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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter adores her older cousin, “Sophie,” and views her as a role model. They are seven years apart: My daughter just started her first year of high school while Sophie is in her senior year of college, double majoring in economics and physics at Berkeley. For years, my husband and I have been delighted that our daughter looked up to her cousin, especially since Sophie was always outspoken about her desire to spend her life studying one of the subjects she loves (either as a physicist or economist). Throughout the years, we have given her around $20,000 to help pay for college and have never asked for anything in return, as we love her and have been proud of her academic achievements and goals. She has told our daughter numerous times how much she loves doing research, how amazing it was to work with Professor So-and-So, how much she wants to make the next big breakthrough, and we thought she would soon be applying to graduate schools.
Imagine our surprise when my sister announced that Sophie was going straight to work after graduation at a massive financial accounting/consulting firm, one that’s connected to multiple controversies (it reportedly helped huge corporations in awful industries—think tobacco, meatpacking, fast fashion—get away with mistreating their workers and misleading the public). Sophie seems utterly thrilled about her new job, primarily because she’s earning six figures right out of college and will be renting a much nicer NYC apartment than most kids her age can afford. She has told our daughter how excited she is about her new job and how much “freedom” it will give her (i.e. the freedom to spend more).
Now, our daughter wants to move to New York like Sophie one day as well, and has been telling us that she wants to go to a college where she can also be recruited by a big corporation. I don’t want my daughter to spend high school and college chasing after a job with a corporation that prioritizes profit over people. My husband and I both work in climate research and want our daughter to live a good life and give back to society, and not view money as the be all and end all in her career or life. My husband is especially upset and believes that Sophie is a “sellout” and wants to show our daughter the next article he sees about Sophie’s employers being involved in sketchy situations or human rights abuses, but I know she’d ask Sophie about it, which would probably cause problems with Sophie and her mother. I’m still a little confused that my academic niece who wanted to change the world through science has instead chosen a high salary in a field she was never interested in, but I think it’s none of our business. Yes, we paid for part of her schooling, but she is still my only niece! My husband wants to say something, but I want him to back off and not ruin our daughter’s idolization of her cousin, who is still a smart and hardworking young woman, even if she’s not going to grad school. How should we handle this?
—Sophie’s (Corporate) Choice
Dear Sophie’s Choice,
First, let’s take completely off the table any notion that your helping Sophie pay for her education entitles you to any say in what she does with that education (even if she were not your only niece). A gift that is given with strings attached is not a gift at all.
But now to the heart of your question. The way you should handle this is not to handle it. Your child is still very young; any announcement she makes about her future life and career should be taken with a grain of salt. And I hate to tell you this, but I suppose I’d better: If she does grow up to be a “corporate sellout” like her beloved cousin, that won’t be any of your business either. (My guess is that this won’t happen, if she’s grown up eating and breathing your deep convictions. But you never know: Sometimes kids actively reject their parents’ beliefs and moral code. All you can do is your best to instill them, then stand back and let them make their own choices as adults.
Meanwhile, stand down. Nod politely and offer an occasional mmm when she tells you, starry-eyed, how fabulous her cousin’s life is. And lay off the disapproval of Sophie, who is her own person and who could have made this decision for any number of reasons beyond greed (exhaustion with school, failure to place in a worthwhile graduate program, financial worries, etc.). And who, by the way, may realize on her own that the path she’s taken isn’t what she’d imagined it would be—she wouldn’t be the first person to return to grad school after a few years of living the perhaps less-than-fulfilling corporate life. You never know.
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