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Parental influences on career choices

Issue 4 / Oct - Dec, 2010
Dec 06, 2010
Reading time: 9 minutes (945 words)

In the early years, hundreds of studies were conducted in trying to understand the different factors that influence a young adult’s choice of a career. While confirming the influence of other personal and environmental factors, such as, personality, school and the role of peers and teachers on career aspirations, researchers unanimously proved that a large number of variables influencing students’ occupational goals were linked to their family environment. These include: level of parental education, family size, employment and socioeconomic variables like parental income. In addition, the majority of papers published on this subject consistently ranked parents as the most important and influential individuals regarding career decisions, as compared to teachers, peers, counsellors and others.

The facts

As the role of the family in career development became more evident, research moved from examining simple family demographics and their relationships to career development to understanding the dynamics of family interactions. These newer studies uncovered some important and interesting facts:

  • It was consistently found that adolescents’ own aspirations are influenced by their parents’ aspirations or expectations of them. Adolescents who perceive their parents to have high educational expectations of them are likely to have higher aspirations for themselves.
  • Parental support and encouragement were found to influence vocational outcome. Through interactions, such as, conversations and through verbal and non-verbal reactions, parents conveyed their influence to their children, which in turn affected what children thought, said and perceived about various careers. This eventually affected the children’s attitudes and behaviors towards work.
  • Parenting style, support, responsiveness and guidance may even have more influence than family demographics. This proves how children from impoverished, low educational and disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds can have great academic achievements and proceed to more fulfilling and prosperous careers. This fact strongly encourages open engagement and involvement of parents in their children’s academic pursuits. An authoritative parenting style (a demanding and responsive child-rearing style which includes a high level of parental involvement, high expectations and standards, adequate support, guidance and encouragement) was found to be associated with better career choices as it balances clear, high expectations with emotional support and recognition of an adolescent’s autonomy. Authoritative parents set standards, promote independence and provide a warm family climate, which results in self-confidence, persistence, social competence, academic success and psychosocial development. This in turn leads to more active career exploration on the part of children and greater career satisfaction.

Dealing with challenges

While supporting a child’s career development can be exciting for a parent, there are often many challenges that face both parents and children and, eventually, the career choices that result.

  • While all parents want the best for their children, there is always the danger of them trying to "live their dreams" through their children. On the one hand, children may be subconsciously influenced to tread the same professional paths as their parents, keeping the trade in the family. Children may be discouraged from exploring and considering other non-traditional career paths, even if their natural abilities and talents are more in agreement with a different professional or career life than that of their parents. On the other hand, parents may also become overly-involved in career decisions because they want their children to be more content in a career than they are in their own jobs. Children may begin to identify and accept their parents’ views and neglect to challenge them or assess their validity, with negative consequences on their own career choices.
  • There is often a contradiction between what parents say about their children’s careers and work and what they expect of them. Choice of employment site, work hours, pay, benefits and so forth are hot topics that often prompt comments or references which may be contradictory to the image the parent is trying to instill. In general, most parents recognize the importance of pursuing a career with good job opportunities, while also appreciating the importance of exploring and discovering all careers that may be of interest to their children. Parents, through their comments and statements, should encourage their children to be open to all factors and ensure that this balance of opinion remains throughout the career development process.
  • While some parents confidently plunge into career discussions with their teenagers, many parents from the older generations fear the communication gap and feel inadequate and ill-prepared to discuss and support their children’s career aspirations. Studies have found that in reality, however, parents’ and children’s views about career aspirations are more compatible than incompatible. Without parental approval or support, students and young adults are often reluctant to pursue — or even explore — diverse career possibilities.

For parents who are eager to support their children in the best possible way, there are endless opportunities to exploring career and work situations, both in the formal and informal setting. Encouraging children to take challenging classes and develop and learn new skills, providing opportunities to instill confidence in family situations and informal contacts for exploration of occupational choices are some of the ways. Parental support and guidance can include specific career or educational suggestions as well as experiences that indirectly support career development, such as, family vacations, provision of resources, like books and modeling of paid and non-paid work roles. On an everyday basis, the simple sharing of workplace stories and modeling work behaviors allows parents to serve as a context for interpreting the realities of work while the secure and close family environment facilitates risk-taking and exploration all of which are needed for the formation of a vocational identity.

Although initial career choices are often made in the teenage years, it is important to remember that career development is a lifelong process and the family factors that affected those early decisions continue to have an influence through the entire life of the child. With a little planning and effort, parents who acknowledge the immense influence they can have on their children’s future can use their roles to the advantage of the entire family.

Dr. Nazima Dharsee (sjdharsee@gmail.com) courtesy of Knowledge Magazine 2009

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A very powerful article. An important additional insight is that many of today's jobs and career paths didn't exist when our parents were growing up, or even when we were growing up. It is all the more important to have the authoritative parental support the article describes, along with a spirit of adventure and exploration - open-mindedness about the options evolving in the future. Too often still, in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa our children's choices are shaped by what they see immediately in front of them, rather than the great potential in travelling fresh new paths.

There's a strong argument to be made for career 'road shows' to high schools around the country - to expose teens and their parents to such new opportunities.

- Delphine du Toit (Ascend HR Services) on Dec 06, 2010

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