens – ostensibly adults or close to it – rather than younger teenagers. It’s not at all a question of the value of the activity. It’s the fact that people at this age are beyond the point they should be forced to do things they don’t want to do. At best it’s counter-productive. At worst it’s downright abusive.

Time and again I come around to a question I’ve never adequately answered. Why is this one issue so blazingly significant that norms which apply to every other situation are laid aside? How is it that otherwise rational adults not only ignore what they know applies to other situations but even accept it as a truism that it’s appropriate to push their kids into educational decisions not of their choosing?

That older man – that nightmare that took flesh this morning and so blithely dispensed the most awful advice I can even imagine – upset me most not because he has any influence on the poor teenage girl in question. He upset me because he has influence over her mother. Parents are as susceptible to peer pressure as anyone else. No one wants to be a poor mother, or to be thought of as one. And so students are shoved into experiences they aren’t ready for not only because their parents think that it’s good for them (and they’ll be grateful later) but also so that parents aren’t forced to awkwardly explain, to their friends and acquaintances, that their kids aren’t in school.

Post-secondary education is a life-changing decision. For good or for ill, that decision has to be made by the person who is going to live that life — not by that person’s mother or father, however well-intentioned, and sure as hell not by some random fool in McDonalds.

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“Push her into it; she’ll thank you later”

  1. I feel as if your argument lost steam in the first paragraph when you mentioned eating breakfast at a multi-national corporation famous for destroying South American rainforests, using child labour and contributing to obesity. Mom shouldn’t take advice from some guy at McDonalds, but then neither should I.

    Judging by their food choices the family probably has problems that go way beyond education. Nevertheless, I agree that it is a shame to see a young adult pushed into something and like you, I can’t think of one good example of when that would result in gratitude.

    The only comment I can make on the flip side is that there is a growing problem with young adults bumming around at their parents’ houses, sometimes into their 30’s, refusing to push themselves. This puts financial and emotional strain on aging parents who thought they would be free after 18 years of hard work, not 35. I wonder if there is some of that fear wrapped up in parents’ thoughts about education. Not just “I don’t want to tell my friends she’s not in school” but also “I don’t want to end up like so-and-so who’s son in 30 years old, works part-time at a call center, and lives in her basement.” Sure, the daughter could get a job but with a grade 12 education she’s likely still going to have to live at home and that “year off” could turn into years. (There are a bunch of reality TV shows about this issue but I haven’t seen them.)

    On the other hand, pushing kids into school when they’re not ready could lead to the boomerang effect where they move back home indefinitely with no job and a lot of debt. My point is, though, that this issue isn’t just about the child’s welfare. The parents are probably thinking about their futures too and not wanting to erode their retirement savings taking care of an adult who isn’t qualified to get a good job. So maybe the girl needs to be encouraged to do something with her life so she doesn’t end up working at the place where you eat breakfast, but that doesn’t have to mean rushing off to university.

  2. I’ll pass on the McDonald’s issue. It amuses me, and I acknowledge the concern (which is why I nodded to it) but all the same I don’t believe people should be dismissed on the basis of anything so trivial. I don’t know how many billions McDonald’s has served at this point, but I’m not going to suggest that many people are unentitled to opinions now, and I guess I regret even making the crack.

    What I wish to reply, to CD, is while I appreciate you’re on board with most of my argument I can’t understand where you get the idea that it’s impossible to support oneself with a high school education or even on minimum wage. People are doing just that all over the country. It isn’t a long-term lifestyle with a lot to recommend it, but possible? Absolutely. Working full-time at minimum wage in Ontario right now will gross $1400/month. I know young people who live on far less, just as I did for years. I won’t even talk about welfare.

    I want to be very clear. I never endorsed, nor do I endorse, having teenagers bum around their parents’ basements in lieu of school. I think working full-time for minimum wage (at McDonald’s or elsewhere) and then spending the great majority of that just to meet rent and groceries is one of the best educations going. Show me someone who’s done that for a couple of years and I’ll show you a young person who’s eager for something better – perhaps something that demands an education.

    Part of the root problem of the “must go to university” attitude is a “must live a certain lifestyle” expectation that underscores it. The suggestion that people can’t be self-supporting without post-secondary education goes right to this foundational problem. It isn’t remotely true. You want a car, or a nice home, or a vacation out of the country? Then yeah, you need a higher income. On minimum wage you’ll be sharing an apartment with roommates and taking the bus to work. But now we’re talking about lifestyle expectations and not education.

    So I occasionally eat at the rainforest destroying mega-restaurant and you just made some wild assumptions about how much income (and by extension, how much consumption) an adult requires in order to live. We’ll call it even, okay?

  3. As a university professor, I frequently see the results of students pushed into university, and those results are predictable. The worst version comes in the form of students whose parents have said, “Go for one year and if it doesn’t work out, you can quit.” These are the ones who register for five classes and do nothing, I mean nothing, all year. They skip class, hand in no assignments, write no exams. Their 5 Fs are their walking papers.

    In the meantime, they’ve accumulated thousands of dollars in student debt, and now have a year’s worth of failures on their educational record, ready to weigh down their university careers should they decide they actually want to go to university for real some day.

  4. I agree, though under the age of 18, (15) i am at this very moment being forced, and i have sent he results of this so called “Hard love” or what so ever you would call it, it results in layabouts wasting there parents hard earned money, and also there chances for a higher education, anyway your assumption that you cant live on minimum wage is wrong, you can survive on it, though it would possibly lead to betterment. Haha, shouldnt of told my mom to stop pushing me into a certain life style, sighs.

  5. Re: “when is it ever true” that you should “push her into it – she’ll thank you later?”
    I hated French in school. I didn’t study, crammed for exams and promptly forgot it when I left school. I have often wished my parents pushed me to learn French well – I missed a number of opportunities along the way because I couldn’t speak Canada’s other official language.
    When I was growing up, everyone in my family could cook except me – and I saw no reason to learn. My mother didn’t push me to learn. I learned slowly and hard – after years of eating badly when I left home.
    Asian kids are pushed to do well – and guess, what, they tend to do much better on average than other kids. They also tend to get ahead in life faster and higher. Maybe they’re not happy. But at least they’re rich, eh?
    Marnie Tunay

  6. Just found Jeff’s blog. Great post and great discussion! And Marnie’s comment leads to an important question: in the end of the day, are these kids that got pushed happy (and grateful for pushing)? I wonder which is the happy vs. unhappy ratio here.

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