A parent whose biggest goal in life is to see all her children graduate from the University of the Philippines wrote me the other day to ask what advice to give her son who had taken a leave of absence from his studies in UP in order to work in their town’s local government. The young man seems to be enjoying his part-time job so much that he has not talked of going back to finish his course. She says her son needs just a few more units and a thesis to graduate. As if to remind everyone that time is slipping by, his younger sister recently just graduated from UP.

Reacting to my recent column on “Generations” (Opinion, 6/2/13) in which I wrote that, as parents, my wife and I explicitly refrained from telling our children what careers to pursue, or from pressuring them to excel in school, the concerned parent says that she, too, always gropes for a reasonable balance between parental dictation and gentle advice. “What I did and continue to do is to guide and support them in all their endeavors. I tell them I will be a  miron  (kibitzer). But sometimes, like in chess, I feel a strong urge to make a move for them to get the things they need for their careers. I stop myself, realizing they have their own  diskarte  (style), and that I should only comment when asked.” Still, she says, she can’t help wondering what is happening to her son.

I am always hesitant to offer any opinion or advice about concrete situations or problems where I am not aware of the essential facts. We don’t know why the young man took an academic leave of absence. There’s no indication here of a financial issue. He might have incurred academic deficiencies or piled up “incompletes,” or ran into some difficult teachers.  Whatever it is, something made him lose interest in his course. The saving grace is that he has not said he is no longer interested in studying.

In my reply, I suggested that he should explore other courses, for which he could get most of the units he has earned credited. He could choose a course directly relevant to the work he is doing now—like community development or public administration. Because they finish high school at a very young age, our students usually find themselves trapped in courses for which they have neither aptitude nor talent nor interest. They should not fear shifting to other courses, and indeed should be encouraged to take subjects outside of their prescribed curriculum.

At the same time, we must make room for restless minds that altogether resist being strait-jacketed by standard curricula. They come to the university not so much to get a degree as to develop their minds. Typically self-supporting, they get part-time jobs and are content to audit classes. They never graduate.  Learning becomes a lifelong passion for them. Steve Jobs was such a mind.

The world of work, however, particularly in our society, still demands college degrees and diplomas as proof of possession of competencies.  Degrees will likely remain as entrance requirements for jobs for a long time. But in the future, they will become less and less a gauge or proof of what one can do. Employers will instead be demanding portfolios of past projects or works—in short, palpable records of one’s abilities and achievements—just as today one has to have a minimum number of published articles in peer-reviewed journals or books to merit appointment to a tenured faculty position.

“As long as your son can still look to the future with hope and yearning, you do not have to worry about him,” I tried to assure his mother.  “In immersing himself in local community affairs, he may be pursuing what he thinks will give him a handle to the world. Right now, he may not need a college degree. In the future, he may be asked by employers to produce one. But that depends on what he wants to do. In politics, you don’t need a college degree. But if one day he decides to teach, he will be told that he needs to have a degree, preferably a graduate degree. For now, what is important is that he doesn’t lose his sense of wonder, and that he keeps reading and writing to develop his mind.”

I was so focused on this parent’s problem of how to persuade her son to resume his studies that I forgot to share what to me were the more crucial lessons about parenting I have learned over the years. Letting go of one’s child is perhaps a parent’s most difficult achievement. Having grown up in a traditional family, I was myself inclined to be an authoritarian parent. The parenting style I imbibed was heavy on fear and obedience.

My wife, in contrast, always believed that parental trust was a more effective builder of responsibility than fear. As long as the rules are clear, she said, the sooner we trust and let go of them, the more self-reliant they would be. She was right. Trusting our children did not mean we were sure they would not make mistakes. Indeed, they made mistakes, but they quickly learned from them. Our readiness to trust boosted their self-confidence. They made their own decisions early in life, yet they were not afraid to seek advice or to discuss the consequences of bad decisions.

There is probably no other way to go in a complex world. More than at any other time, Filipino parents today have only a tenuous grip on the values of their children. Friends at school, their teachers, the mass media and now the social media, all have a formidable claim on their children’s time and attention. It is easy to lose them completely to the seductive pluralism, instantaneity, and novelty of global communications. The only way to neutralize these influences is by helping our children cultivate self-reflection and personal discipline—the ability to subject oneself to the regulation of self-chosen virtues. These are traits formed in the course of long conversations.

* * *