SUBJECT OF DISCUSSION: How to talk to your children about subject choice

Around this time of year my whisky intake increases as an avalanche of e-mails slides into my in-box with the words SUBJECT CHOICE in the subject line. Many students (and their parents) start by attempting to predict a future career and work backwards to pinpoint the right subjects to take. This is painful as most Grade 9’s don’t know what they’ll like next week let alone in five years. My advice is rather than working backwards from an unknown future, teens should work forwards based on what they know now. Here’s how.


First off, what do universities say about school subject choice?

Quite honesty they don’t care. I mean that seriously, with the exception of very few subjects (mainly Math and Physical Science which are needed for certain degrees), a university will not concern themselves with what a student decides to study at school. From Art to Zulu all subjects carry equal weighting, both in terms of having intrinsic value, and in the eyes of higher education. So Music matters as much as accounting and Drama is as essential as Economics.

That means let your son practice Art if he is able and let you daughter tackle Engineering Graphics and Design if she desires. The university won’t pay much attention to the subjects studied but what they will focus on is levels of achievement (marks).

Beyond admissions

Looking a little deeper what are the other factors to consider around subject choice? Lots of Grade 9’s make the mistake of asking ‘Where will this subject get me?’ but it’s the wrong question. School subjects are not about training or even preparing for the workplace, they are about being educated broadly. Each offers a unique perspective on the world and so each has value in its own right. It is the arts, humanities and social science subjects that suffer most from the linear school of thought that tries to link subjects to future careers, despite the fact they have so much to offer in the way we think and approach the problems of the world today.

Many pupils and parents make the mistake of trying to figure out where there are skills shortages in the economy and base subject choice around that. This is the wrong approach. Rather let your child figure out what they like and what they are good at (then they should end up in courses/careers after school that they like and are good at). In careers counselling we call this interest and aptitude. The key is for your child to take subjects that fit their strengths and passions. As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I don’t believe school is about preparing our children to be mere fodder for the economy. Instead we want our pupils to be, as Martin Robinson states, “inculcated into the arguments, debates, controversies and great questions and works of the time and all-time before so that they…have a view on the complex world in which they will live,”

So as your teen makes their decision, impress these statements upon them:

It’s your choice.

It is important that your child makes their own choice. Don’t allow them to outsource the decision to you, a careers counsellor or a test. While consultation is valuable as part of the process, it is an important developmental opportunity for your teenager to wrestle with the decision, gaining insight into themselves and the world around them. Remember too that four out of a minimum of seven subjects are already pretty much decided. Your teen has only three left to choose, so let them do it.

It’s not a big deal.

What I mean by this is that outside of you and your family no one really cares what subjects are chosen. Parents have a tendency to ramp up the ante and anxiety around this decision, making teenagers feel like their whole world is resting on this call. It’s not, it actually matters surprisingly little and anyway, this is just the start of a process.

It’s not a career choice.

You can study Economics at degree level without having done Economics at school. Likewise, just because you choose Drama does not mean you’re going to become an actor. Remember at school (and university) you are being educated (not trained) and all subjects’ help with this. That said, do your research, certain subjects are compulsory for further study in certain fields. Have a look at this guide from Stellenbosch University for more details.

Find a balance.

Different subjects are gateways into varying perspectives of the world. Given that each subject has its own system of thinking and approach to knowledge, it is good for pupils to be exposed to a spectrum of disciplines. “…opening up a number of perspectives and narratives through which they can make the most of their life.” Martin Robinson. Therefore with the three choices at their disposal why not try a science, an art and then something for enjoyment?

Do what you like and do what you are good at.

These are often one and the same thing as we tend to enjoy doing what we are good at. Schools need pupils who are engaged with their learning. Your child will be the better for it, both in terms of enjoyment and achievement, and so ultimately will the world. The better your child does the more options will open up to them in terms of future study too.

I remember a line from Chariots of Fire, where Eric Liddle says (cue the Vangelis music), “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure”. Let them run according to the way they are created. They’ll go faster, further and find pleasure in the process.


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