Sunday, November 6, 2011

“Dad, what kind of work do you do?”

As I gather a family history from a new adolescent patient and parents, I usually pause for an entertaining interlude to ask the teenager how old her parents are. Usually she will smile while the parent coyly looks away and the child guesses, often within two or three years of the correct number. After that I inquire about what kind of work her parents do. If mother is a “stay at home mom”, the way in which this is described by her children can be most interesting. Responses have ranged from “she doesn’t do anything” to “she makes sure we are all ok.” Fathers are frequently more complicated and often require a mother’s help to explain.

Recently a sixteen year old answered that her father was in “venture capital” and when I asked what that means to her, she said:”I don’t know.” Nor did the mother know. “We love and respect him,” she said, “but we can’t really explain what he does.” Even when pressed I could not elicit the vocabulary that might explain what his work involves.

So this got me to thinking about Occupy Wall Street, the dissatisfaction so many feel with our “system” and the disillusionment of many youth about their own prospects for success in the current economy and structure of our country. The sense that they have lost control over their destinies leads to the notion that finance and banking are the only means to become truly successful (unless of course they have gifts in the athletic department.) But maybe they don’t even know what bankers and financiers really do all day.

It strikes me that if one cannot share the nature of work with family and talk about the joys, frustrations, pleasures, and pitfalls of one’s job, then there is a badly missed opportunity for teaching our children about making choices and self definition. Not to mention the value to a parent of the intense scrutiny of a smart adolescent who is exploring the world in a moral, political, economic and social sense. As Anderson Cooper calls it: “keeping them honest.”

Here are some questions to start off a discussion* aimed at understanding the world of adult work and the complex decisions that go into choosing a career, seeking and responding to a “calling” and keeping values on track as one prepares for the future:

What is your kind of work called?

What do you actually DO all day?

What do you like about your job?

How did you get started in your work? Why did you choose it? DID you actually choose it?

Do you wish you could do something else? Why don’t you?

What is important to you about your work?

Is it important to make a lot of money?

Do you think the world is a better place because of your work?

What are your hopes for me and my work life?

*clearly these questions are not just for fathers, but can be valuable for any working person, professional or even grandparent

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