07/05/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Five Ways To Get Your Kid On The 'Right' Educational And Career Track

Most of my life I have worked with adults and teenagers around school, career and life balance issues. I know about the Strong Campbell Interest Inventory, information interviews and the like. College major and career choices have always been on people's minds, but usually took a back seat to everything else. After all, there were plenty of jobs, especially for college graduates. People sensed that somehow, someday everything would just work out.

Then everything changed.

As of the 2008 recession, parents began asking me what courses and activities their high schoolers should choose to get admitted to the "best" colleges and be graduate school- or job-ready. Now in 2012, even eighth grade parents are beginning to ask those same questions.

Regardless of socioeconomic background, many parents are worried about employment opportunities for their children and want to know what can be done to make sure kids are prepared. Young people are also concerned. Given current predictions about the future of the U.S. economy, an uncertain, changing employment reality is likely to remain a major concern for many years to come.

Because of budget cuts, high schools now rarely provide career counseling for students. Coast Community College's Many Ways to Win says that, "...teens look to their parents, not their teachers or counselors, as their top influence when making career decisions." Obviously, it is up to parents to provide children with whatever they need to find the "best" colleges and careers.

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly founded a new branch of psychology called Positive Psychology that focuses on what goes right in people's lives, rather than what goes wrong. The goal is to help individuals thrive by finding and nurturing their own natural predilections and talents to make life more fulfilling and happy. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert's research indicates that true job satisfaction does not depend on one's salary; rather, it comes from enjoying your job. When you act on your predilections and talents and enjoy your job, you are more likely to work harder, be more creative and advance more quickly, regardless of the job content.

Following the lead of these out-of-the-box thinkers, here are some things you can do to help your child find a satisfying educational and career path.

1. Self-knowledge is the first step toward creating a satisfying, happy personal life and career.

+ Throughout your child's life, help him or her become aware of what interests, talents, skills and strengths he or she has. E.g., early on you might say, "Hey, Charley, I love that you are so into Lego. You're great at building things." Or, "Lacy, you're a great story teller. I am so impressed with how you express yourself."

+ Help your child find activities and classes that relate to his/her interests, talents, skills, etc.

2. Being aware of likes and dislikes is a key to expanding knowledge about who you are and what you enjoy doing.

+ At the dinner table, talk with your child about his/her likes and dislikes. It's equally important to know both.

+ Starting in middle school, encourage your child to notice likes and dislikes about classes, activities, tv programs or movies, causes, books/magazines/newspapers, food, music, travel, what's fun, and different kinds of people and why. Keep notes on this.

3. Having access to people whose jobs might tap into a child's interests is very informative and useful.

+ Starting in high school, take your kid to visit friends' or relatives' workplaces and/or invite good contacts out for lunch or dinner to talk about their work.

+ Set up information interviews with different people doing what your teenager thinks he or she might like. E.g., "Lacy, I know you really like to write. Would you like to talk with Mary, a writer for the local newspaper, or Joan, a novelist, or Emile, a woman I know who writes a lot for a P.R. firm?"

4. Acting on your interests, talents, skills and strengths through volunteering and part-time jobs is a good way of discerning whether specific jobs and fields are good career alternatives.

+ Whether a one-shot deal or longer, help your teen find real work experiences that tap into who they are and what interests them.

+ Some jobs and volunteer programs are limited to 16-year-olds and over. If your teen is younger, service-learning experiences are a good alternative.

5. Based on all the information gathered, junior year is an excellent time to identify possible majors, colleges to attend and/or career possibilities.

+ Look on the Internet and in local newspapers for when career and college fairs take place. Invite your teen to attend the fair with you.

It is never too early or too late to begin helping your child become aware of who he or she is as a real person.