A Letter to Parents

Kids should learn to decide for themselves.

A Letter to Parents


"Mom, Dad —I'm dropping out of school."

Mom: "No you're not."

Dad: "Son, that sounds like a really bad idea..."

"But Mom, I've thought about this and school is pointless, all I'm doing is getting a degree —I don't need a degree because I don't want a job."

Mom: "Even if you don't want a job, you need a degree."


Dad: "What are you going to do if you're not going to get a job?"

"I'll just freelance or do a startup."

Dad: "Ehh, those things aren't stable, UCLA is a good college."

Mom: "You're wasting your opportunity!"

And for the next hour, for the next phone conversation, for the next year, for the next 5 years there will almost be no end to this same conversation. It will take different forms: first dropping out, then moving to Canada, then choosing a job, every decision brings with it a conversation that requires me to defend my choice to my parents.

I'm sure most kids are familiar with this conversation, and I'm sure most parents are frustrated with this conversation, "Why can't they see they're making a mistake!" I can almost hear under the breath of a million parents or worse, "Why won't they listen!" ... "I just want the best for my kids," all parents will say, then let's take a look at what "best" means and come to a solution.

The Best for my Kids

In philosophy, when we talk about "best" we are always talking about values. The best is always synonymous with what is good, and what is bad is synonymous with what is relatively worse. Most parents will agree that dropping out of college is "bad", whereas graduating from college is "good".

When thinking in terms of what's good for a child, parents should prioritize long-term growth over short-term cause and effect. The long-term benefit of the child will always be to be able to stand independently from the parents because the alternative is dependence. Independence, the ability to think, feel, and experience life as an individual without restraint is what allows people to create and act with purpose. A child will feel most fulfilled with their lives if they've lived their lives and not someone else's. To achieve independence, the child has to learn how to make "good" decisions.

To make good decisions has two parts to it —making a decision and knowing what good is. Parents are intimately involved in the development of these two processes for the kid, but are limited to influencing only the latter directly. A parent can't force a child to make a decision, but they can educate their child on what good is by: 1. talking, 2. indirectly making "bad" decisions more difficult for the kid to pursue (punishment) or intervening in decisions the kid has already made that are bad (overruling). In childhood, parents do #1 and #2; during college, parents are usually limited to #1 through phone calls.

It's in relation to the parents' behaviors that the kid develops an ability to make good decisions, however, there are also psychological factors at play that complicate the matter —the child does not fully assimilate the parent's values because they have their own that are developing. It's the conflict between a parent's already held values and a child's developing values that form the tension between this relationship. If the parent is too dominant in transposing their values onto their kids and the kid is not of a "fighting" mentality, they will not develop their own values and will resort to relying on other people's values. If a parent is too indifferent to the growth of values, the kid may develop the wrong sense of right and wrong. At least, that's what we'd like to think —but it's not at all what's going on.

The parent is not attempting to rigorously define what a good value is, they are imposing their values as the ultimate good itself. It is dogma. Examples of this can be seen in the language parents frequently use like, "do as I say!", "because I told you so!", or "you'll understand when you're older." The parent relies on authority, and authority makes it clear that whoever holds the most power dictates what is good and what is bad. In other words, what is said is more important than an objective reality in which values exist in. The child is asked to subjugate to the parents' demands, to accept their values as good.

In the parents' eyes, what's "best" for the kids is that they listen to them because their values are better than their kid's values. This is not only inaccurate, but irrational since what's best for the kids is defined above as being able to make good decisions (dynamic), not in adhering to static values. The difference between these attitudes is what gives rise to today's generation of lost kids.

Just Google It

Kids these days ask a lot of questions —they almost always ask someone else because there's always someone available to ask. There's value in asking for opinions, but not at the expense of thinking for oneself and there are a host of questions where only internal answers will suffice.

Take for example the question, "what should I do with my life?" There's no answer to this question externally, it's an existential question that can only be answered by the individual themselves, translated it would sound like, "what do I want to make of my life?" The question of what to do is subjective, it's based on values.

Parents teach their kids to assimilate their values and to the degree that the kid has given up their values, they will not be able to find an answer to the existential question. Their values were brushed aside in childhood in favor of the parents, how will they answer what they want to do? Typically what happens is one of three things: 1. the kid will treat all experiences as equal and therefore try to pursue diversity in experiences, 2. the kid will treat sensory experiences as the ultimate judgment of good and therefore try to pursue hedonism while avoiding hardship, 3. the kid will enter a battle between conflicting values and therefore change directions frequently. These routes result from being unable to answer the singular question, "what I want to do" with consistency.

This becomes a problem that reflects itself in a generation that's looking for purpose and meaning. The only way to find purpose and meaning is to decide what to do, to decide what is good. To decide what is good is to have a conviction, to value something.

A person without convictions is not a person at all —a person only becomes something if they create or act in a manner which brings about either negative or positive change to the environment. A singer must sing to be a singer, a leader must lead to be a leader. If one day you lead, then next you sing, the next you go to Pompeii, the next you take up snorkeling, and on and on the experiences go, the world can never say what you are —you become nothing. In the case of hedonism, an identity may solidify, but since the person themselves are not invested into what they are doing but only pleasure, they can just as easily change or detach themselves from it. A personality that can be disavowed cannot provide roots, there is no conviction or investment. This is the difference between a person who simply runs to keep in shape and a person who is a runner. The runner is invested in their improvement for the sake of that improvement, whereas the person who runs to keep in shape can quit at any time and take up different hobbies to keep in shape.

Søren Kierkegaard talks about the necessity to commit full-heartedly to a direction in his book Either/Or.

The reason why choosing what to do is hard is because it relies on picking between competing values, something that the child who was reared under dogmatic conditions will have little practice doing. Through lived experience, they are taught that "what is good" is decided by the person who has the most power and is communicated through what is said over any objectively felt reality. A few case examples...

"You know I love you..."

After an argument with the child in teenage years, the parent will often turn to this statement above which can take a few other forms, like "you know I care about you," "I'm only looking out for your best interests," or "family is always there for each other." While these statements are not inaccurate, they are not felt by the child —and that is what makes the difference. There is the divide between what is said (subjective) and what is felt (objective). Feelings are objective indicators of what an environment is. While these indicators can vary in intensity, most of us agree on what the mood of an environment is or is not; that is why a genre of movie called horror exists —if we did not agree on what environment would create which feelings, we would not be able to agree on a universal occurrence of horror. It would be different for everyone. That's why when a parent insists that they love their children, but the child does not feel loved, the problem isn't the child —the problem is the parent who won't change their behavior so that the love is also felt. The child can either reject the parent's words (unlikely) or come to believe that words should take precedence over how they feel.

"I didn't know that..."

After the child insists that a parent not get involved in a situation they know more about than the parent, the parent gets involved. After the situation is over and the parent has intervened, they will reply with a remark similar to the one above which can also take other forms like "I thought that...", "You should have told me that...", "It's my job as a parent to...", or "we must have misunderstood each other." What's frustrating about the case to the child is that they either avoided bringing up the issue or specifically asked the parent to stay out of the issue. In either case, what the parent has to acknowledge is that they do not have sufficient information to act because the child has purposefully denied the parent this information. Unfortunately, this seldom deters the parent from acting because they feel it especially important for them to get involved and so jump into the situation on their own assumptions about the child and place their values front and center. The result is twofold: 1. the child understands that what they say has no affect and 2. what they do is overruled by what the more dominant personality dictates. The child learns that power is fundamental to being heard, without which affirmative actions are futile. If the child in the future has power, they will expect their words to influence and affect —their actions will not matter in the least since they only need to command. The child learns to want to become powerful, so they can have affect and decide what is right and wrong.

Continuation via phone calls

At this point, the child will usually leave to college and escape direct intervention. Being unable to directly affect the child, the parent is forced into phone calls to understand the state of what the child is doing and from here will provide recommendations. This could be anything from career choice, to diet, to relationships, to living situation and all the other areas that parents involve themselves in. The child's reaction to the parent's involvement at this point is crucial since they have gained, through distance, the capability for autonomy. Three different behaviors can appear from the child in phone conversations: 1. the child does what the parents say, 2. the child lies to the parents about what they are doing to avoid confrontation, 3. the child speaks honestly to the parents and acts honestly on their subjective values. Depending on which the child primarily resorts to, their live will take a different path. #1 will lead the child towards a practiced complacency and mediocrity. #2 will spiral the child into hedonistic practices usually involving drugs and/or binge entertainment away from the parent's eyes while proclaiming to them that they are hard at work. #3 is the only path that will lead to the child's independence and capacity to make good decisions because it forces the child to practice adhering to their values, commitment. What's at stake here is the child's battle for independence since their capability to rely on their own judgment has not been practiced in youth, but finds itself stressed to perform under a more volatile college environment, there are a lot of minor and major decisions to be made, how will they make them? This stress usually overwhelms and has the child drift into escapism. Since they are incapable of absolute power, they find absolute power by believing everything is relative to themselves. As Simone de Beauvoir states in The Second Sex, "it is easy to believe one is sovereign when alone, to believe oneself strong when carefully refusing to bear any burden." The child increasingly finds enjoyment in pretending they are all-powerful. Who they say they are is what they are irrespective of the decisions they are making, the objective reality. Often the parents are none the wiser and do not expect their children to be participating in a host of activities they would disapprove of nor can they do anything to prevent it since they have no proof nor command by direct intervention, either of which would only increase hostility and tension in the relationship. The parents can only continue their phone conversations declaring different decisions that child should be making, which only further adds to the problem since it's the child's faculty for making decisions that is impaired and deciding for them only further prevents the child from developing that faculty.

The Third Case

Now that we have a description of the problem and how it comes about, we can look at the third case in which the child attempts to find a resolution by acting out their values. The child is attempting to answer "what I want to do," which will require exploration, thought, and at the end: faith since the final commitment to values has nothing rooting it except the decision to commit to them. The child's behavior at this point will be erratic since they are undecided; they'll have difficulty knowing which values to uphold and which ones to throw away, but its in this difficulty that values will begin to sort themselves out and find a natural hierarchy.

The parents role in this endeavor has to be limited and the child's avoidance of the parent should not be seen as a negative from the parent's eyes if they wish for their child to grow. Avoidance of the parent is a behavior that enables the child space to explore their values in peace. If the parent pressures the child too much in this stage with their demands, it is likely the child will fold and yield to either option #1 or #2, a life of complacency or hedonism because the additional stress placed on them will be too much to bear and a resolution of values will seem impossible.

There is no correct way for the child to arrive at a firm conclusion for what is valuable, where time should be spent. The parents can only have faith that the child will arrive at a reasonable life and that their will will guide them accordingly. The good is that the child will be able to decide for themselves what their life becomes and failing to arrive there can find comfort that their life was still theirs. This person is not ruined by a single decision since all positive and negative consequences are a part of bearing the responsibility of their life. One way or another, this person finds reason to continue.

With this ultimate goal, the parent shouldn't be deceived into believing that their providing direction to their kids will benefit them —it is the opposite since it prevents the child from evaluating decisions on their own and achieving independence.

The Alternative

This is not to say that indifference and complete "hands-off" parenting is what I'm advocating for. Parents should be involved with their kids, but in a manner that doesn't place all the weight of conversation on the kid's life. This is generally difficult since most aging parents are freed with time and have less activities of their own to pursue except through their kids. The result is a situation that gradually steers to talking about the kid's decisions, but we've already discussed how this is a problem in it of itself.

I'd like to think that once kids go to college, the role a parent should play is that of a sharer of experiences. In this way, the parent is able to demonstrate clear examples of why they've come to their values (as well as just helping the kid learn more about them) while remaining neutral and separate from the kid's decision making. The kid benefits from understanding the values in context of a person's life which gives different grounds for accepting or rejecting the value and the parent benefits from sharing their true experiences.

In order to arrive at this form of dialogue requires a willingness from the parent to step down as an authority and for the child to recognize a reciprocal relationship with the parent —that the parent is in fact also a person. This situation itself may be uncomfortable for both parties to come to and may require a period of adjusting. My recommendation is to schedule a weekly call that has the parent sharing a short story with the kid commenting and working through integrating, changing, or rejecting the values laid out in it. In this way, the focal point of conversation is moved away from the child and they remain free to make their decisions without intervention, explanation, or defense.

This is only theory, so I cannot attest to any results —what I can say is that a better future will rely on both parents and kids doing their parts in solving this dilemma. In this article I mostly covered the necessity for parent's to encourage the kid's personal decision-making process in the long-run over worrying about singular decisions, more on kids later...