Coaching Kids to Career Success

Eight Things Parents and Grandparents Can Do

Coaching Kids to Career Success

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As parents, you help your children to build a strong faith, get a strong education, and develop a strong and healthy body. Do you also consider how to help them build a strong career path? This isn’t just about having a good job and financial security.

It’s about helping them to find fulfillment by recognizing and using the talents God has given them. No parent can foresee every vocational challenge their children will face. Some journeys are longer and more difficult than others. But there are some things we can do to help our children discern how God is calling them to serve him and others through their work.

Here are eight suggestions drawn from our experience as organizational consultants and career coaches who have helped hundreds of people to integrate their faith, career, and life. We offer them, too, as parents who have tested these approaches on the home front. They are easily adapted for use with children of all ages. They can also be a springboard for discussion and prayer between spouses, or for a talk with an older child.

1. Conversation is key. One day when our daughter, Beth Anne, was twelve years old, she excitedly informed us that she had received the results from her very first career assessment test. We sat down and listened as she announced her two top career matches: professional poet and infantry soldier! It was fun imagining together how our wordsmith of a daughter might craft poems in cadence with exercise drills.

Though this was Beth Anne’s first career test, it was hardly the first time we discussed her career interests. More important than any test, we have learned, is parental alertness to those moments when children express “what I want to do when I grow up.” Then it’s worth turning off the computer, stove, or TV and really listening.

Of course, your child’s interests will evolve. Understanding his or her uniqueness is a years-long discernment process—not a job for a computer. As your dialogue unfolds, consider keeping a journal of these conversations. Then one day, when your child is mature enough to seek your guidance, pull out that journal and offer your thoughts on the journey it represents. What a wonderful eighteenth birthday gift that would be!

2. What do you see? Some of our greatest talents and strengths come so easily and naturally that we don’t even notice or value them. For this reason, it’s important to take note of the activities and occupations toward which a child gravitates. Periodically ask questions about what he or she likes about school or a job, and watch the response—eyes, facial expression, tone of voice. You may want to record your observations in that journal.

For example, our daughter, Lauren, has worked as a catering hostess. When we asked her what makes for a successful catered event, her answer revealed an instinctive feel and zest for event management. We also noticed that when she graduated from high school, her peers voted her “most likely to replace Donald Trump”!

Take note of a child’s hobbies and passions, too. Our second son, Stephen— nicknamed “Bug”—showed an early interest in nature and the outdoors. How often, when he was supposed to be mowing the lawn, did we see him stooping over to examine an insect! Our grass was never cut in straight lines; “follow that bug” was the mowing pattern at our house. Fishing, hunting, and flying have captured Stephen’s attention. No surprise that he went on to work for an airline and that his first major purchase was a motor for his fishing boat.

3. Character traits count. Our oldest son, Nicholas, has always been a guy on the move. As a baby, it was hard to keep him strapped into a car seat; as a youth, he loved playing football. At the same time, he is compassionate and caring. As someone commented, “Nicholas can pick you up and body slam you in a millisecond, then kindly offer to help you up!” This mix of traits lay behind his decision to enter the police academy.

A desire to serve, to stay physically fit, and to avoid being confined to a desk —characteristics like these are just as important as the skills and learning that might be integrated into a career.

What about your children? What character traits do they have that would be a gift to the world?

4. Follow the right dream. As I (Nick) grew up, I often heard my father say that he would have received more respect and higher pay as an engineer. He worked as a factory maintenance supervisor and wanted more for me. I dutifully pursued his desires for my life—until I miserably failed the freshman engineering curriculum at Purdue University. It wasn’t for lack of academic preparation: I had graduated near the top of my high school class and had taken all the required college prep courses. I just wasn’t cut out to be an engineer.

In our counseling work, we meet many people who made a poor career choice because they were influenced by well-intentioned parents, teachers, or friends. So let’s be careful not to impose our desires on our children’s careers. Let’s encourage them to think about what they love to do, about what interests them, and why. Sure, they need our counsel and direction. But they also need the freedom to dream their dreams and hear for themselves what the Lord is calling them to do.

5. Wise investments reap benefits. Rod, a former client, came to us in his mid-forties because he was unhappy in his career as a successful professor of architecture. As we worked with him to discover his real interests, Rod mentioned an incident from when he was six. That year, he received a doctor’s kit, the gift he wanted most. But when he opened the bag and saw that the “instruments” inside were just plastic toys, he cried with disappointment. Rod wanted the real thing! Shortly thereafter, his wise parents delighted him with the gift of a real stethoscope and a real reflex hammer.

It took decades, but their investment paid off. After much discernment, Rod had the tremendous courage to let go of his previous career and enroll in medical school. He is now a geriatric psychiatrist—a real M.D. with real instruments!

One lesson from Rod’s story: Once you discover a child’s interest, make some investments to support it. A few dollars spent today on the “real stuff” may be a better investment than a few dollars added to a college fund.

6. Hard work and a passion for excellence are always in season. If you help your children develop these qualities, you will be giving them two of life’s most valuable “transferable skills.” These are qualities they can build on, because they carry forward from one situation to the next.

These characteristics have benefited Elaine, one of our coaching clients, who is always seeking to optimize her career while fully integrating her faith. When she decided to pursue a career as a ballerina, her parents encouraged her to give her best. A disciplined and quick learner, Elaine studied, practiced, performed, and majored in dance at one of the nation’s leading schools. Then her dreams crashed. Through casting calls, she came to understand that although she was very good, she wasn’t quite good enough to make a living as a ballerina.

Elaine went on to a successful career as a sales manager for a major international software company. How did she make the transition? She believes it has everything to do with the transferability of the lessons she learned from dance: “Nothing beats preparation. A presentation agenda is like good choreography: The plan needs to be thought out in advance and continuously improved. Both demand poise and an awareness of those around you.”

You get the picture!

7. There’s more to life than money. “Why do you do the work you do?” The question was put to me (Nick) at a talk I gave to my daughter’s high school marketing class. My answer really caught the students’ attention: “Because it has made me extremely rich.”

Then I explained that I wasn’t mainly talking about money, but about the rewards and satisfaction I receive from meeting so many interesting people and organizations and using my skills to help them succeed. It’s important to make a career choice that will provide a decent living, I told them. But no one finds happiness by running after money.

Some of the most heartbreaking stories we hear as career counselors come from outwardly successful fifty something professionals who say, “I’ve wasted the last thirty years of my life.”

So teach your children that there is more than one way to be very rich in life. Open the dictionary with them, look up “rich,” and discuss the definitions you find. Especially, let them know that they will find true wealth and success as they “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).

8. It’s a journey. Help your children to take the long view. Teach them that developing a career doesn’t happen in a day or without twists and turns. Life experiences can be just as valuable and instructive as what they learn from books.

Finally, encourage your children to travel this road by putting their trust in God—in an active way that empowers them to develop their gifts and move ahead. The Father who loves them best wants to see them happy and fulfilled, doing what he created them to do.

Nick and Cathy Synko are the founders of Synko Associates, LLC, an organizational development and career coaching firm, and of Careers Through Faith, a national career transition ministry (