What to Say to Motivate Your Aimless Teen

On How To!, former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims shares tips for getting your kid to grow up and leave the nest.

A boy with his arms outstretched, surrounded on both sides by question marks
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of How To!, a mom, Lisa, is worried about her 17-year-old son Owen, who doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do after he graduates from high school. But Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean and author of How to Raise an Adult, says that’s perfectly OK—and gives Lisa some tools to encourage Owen to find his own way. The following is an excerpt of their conversation with How To! host Charles Duhigg, condensed and edited for clarity.

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I’m reminded of a parent very similar to you who I profiled in my book, who’s got a Ph.D., both she and her husband have Ph.D.s, and they’re at the University of Michigan. Highly educated parents. They’ve got three kids. They’re great kids, but their eldest son, at age 17, fall of his senior year, just didn’t have a sense at all about what he wanted next. They panicked. They’re like: “He’s smarter than both of us put together. What is going on?” They learned from talking to colleagues that a number of their colleagues—who by definition are now people with Ph.D.s who teach young humans various subjects—many of them hadn’t blossomed intellectually until their mid-20s. They didn’t know what they wanted to do right after high school. They went into the workforce, or they went into the military, or maybe they took a couple of classes at community college. The blossoming happened later.

I just want to put that out there because there’s this sort of inevitability and this sort of on-ramp feel or an arms-race feel like everyone’s going to college, we’ve got to go to college, we’ve got to keep up. But in reality, college will always be there. It’ll be there next fall. It’ll be there the fall after and in five years and in 10 years. He’s just not at the place where he is ready to make a good choice, frankly, about which college would be right for him, because he’s not engaging around that conversation or that process. You’re going to end up making the choice for him. You might end up choosing his major for him, and all of that leads to a pretty unrewarding undergraduate experience and a lot of dollars spent.

Lisa: I would like to avoid that.

Julie: Fundamentally, I know my job as a parent is to make sure my kid can fend for themselves when I’m gone. I said to my kid: “Hey, kid, there are five options when you graduate from this high school. There’s a two-year college. There’s a four-year college. There’s the military. There’s a full-time job in the workplace, and there’s a structured gap year program. I want you to choose one of them rather than let one of them happen to you by default because you didn’t actually choose.” Make it clear that there are five options—in other words, there isn’t a sixth option of you do nothing or you continue sort of bumping along.

[Your son] works part time now, since he’s in school, right? At a minimum, ramping up to full-time work would have to be required. If you let him know and you can emotionally back up that you’re not wedded to a particular path, you might be creating a little bit more of that distance toward autonomy that he needs in order to then show up in his own life and say, “Actually, if I could be honest with you all, what I’m thinking is blah, blah, blah.” Whatever it is. We’re trying to make room for Owen to show up, and sometimes it can be hard for a kid to do that if we seem to have a lot of ideas and we’re always the one doing the asking.

Charles Duhigg: Julie, when you were at Stanford, I imagine you had lots of parents coming in saying that exact same thing, right? Like: “I don’t care what my kid does, but I want them to be passionate about that. I want them to work hard. I want them to fulfill their potential.”

Julie: Yeah, I think all of us parents feel that way. I certainly have contended with those feelings pretty frequently myself. As excruciating as it is, if they don’t seem to be blossoming right away or don’t seem to be making the most of their talents, what we’ve got to trust here—and it does require trust and maybe a leap of faith about one’s journey over time—we’ve got to trust that our kid who is kind, hardworking, smart, is going to find a stirring in himself at 20 or 25 or 23 or 27, I’m not sure when. It may just be that Owen needs a little bit more time. This is where a gap year comes in, a structured gap year. Apply for a program that’s going to take you somewhere, into an experience that’s going to be challenging but a great opportunity to learn. Maybe being outside of his familiar zone, his comfort zone, where he’ll be jarred and jostled a little bit just by the new environment—maybe that’ll help awaken him to what he really wants out of life.

Charles: Are there situations when Owen has put himself outside of his comfort zone before?

Lisa: I don’t think he’s had very many.

Charles: He sounds like this sort of sweet, easygoing kid, but every life has its ups and downs, right? If I asked him, “Owen, what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” what do you think he would say?

Lisa: Oh, my goodness. I don’t know what he would say. I honestly can’t. Compared to my life, he’s got a pretty sweet deal. I really can’t think of, like, anything that would be the worst thing that ever happened to him. I’m not really sure.

Julie: It sounds like Owen had a life that has been relatively free of difficulty and things have gone well and he’s been happy and everything’s fine. I saw that a lot with students I worked with at Stanford, and I see it in Silicon Valley. The more affluent kids, when they encountered a problem, I would see them text a parent, tell them what the problem was, knowing that a solution was coming. I thought, Wow, OK. All of this growing up with parents who are always there, always responsive: You’d left something at home; they brought it to you at school. You didn’t turn in your homework; they argued with the teacher. They told you which activities to do; they filled out your forms. You know, they kind of handled it. They were there as your concierge always. That feels really wonderful, except when you realize it can deprive the kid of having that hunger to figure things out for themselves and to do for themselves. That only happens when the parent is willing to pull back.

Charles: That totally makes sense to me. I mean, my kids are younger. But even when they come and they have a problem, I want to solve it for them. Not only is that kind of my job as a parent, but it’s fun for me. It makes me feel useful. It feels like I show them that I love them by taking away this thing that’s hurting them. But what you’re saying is actually what I should do is I should just let them get hurt and figure out how to solve it on their own.

Julie: Yeah, and that sounds horrible, Charles. Nobody listening to this really wants you to have said that, and they certainly don’t want me to endorse that as the so-called expert on the show, but you’re exactly right. I mean, we don’t want them to hurt themselves irreparably. We don’t want them to drown or fall off a cliff. But when Owen has something that goes wrong, like a snafu, a deadline not met, or something he’s forgot to do that he’s got to do by tomorrow, or he left something behind, instead of stepping up and handling it or helping him handle it, adopt an empathetic response, like “Wow, that’s unfortunate” or “Sorry that happened to you, son.” Something of empathy.

But then you want to empower by saying, “That sounds like a problem a 17-year-old can solve.” That’s a way of signaling, “I know it’s a problem, but it isn’t my problem. Oh, and by the way I’m pretty sure you can handle it.” When we’ve always been there to handle, fix, manage the stuff for them, we’re sort of signaling, “Hey, kid, I don’t think you can handle it. Don’t worry, I’ll handle it for you.” That really undermines that sense of agency that we want them to have so that they are motivated to get out there and do what they need to do.

To listen to the entire episode—including more parenting tips from Julie Lythcott-Haims—click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.