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Seeing Stars: Tips for Talking College with our Kids

Posted on: April 16th, 2013 by Bob

I could have wound up stuffing sausages.

When I was 16, I was on my way to following a family tradition of not going to college. I was ready to drop out of high school as soon as it was legal to do so. There was a job waiting for me at the sausage factory downtown that paid three times more than I was making pushing shopping carts through the snow-covered parking lot at the grocery store. I could be rich!

But then Mr. Mekker, my history teacher, messed up my plans. When he heard I was going to drop out, he asked me to see him after school. He started with a question: “Stains, what do you want to do with your life?” And he meant it. He was genuinely curious. He started by showing an interest in me; in my thinking. And he invited me to look beyond the next paycheck. In the course of our conversation it became clear that I had aspirations to change the world, yet I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to college. He responded by showing me my permanent record card, which had scores from my IQ test. The scores were less important than what he said next: “How will you make the best use of the gift of your mind?” We weighed the pros and cons of sausage vs. college in equipping me to change the world. College won.



Sometimes my wife Jill talks about people who “see your star” and reflect it back to you in a way that lets you see it, maybe for the first time. Mr. Mekker was that person for me. Through his eyes I saw myself capable of college, and I could imagine how college would enable me to make my mark in the world. As parents, we have the opportunity to do that for our children: to see their star; to help them see it and believe in it. We can ask about their hopes and dreams. We can help them wrestle with choices and imagine pathways to realize their aspirations while maximizing their gifts.

When the practical questions arise we can also, as Mr. Mekker did for me, point the way to more information. There are many resources available online or at the local library covering everything from career choices, to the economic advantages of a college education, to college selection and financing opportunities.

Here are some suggested questions and resources to help guide you in addressing college and the future with your children.

Recognizing their gifts or strengths:

  • I’ve noticed that you do ______ really well.
  • You look like you enjoy ______/you seem happiest when you’re____.
  • It seems to me that you’re gifted at ______.
  • Follow all the above with: “What do you think?”

Inviting their thinking:

  • What do people tell you you’re good at?
  • What gifts/skills/assets/strengths do you think you have?
  • What are you curious about? What’s really caught your interest in school so far? What do you want to learn more about?

Encouraging exploration:

  • What’s your thinking so far about how you could make the most of your gifts after high school?
  • What do you imagine yourself doing as an adult regarding work, family, social life, etc.?
  • What do you think you might need (college, vocational training, etc.) in order to do what you hope to do?
  • What are your thoughts about college?
  • If you were to go to college, what would you want in a school? (size, location, social life, academics, etc.)

Information and further resources


Robert Stains, Jr., MEd, is Senior Vice President of The Public Conversations Project.


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