How Do I Stop My Son from Picking the Military Over College?


Our son, who turned 18 last month, is about to graduate from high school. He’s a great kid, an Eagle Scout, and a straight-A student (3.96 grade-point average). He’s the president of his senior class and has multiple full-ride scholarship offers from elite schools across the country, including Stanford and Princeton.

So why, pray tell, would he possibly want to join the military? This is the dilemma our family faces. Bernie Sanders isn’t president. College isn’t cheap. A quality college education is unaffordable for many families, including ours. By the time our son would complete his service, it seems doubtful at best that opportunities like this will still be waiting for him, and we won’t be in position to help him much. We feel like he is leaving not only free money (and a lot of it) on the table, but also his future, and for what?

His mother and I both see the nobility in wanting to serve our country and we admire him for it, but this decision puts not only his financial future at risk but also, potentially, his life. It’s an unstable world we live in, and not too many people who enlist these days manage to avoid deployment. We’ve tried to talk some sense into our son, but he says he’s made up his mind. Easy to say for someone who has never had to pay for anything in his life.

Please help us. How can we convince our son that going to college is a much better choice than going to war? —Dumbfounded Dad

Dear Dumbfounded,

Thank you for writing. I can’t help but think the answer to your question lies in the emotional undertone of the question itself.

As I’m sure you already know, the teen years are often a roller-coaster for teens and parents alike. It’s a phase marked by intense contradiction, as a burgeoning young adult seeks individuation and freedom while under the care and protection of the very people they are trying to separate from. It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of curfews, driving privileges, allowances, homework, drugs, sex, and so on.

Though I find it a worthy question to ask, what is really at the heart of this? Usually it’s anxiety or fear. On the parents’ side, there is the fear the child will be somehow unsafe, now or later, and is throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Parents fear that the kid who struggles in school may not be well enough prepared for college later; the kid who experiments with pot may be “setting themselves up for failure” down the road; and the son who says no to full-ride scholarships at elite schools has somehow gone off-track. What the heck is he thinking? That does it, I’m putting my foot down!

The teen, meanwhile, worries about the same thing, only from a different angle. Can I survive and flourish—socially, financially—once I’ve left the nest? If I’m too reliant on mom or dad now, what happens later when I’m working or at college? I can’t rely on them forever. I know they want me to take these scholarships, get an education, but I want a different kind of education. What’s wrong with that? To hell with ’em! I’m on my own!

Anxiety, in other words, rules the day, as each side feels disrespected or abandoned or shut out by the other.

Your letter is full of understandable parental anxiety focused mostly, it seems to me, on the future. He is “potentially” risking his life or possibly throwing away opportunities that may or may not be “waiting for him” later on. One could say these scholarships are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. You could also say any kid with the smarts to get into these schools with a 3.96 GPA, and with a willingness to take the road less traveled, will likely continue to find opportunities. I know plenty of struggling adults who went to Ivy League schools, and successful people who went to community college, then specialized in grad school or elsewhere later on.

You have, again understandably for a parent, developed a vision for the best path forward for your son. What father wouldn’t want his son to go to Princeton or Stanford? I empathize with your confusion and frustration. I imagine you’re tearing your hair out.

But this is the great challenge of this mind-warping transition phase. As a parent myself, I foresee a time when my daughter will announce to us she has decided to become a doctor or lawyer (or better yet, a psychologist!)—which means, of course, that when she’s 18 she’ll announce to us she’s skipping college to join a punk band or travel to Antarctica to save seals. We want our kids to be safe; they want us to back off so they can test limits, take a bite out of the world, and dance near the edge. This is itself the delicate, anxious dance between teens and parents at this complicated phase.

As I often do in this column, I’ll throw out my 2 cents regarding some practical suggestions, followed by a more psychological angle.

First, talk to your son—as neutrally as possible—about what you’re seeing as the risks involved. The idea here is to model balanced decision making. Make sure he knows your “agenda” is only to talk through the decision with him. Does he know what a rare opportunity these scholarships actually are, how few kids get into these schools, for a free ride, no less? That these schools provide first-rate opportunities for networking and lifelong connection for just about any field of interest? That he could always enlist after getting his undergrad degree, or try college first and then decide? You could also talk about what assistance you can and possibly can’t provide both now and later.

Which branch of the military is he most interested in? What about it, specifically, draws him? What are they offering in terms of higher education down the road? What about any interest in specialty training? Also, to your points about his safety, is he interested in being deployed on dangerous assignments or tours of duty? If the answer is yes, would he be interested in doing some more research, such as talking to veterans who have served where he’s interested in going?

I don’t know your son, so he may or may not be taking some of his cues from you. If he is, try as best you can to be an example of curiosity over judgment, and most of all empathy for what he hopes to gain from the military.

I don’t know your son, so he may or may not be taking some of his cues from you. If he is, try as best you can to be an example of curiosity over judgment, and most of all empathy for what he hopes to gain from the military.

Empathy is the key, saith the psychotherapist. By this, I mean I would try to get as curious as you can about what draws him. Does he like the idea of discipline, training, and order? Is it weaponry and combat he’s interested in? Is it the idea of the safety of a “strong” institution to which he will belong, a new kind of family?

Listen for the hopes and yearnings more than the literal aspects. Then you might—as calmly as you can—explain why this is difficult for you (and possibly your wife). You have your own hopes and wishes for him as a caring dad.

Try to avoid a trap a lot of us fall into, which is playing the “this isn’t normal” card. Example: “It’s not normal for a kid as smart as you to enlist and blow off Stanford; it’s just not rational.” The implication there is he’s weird, an oddball, or worse. It will probably make him dig his heels in even deeper. Make your statements personal, not about “what kids your age normally do” or in the vein of “what’s really best for a guy like you, though clearly you don’t see it, is …” It’s possible he does see it and wants to do something else. Better to say, “Well, here’s what I foresee for you, and why, and I guess I just don’t get it, so help me get it.” Or, “As your dad, it makes me uneasy to think of you in harm’s way. We think that’s rare or never happens, but it does. I’m not saying don’t do it, but I am saying be clear about the risks.” You could also ask the gutsy question of, is his seeking out enlistment a way of compensating for something he felt he never got at home or school? You might also be listening for how he thinks this experiencing will point him toward whatever definition of manhood he has developed.

But again, be respectful, as this is his dream, his decision. You can disagree with it, but I would honor the fact the son you love finds it important.

Parenting can be extremely difficult, and it’s a never-ending duty. But sometimes kids somehow have to do the one thing they know drives us batty. It can be a test to see if they will still be loved by us in spite of their decisions, or that they are capable of making their own decisions completely free from parental influence. If there is any element of rebellion in his decision, try to be understanding rather than dead-set against it, as that puts you in opposition and back in the tug-of-war.

I wish you the best of luck, and encourage you to post any follow-ups to let us know what happens.

Thanks again for writing!

Best wishes,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Meyer

    May 27th, 2016 at 9:58 AM

    What’s wrong with him going into the military? This is quite an honorable choice form my point of view.

  • Duncan

    June 29th, 2016 at 2:43 AM

    Because NO PARENT wants to bury their own child…

  • ok

    November 10th, 2017 at 11:39 AM

    Duncan , dying in war is honorable there’s nothing wrong about it , id rather die in a war than old age .

  • Walt

    May 2nd, 2018 at 7:33 AM

    My parents didn’t bury me and my brothers. Because of it, we have a pension, benefits, and college degrees.

  • Will

    May 27th, 2016 at 1:47 PM

    Please, it sounds like this is something that you are going to hold against him and that is unfair. We raise these kids to grow up and to make adult decisions and hopefully he has thought this through and knows that this is the right choice for him. I know that it has to be hard letting you child begin to make those decisions but eventually we all have to learn to let go and let them fly. Let him make his own choices and own decisions and stick by him through tick and thin. That is the job of a parent.

  • julia

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

    Doesn’t going into the military actually help pay for college?

  • francine

    May 28th, 2016 at 1:27 PM

    Perhaps I am missing something here but we need good men and women to join the military. They protect us in times of war and of peace. And while I understand that this is hard for you, I also know that this is a selfless sacrifice that he is making, and wow, if my son wants that then I would be more than proud of him.

  • Kevin

    May 29th, 2016 at 10:03 AM

    This is a tough one because I understand how you could be upset about losing all of that scholarship money and all. I mean, if you know that you would have a hard time paying for school for hi and this seems like it would be the only shot I understand how it would be hard to let that dream go.

  • freddie

    May 30th, 2016 at 6:59 AM

    Being that I am seeing this on Memorial Day makes it harder for me. I know that you are probably grateful for the men and women who sacrificed everything so that your son and family could even have this kind of opportunity, but you think about what life could be like if they had not done this. Someone has to do it, your son feels the call, and I am so proud of him for that.

  • Cara

    May 30th, 2016 at 3:46 PM

    But going into the military can be a wonderful choice for many young men and women

  • CYN

    June 24th, 2016 at 4:34 PM

    ask him to consider going in as an officer where he can make more of an impact. ask if he considered ROTC or OCS or the national guard while in college, or applying for military college..that way he gets the military and college…something that satisfies both you and your son….advice from a veteran

  • Connie Dupree

    January 3rd, 2020 at 2:15 PM

    My daughter is doing the same thing, I m so scared inside,can U explain to me about national guard and college.

  • Darren Haber

    June 25th, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    Thank you Cyn, excellent suggestion.

  • Carly

    June 26th, 2016 at 12:25 PM

    Let him explore the options that he has available to him. If you stop him from doing this and it is something that he truly feels passionate about then it is going to drive a wedge between you and your family.

  • David

    November 20th, 2016 at 12:22 PM

    If you keep coming at him in an emotional “You are throwing your life away” type fashion, it will only cement his feelings. You are showing you don’t trust his judgement which will only harden him and not even consider other aspects you may bring up. But if you come at it from the perspective of respect, that when true communication begins. He may have already enlisted by now though.

  • Randy

    April 8th, 2018 at 5:15 PM

    Let him be. He will still get college and get some good life skills. If he likes it great if he don’t he’ll get out.

  • Beth

    June 17th, 2019 at 5:51 PM

    My son 17 struggling with the same issues. I have suggested and hope he tries college first. If he likes it continue if not go into the military. He is burnt out on homework but is a good student. Wants to be a pilot then changes his mind. Constant roller coaster. His dad and I dont want our only child going in the military we were married 18 years before he was finally born and I cant think about losing him.

  • Justin

    October 15th, 2019 at 2:57 PM

    If the kid isn’t ready for college, then it is a waste of his time and money. I know you want the best for your child. Most parents do, but he needs to walk his own path… and that includes making mistakes that he may eventually come to regret. Ask him if he would be willing to join the Marine Corps Reserves while he goes to college. That way he can have a taste of what he would be getting into and will help him understand if that is what he really wants to do. He may decide to become an officer or do a hitch as enlisted once he graduates… or drops out. The point is you can’t live your children’s lives for them. You can advise them, but ultimately they make their own decisions and all the pitfalls that come from them.

  • Zoe

    March 13th, 2020 at 8:45 PM

    The part where you mentioned that parents should be respectful of their child’s dreams and decisions really touched my heart. My brother really wants to pursue military training but my parents are strongly against it. I could only feel his sadness when he didn’t get the support he needed. Nonetheless, I know he’s not going to be swayed, and I really want to know that I’m here for him. I’m going to pack him some STA BRITE badges when he leaves to let him know I got his back.

  • Daniel

    April 23rd, 2021 at 5:34 PM

    Why didnt he apply to a military academy like West Point or the Air Force Academy. It would have been the best of both worlds. Military experience, free school and a fantastic college

  • NoName

    March 8th, 2022 at 6:18 AM

    I am 17 and I want to join the army for weaponry and combat and I am reading this article to think of a comeback in case my parents tried to change my mind.

  • James

    May 5th, 2022 at 3:16 PM

    John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
    Someone has to defend this nation, and it cannot always be someone elses child.
    From an “old Marine”

  • theory

    June 16th, 2023 at 10:33 AM

    hi, im a 15 year old sister to a 19 year old brother soon turning 20. he’s decided he wanted to go to the military and we can’t do anything because its his “final choice” he also chose he wanted to live across seas. I would have no problem with this if I didn’t have to wake him up in the morning, make him “safe” food for his stomach issues, make him food when the parents aren’t home because if they aren’t he’ll probably just eat cereal, and much more. I love my brother dearly and I don’t want to plan his funeral, I don’t want to deal with therapy (for flashbacks and such) and I saw a comment about how “dying in the military honorable” I don’t care about honor, I care about the safety and the life of my brother. he’s smart, he’s passed with a’s and b’s for years he could easily get into collage and my parents are willing to pay for it. but he won’t take it. im the kid in the family who constantly gets bad grades and wants to go to an art school and the smart kids throwing everything away for military where one he could die or two he gets severely traumatized like everyone else I know who was in the military. im praying, even though it might break him. that his knee issues stops him from getting in. I don’t want to bury my brother.

  • Connie

    October 30th, 2023 at 7:36 PM

    My daughter is 17 and she is adamant about joining the army whether or not we support her, I want to support her but I’m so scared for her safety. My brother was in the army after he turned 18 and served a couple of years in Iraq. He agrees with me that my daughter shouldn’t join. Right now she is away at boarding school to get a better education and plans to enlist after she turns 18. She wants me to sign I don’t even know what but I told her that I won’t sign anything and she can wait until she turns 18. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I am so frustrated and worried about this whole situation. Any advice would be appreciated…thank you for reading through my long comment.

  • 007

    April 3rd, 2024 at 10:44 PM

    our son will be graduating from hs in may (2024). he’s been in jr rotc since hs. now the navy shows up and gives their little spill about nuclear training etc, getting paid 125,000 a year blah blah. so now he’s about ready to join navy and go to the schooling for this. he has good grades but doesn’t want the debt he will incur going to college. i told him he has to make his own decision but that going to college if he doesn’t like it he can always walk away but in military, if he finds he doesn’t like it he is stuck. he is our only son and i realize he can’t stay at home forever, i just wish he would go to college and then decide if miliary is right for him. we r so used to him being around that it will be hard for myself and wife if he leaves. but i am not pressuring him to not go into military, he is dead set on it so any pressure will seal the fate. any comments.??

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