The first warning signal that you should not miss is when he gets a 100 on 100 in mathematics. Most Indian adults get an orgasm when they see a kid who has a perfect score in Mathematics and waste no time in declaring him as the potential next best thing to happen to the engineering fraternity after the invention of levers. Their obsession with the kid’s performance in mathematics (good or bad) completely overshadows their ability to see the other sparks of his brilliance, sometimes in the same report card. And that is when the problem first begins. Over the next few years, as he keeps on getting a perfect a score in mathematics and adults around him shower their awe and adulation on him, he gets classically conditioned to believe that the only way to succeed in life is by being an engineer.
As someone who is trained in Human Resources, I can tell you that it is not necessarily a good thing to happen to your kid. Your kid is a unique individual in himself and has his own set of intelligence and pace of learning (Khan Academy is doing some really good work in this field!). And so, till he grows up and learns to defend his abilities, as a parent it is your responsibility to protect him from falling prey to the groupthink, otherwise referred to as adulthood. As someone who has been surrounded by engineers for the last eight years of his life, and very competent ones at that, I can tell you that engineering is a wonderful discipline that requires far more competencies than a perfect score in mathematics. A perfect score in mathematics can mean a whole lot of other things, from your kid being an Albert Einstein (or Sheldon cooper, both of them are not engineers) to reproducing the answers to the sums from memory, given your disposition of reverence towards the subject and the woes of Indian examination system. As a 25 year old who is fighting to make his mark in life, I can tell you that there is no direct or even partial co-relation between being an engineer and being successful in life.
The second warning signal that you should watch out for is when your son gets a good rank in one of the engineering entrance examinations. In India most would consider this as baptism to the society (and by that definition others are but outcastes) and would declare your kid a retard at the slightest indication of disagreement. All of 17 years, your kid will not have the courage to stand up for his dreams against the collective wisdom of so many self-declared career counselors if you do not stand up by his side and let him know that his dreams, even the wildest of them, are worth more than his engineering rank.
As someone who has cleared one such examination and been through one of the aspired engineering colleges, I can tell you that these entrance examinations are in no way perfect measure of engineering competency. At most, they are the best measures that we know of and by that logic has room for mistakes albeit insignificant in the better interest of the common. An engineering college can afford a 1 in a 400 mistake. You sir, on the other hand, have only one or at best two kids!
The third warning signal and the one most watchful parents miss is when your kid gets a job with a top engineering firm (In Indian context, it boils down to a multi-national IT company) and starts drawing a small but sufficient salary. Difficult to realize unless experienced, but letting it go is in all likelihood the single most thing between what he is and what he wants to be, especially if he is from a middle class family. Unlike the previous two cases, this time he neither needs your protection nor support. All he needs is your acceptance and the same proud look that he is used to by now.
Come to think of it. He is only 21. He possibly cannot make a decision that he has to live with for the next 40 years of his life.
In the year 2008-2009, I took a few sessions on Story-Telling for a class of third grades, in a Government School in Nagpur. One of the assignments, I had given them, was to narrate a picture of what they saw themselves doing, twenty years later, on that very same day. Of my 28 mischievous students, 22 saw themselves doing one engineering job or the other. I wish them all the best.
And here’s the point, I am trying to make. My best wishes are also with the other 6 – three doctors, two teachers and one little sweetheart who still hadn’t figured it out.
The writer of this piece is an engineer who at some point of time had missed all three potential warning signals. Thankfully, he learnt his lesson while there was still some time.