What to Do If Your Child Wants to Pursue a Low-Paying or Difficult Career

When Anne's son Zach was a junior in college, he came to his parents and told them he wanted to drop out of school to pursue acting.

"We were surprised," says Anne, "but we told him to take two weeks and then come back to us with a plan."

Anne intended to use the time to learn if he was serious and if he would actually think the process through. "We wanted to find out if he could really make a commitment to his goal, and not just drop out of college and swing in the wind," she says.

Zach did report back with a solid proposal. He had researched acting schools and secured an audition at one of them (where he was eventually accepted). He came up with a way to support himself while attending a performing arts college.

"We wanted to support him, but not enable him," says Anne, "He had to take ownership of his own life. Yes, it was a risky decision, but we hoped that we gave him a foundation to manage that risk."

How can you encourage your child to cultivate her passions while safeguarding her future?

Many parents face a similar situation when their child wants to pursue a career with improbable odds of success.

As tough as the job market is for the latest college graduates, parents generally have more faith in their wannabe doctors, accountants, and computer programmers. They are usually less optimistic about their aspiring sculptors, actors, and poets. They don't want to crush their kids’ dreams, but they also don’t want them to have unrealistic notions about their potential success as a documentarian, professional athlete, or singer.

What’s a parent to do?

Encourage her to work really hard.

Working hard — and taking pride in it — is underrated. Hard work is essential to success in any field. It may have a bad reputation for being grueling or backbreaking, but it really just requires maintaining focus and putting in the best effort you can give. These skills are valuable, whether you're mopping the floor or designing a rocket. Try to teach your child to make working hard a habit , both in her chosen field and beyond. In this way, she’ll continue to pursue her goal while also developing habits — diligence, sustained effort, determination — that will make her valuable in the workplace.

Read more about the importance of grit to learning.

Help her develop a realistic plan.

You don't want to diminish your child’s self-esteem, but she still needs an accurate picture of her prospects. Discuss the kind of pay she can expect, and what she will have to sacrifice to live on this salary. Talk to her about other kinds of work she'll need to take on to supplement her income. She may not understand what she has to give up or may seem too young for the conversation, but let her know that this choice could mean forfeiting vacations, luxuries, home ownership, and financial security.

Check out these expert advice about paying for college, or for any big education spend, for that matter.

Encourage her to think about innovative applications of the work she’s chosen.

For instance, many poets hold positions as teachers or professors. Aspiring novelists may work as editors at magazines. Documentary filmmakers might spend their days directing commercials or wedding videos. And artists can find work in museums, galleries, or even ad agencies. These careers can provide a steady income while still allowing her to pursue her passion.

Help her strengthen her networking, outreach, and promotion skills.

You'll have to let her know that she can't just sit back and wait for success. She'll have to create it on her own. She can start networking early, before she needs something in return. Give her advice on how she can begin to establish herself within the community she aspires to enter. For example, if she wants to be an actress, she can get involved in local community plays. No matter how young it is, she'll gain valuable experience and connections.

Follow this link for more advice about career preparation.

Encourage her to start working during high school.

Studies show that teens with jobs are on the decline. This is a disheartening turn because working early can give teenagers a strong advantage. They learn to overcome shyness and handle responsibility. And in the long run, they out-earn kids who didn't have jobs in high school. Your child will also learn what it's like to work for low wages — valuable knowledge if she's thinking of pursuing a career with a comparable financial outlook.

You can give your daughter the tools to assume the risk of an improbable career path responsibly — with open eyes and a solid plan. After all, someone has to be the poet laureate, best actor, and Super Bowl MVP. That just may be your kid someday.