On Campus

"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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