Opinion: My Daughter's a High-School Dropout and I'm Totally Okay With It

Filed under: Teens, Work Life, Development/Milestones: Babies, Day Care & Education, Special Needs, Extreme Childhood, Amazing Parents, Opinions

Erika Lutz's17-year-old daughter is a high-school dropout. And Mom is totally OK with that. Credit: Ericka Lutz


It's graduation season and the irony, in my household, abounds.


You see, I teach graduate students at one of the top universities in the country, the same university where my husband was a professor as well. I've authored five parenting books, and I write a column for a parenting magazine. I'm often quoted as a "parenting expert." This is a home where bookshelves line the walls, where we eat dinner together every night, where we run to the dictionary for definitions of words we don't know.

My daughter Annie grew up in a hotbed of education. But high school didn't work for her, so I encouraged her to drop out. I'm proud of her for making the choice and I'm proud of myself for supporting it.

As an educator and this so-called "parenting expert," I understand the ramifications of her actions, and I believe she does, too -- as much as any 17-year-old can. Without a diploma, she can't go to a four-year university. Without a college degree, many doors will be closed to her. Sure, she could go to a community college -- she tried that last semester -- though it didn't work for her, either.

Yet.

If I was trying to justify my feelings and her actions, I could list hundreds of high-school dropouts who've become wild successes: Billionaire Richard Branson, movie star Uma Thurman, labor leader Cesar Chavez , scientist Albert Einstein.

But actually I don't really care about that. I care about my daughter's happiness right now. Right now, she works part time in a bookstore, sleeps late, hangs out with her friends, studies acting at a top theater conservatory and dreams about being a movie star. Right now she recovers from her father's sudden death 17 months ago.

Annie passed the California high-school proficiency test at the end of her sophomore year, six months after her father's death. With that, she was done.

Grief and shock were only part of her decision not to go back. She'd struggled during her two years of high school. She'd coped with mononucleosis, attention deficit disorder, dysgraphia, depression, strep throat (twice), a severely sprained ankle, pneumonia and countless colds. She tried hard, and she tried not trying. The teachers had accommodated as much as they could. I'd sat with her many nights as she wept over her homework, struggling to complete work she just didn't see the point in doing.

"School wasn't working out for me," she says. "I believe you're supposed to learn things in school, and I realized that the next two years would be a waste for me to sit through."

I had no argument. High school was not a good fit for her. She was right.

Parenting a teenager is all about trust. I can't force Annie to go to school, though I tried. I can't force her to want to be in school, and unless she wants to be there, she won't go. I trust my daughter's instincts, and I know that a path is not always linear. And she comes from a strong family tradition of alternate paths. It took me nine years to get my BA and I ended up with a successful and creative career. Her father didn't start community college until he was 24. By the time he died, he was the special adviser to a head of state.

Annie is a thoughtful, smart, beautiful girl who knows herself. I'm not worried about her future. She has a job, and she's pursuing her dream of becoming a professional actor. When she wants to, if she wants to finish school, she'll do it. When she's ready for a formal education, she'll find her way. She has to learn what she wants and needs in life, and she has to work for it herself. I will support her in whatever endeavor she chooses -- but the impetus must come from her, not from me.

Parental pride is far more complex than a bumper sticker bragging, "My child is an honor student at Blah Blah High School." My daughter is a high-school dropout, and this mother couldn't be prouder.

Ericka Lutz teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting. Read Ericka's blog, and about her new one-woman show, A Widow's To-Do List, on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.