How to Explain Your Career Choice to Your Parents

So, you’ve decided to be a professional singer. Congratulations! You are joining a group of individuals who are as unique as they are talented, dedicated, and courageous. There’s just one little problem: Your parents think those tuition payments they are sending are still going toward your pre-law degree. Well, you are in good company! Hector Berlioz, for example, famously gave up studying medicine, against his father’s wishes, to meet his musical destiny.

Or consider one of many contemporary examples. Christine was working successfully as an executive secretary for a high-profile firm in a large city, with a great salary and benefits package, when she realized she wanted to go back to school to pursue her degree in vocal performance. When she shared her excitement with her parents, her accountant father had one question: “Is this going to help you make more money?” She was devastated that he did not share her excitement or understand the importance of her dream to be a professional musician.

Christine is not alone. Choosing to become a professional musician involves many risks—and sharing the news with your parents can be one of them. Whether you have a great conversation with them depends only partly on you, but you can certainly stack the odds in your favor with some understanding and preparation.

Expectations

They have some, and you have some. Many parents simply expect their children to make a decent living, have a plan for their lives, and be happy. Other parents have more specific expectations: “Take over your father’s business, move back home, and marry the girl next door.”

Rather than argue about the details or become defensive, try to get more information about your parents’ expectations. The more questions you ask (with respect and compassion), the more possibilities you create for a deeper discussion, and you may uncover some of their fears or hopes.

For example, “Who will take care of us when your father can’t work any longer?”—a fear of aging and the complications that may arise. “If you don’t move back home, we’ll never see you”—a fear of abandonment and loneliness, of not being involved in your life. “The girl next door is so nice; she’d make you the perfect wife”—a hope you will be happier in your marriage than they are in theirs.

This isn’t really about you; this is about their lives, their hopes and their fears. This is about what they may not have ever been able to have, or about what they are afraid of losing.

What about your expectations? Jack Canfield, in his fabulous book, The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (HarperCollins, 2005), says you get only what you expect to get. If you aren’t very clear about your own expectations for your life, now would be an excellent time to define exactly what you expect to accomplish, where you expect to travel, who you expect to meet, what you expect to do, and when you expect all of this to happen. The more clarity and specificity you build into your dreams, the more your brain will be working hard to make it happen. You will be able to articulate to others more clearly, including your parents, why you want what you want, why it is important to you, and how you plan to accomplish it, along with all the other details that communicate confidence, assurance, decisiveness, and intent. These attributes are adult attributes. Without them, you are the child facing the parent. With them, you are an adult facing another adult.

The Parent-Child Relationship

Your parents are among the most, if not the most, important figures in your life. Whether your relationship with them today is an open and healthy one or less so, their influence will continue to be present in some form or fashion for the rest of your life.

The time we spend in the family nest can foster in us deeply rooted feelings of gratitude, which is an appropriate response. Often these feelings can become overworked until they exhibit themselves as feelings of indebtedness or obligation, which are less appropriate responses.

When a parent makes great sacrifices on behalf of current circumstances or for the future, it is easy for the child to feel the weight of those sacrifices. The child does not want to disappoint the parent and often plays out the rest of its life either trying to please the parent, or trying to rebel in a frequently vain attempt to gain a sense of independence.

On the other side, parenting is a powerful experience, arguably the most powerful experience a human being can have. But for some parents, the bond to the child is less elastic than it should be and more like Super Glue. That inflexibility, which the child experiences as a sense of expectation, can be suffocating. An overly developed sense of connectedness to your child is often a reflection of something missing in your own life, or a manifestation of fear, or a symptom of any number of other issues. It is not healthy for the parent or the child.

Get Your Act Together

You are about to have a conversation with your parents that declares your independence from them. You are going to announce your dream and your plans for your future, knowing that they may not approve. Before you can expect anyone to listen seriously to you talk about dreams that are inherently risky, you need to be certain you have all your homework done. If you have missed gathering any information about what to expect in choosing this career path, catch up on your reading, or talk to someone who is already successfully doing it. You need that information to formulate a plan that will work for you, so that you can approach your parents fully prepared and confident in your own ability to face all the possibilities your future will bring.

Take Your Dream Seriously

This may seem obvious, but let’s examine what it means. There is a huge difference between a wish and a dream. A wish is something you think about, but you don’t really expect to happen, and you don’t put any real effort into making it happen. A dream, on the other hand, is something you think about and take action toward achieving. You devise a plan whereby it will happen.

Don’t expect anyone else to take you any more seriously than you take yourself. If you are wishing to become the world’s next big star at the Met, join the club of thousands of new music school graduates every year who are talented, and attractive, and have the same wish. Chances are, they are not going to end up at the Met, and neither will you.

If you are dreaming of becoming the world’s next big star at the Met, however, you will take big actions, and I look forward to hearing you sing there someday. You will determine the date, the opera, and the role with the specificity of your dream. I am excited when I wonder whose dream I will someday witness come into reality!

This brings us back to your parents. They may have dreams for you, too. Dreams they may have had since before you were born, or from some very early time in your life. Give yourself permission to not fulfill their dreams. A parent can have hopes and wishes for their child, but it is up to the child to decide on his or her own dreams. No one can choose that for you. Your parents should have had their own dreams to fulfill. If they haven’t fulfilled those dreams, it’s OK. They can still do it now! Show them by example the power of dreaming.

Some people don’t have any dreams. Or they have small dreams, dreams that are really just next week’s to-do list. These people are paralyzed by fear and the overwhelming list of things they perceive need to be done between this moment and the culmination of their dream. A dream is indeed a goal, but it’s a goal that really makes you work hard, a goal that stretches you and makes you into someone better than you are today. Don’t listen to people who say dreams can’t come true. Dreams can come true, because you can make them come true with your dedication and hard work.

Have a Plan

A dream without a plan is really a wish. The plan lays out your path of action. So make a 10-year plan, and a five-year plan, and a one-year plan, and then chop that down into six months from now, and then what you need to do every month between now and then. You can make your plans in other ways, and plenty of excellent books can teach you some strategies. You can get a life coach to help you. You will probably have to adjust your plan from time to time, and that’s fine. Review it often—daily is best. Canfield suggests twice a day: once when you first wake up and once right before you go to bed.

Have a Plan B—not in case you fail, but as an alternate route to your dream. Not everyone makes it to the top of their field by following the “established order.” Our field is bursting with stories of singers who did not attend any Young Artist Program at all, who began careers in other majors or fields (perhaps living someone else’s dream at first), or made their Met debuts at a fairly advanced age, or did an audition on a whim that turned out to be the one that sent them into orbit, or were languishing away in Cover Land and then got a lucky break. Be willing to be unconventional in at least one, or part of one, of your plans.

Lastly, for the best possible chance of gaining others’ support, include them in your plan. Find a way for your parents to be an integral part of your success team and then plan to ask them to participate fully.

Don’t forget to act on your plan! A plan without action is only slightly better than a wish.

Cutting the Apron Strings

If you are still dependent on your parents for anything at all, it is going to be difficult to expect them to respect your claim to independence. This is a particularly difficult and sensitive area. After all those years in college, you may accumulate a large student debt. Perhaps they gave you a car, or the down payment on your condo, or lent you some money to go to Europe for a festival or to fly to New York for auditions. As difficult as it may seem, the sooner you can get out from under a financial obligation of any kind to your parents, the freer you will feel to pursue your dreams without any ties holding you back. How to do that is the subject of another article, but put your creative powers to work and find some other sources of revenue.

How and When to Break the News

If you’ve taken action in all the above areas, it is likely your parents have noticed some changes in you and feel reassured that you have a good head on your shoulders and your feet firmly planted on the ground. Why wait to tell them? Delaying, otherwise known as procrastination, accomplishes nothing more than to put off what is already difficult until it becomes more difficult. Procrastination is based on fear; in this case, the fear you will be rejected. But waiting will not make that fear go away, so do the deed now.

Canfield says there is no such thing as the Right Time, but you can certainly avoid the Wrong Time. (Hint: An important event, such as a family wedding, is a Wrong Time.) I personally prefer sharing big news in person, but if that is not possible, the phone is far better than the written word in any form. The telephone has big limitations—the words you actually say form less than 20 percent of what you communicate—but at least on the phone you can hear tone of voice to give you more information. With e-mail, you have only the words. Face-to-face is best because your body language (exuding confidence and respect) is an important part of the information your parents receive. And you want their body language to give you additional information about how they are taking things (as opposed to their words, which may be in conflict with their body language).

Generally, allowing people a chance to prepare for big news is a good idea. You can say something like: “Mom and Dad, I have something really exciting and important I’d like to share with you, and I’d like to come over and see you to talk about it. When would be a good time?” Don’t let them tease it out of you before your visit. Just be firm and say you want to discuss it in person, and it’s nothing urgent (to reassure them).

Prepare ahead how you’d like to say it. An outline of your conversation would be: You say what you have to say and then step back and allow them time and space to react. No matter how they respond, let them finish, then say you understand and perhaps share their concerns and fears. Repeat how important this is to you and ask them for their support. This is an important step. You won’t get what you don’t ask for. (You still may not get it, but if you don’t at least ask, you definitely won’t get it.)

If they say no, they will not support you, thank them for listening. Express your sorrow that they will not participate in your dream, tell them you love them, and end the conversation. Sometimes people need time to absorb what has happened. There is a still a chance they may come around. It just won’t be today, so let it go and move on with your plan.

It’s Your Future!

Ready to face your future with your past firmly in hand? Gather your dream, your plan, and your courage, and go have one of the most important conversations of your life with two of the most important people of your life. Take your love and an appropriate amount of gratitude along, and remember that they are just two people trying to find their own way with the tools they have at this very moment.

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at www.PELcoaching.com.