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

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

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

Darren Haber
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.
  • 16 comments
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  • Meyer

    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

    Duncan

    June 29th, 2016 at 2:43 AM

    Because NO PARENT wants to bury their own child…

  • ok

    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

    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

    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

    julia

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

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

  • francine

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    June 25th, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    Thank you Cyn, excellent suggestion.

  • Carly

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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