Most kids on their way to college, or already students, will at some time or another ask this question.
What it really asks is "What do I want my life to mean?"
As a parent, you've got a very privileged place in the decision-making loop. You know your child better than they know themselves; you've seen their personalities and interests change from the cradle to the cap and gown that end high school.
But with this knowledge comes the ability to do incalculable harm. Knowledge is power, and power corrupts. Corruption can take several forms, from the "I know what's best for my child" to "I'm paying the bills, and as long as that's the case you WILL study engineering".
The balance between being passively disinterested, to being smotheringly dominant, to being a wise and honest counselor, is not easy to achieve. But here are some suggestions:
- Remember that your child is not you. No matter how much he seems a "chip off the ol' block", he isn't. He is an individual, with a unique point of view
- You can't relive your life through someone else. The life you have is your own, whatever decisions - good or bad - brought you to Now. A child is not a do-over. If you coerce your child into what you should have done, could have done, you won't see your lost future validated - instead you have the potential for making a person you're supposed to love very unhappy
- You don't know best. How many life decisions did you really screw up? Enough said. You may know a lot, but the chances that you always know better are quite low.
- Your child's education is not an investment vehicle. She's not a walking, talking 401k. If you are supporting your child through college, no one forced you. You can set time limits, and monetary limits, and you don't have to finance frat parties - but just remember that she's your child, not your employee...or worse.
- Ask questions! You can ask guiding questions, when she shows an interest in something. Ask what she finds interesting, ask her to explain something. If she thinks she wants to bne a physicist, ask her what a working physicist might do (not how much they make, nor what the chances of getting a job really are). Questions sharpen the focus.
- Put down the cold-water bucket. Even if his choice seems stupid (like medieval history), resist the urge to say so. A happy teacher of Chaucer in a Midwestern community college is far better off than a software designer in California who is terrified of falling behind in knowledge of the technology.
- Encourage, realistically! Anyone can accomplish anything, but a "c" student isn't going to get into medical school. Be enthusiastic, be encouraging, but don't support what are clearly pipe dreams. Just make sure that they are indeed pipe dreams, and that you're not exercising your own prejudices.