If you haven’t asked your kid — or any kid — what they want to be when they grow up, I commend you. It’s one of those default questions that adults ask kids, a reflex leftover from our own childhood when we were asked ad nauseam whether we wanted to be a doctor, an astronaut or a teacher.
I am certainly guilty of this. I’m one of those parents who has posed her child for photos on the first day of school, holding a sign that proclaims the year and grade, along with his future career aspirations.
It’s not that we’re trying to lock them into a particular profession; we’re all aware that the number of kids who say they want to be a paleontologist is much less than the number of kids who actually become paleontologists.
I’ve viewed it as a point of curiosity; a cute, visual way to track how his interests change over time. But psychologist Adam Grant writes for The New York Times that we’re doing a disservice to our kids when we endlessly ask them what they want to be when they grow up.
My first beef with the question is that it forces kids to define themselves in terms of work. When you’re asked what you want to be when you grow up, it’s not socially acceptable to say, “A father,” or, “A mother,” let alone, “A person of integrity.”
This might be one of the reasons many parents say their most important value for their children is to care about others, yet their kids believe that top value is success. When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.
Secondly, Grant says, we are implying that there is but one true calling out there for everyone.
I’m only 15 years into my own career and it has morphed and shifted as my own interests and priorities have morphed and shifted over time. We’re all professional works in progress.
And even if you’re lucky enough to stumble onto a calling, it might not be a viable career. My colleagues and I have found that callings often go unanswered: Many career passions don’t pay the bills, and many of us just don’t have the talent.
Instead of “What do you want to be,” try asking, “What problems do you want to solve?” Shift the focus away from specific jobs and more toward what kind of person they want to be. Someone who is compassionate and organised and energetic can be any number of things as an adult.
I have backed off from asking the question in the past year or so, and I’ve noticed a shift in how my son thinks about his future. He has evolved from the resolute “video-game maker” of a year ago to a handful of options he may or may not pursue.
These include, but are not limited to: the owner of a restaurant that specialises in hot dogs, a toy store owner, a professional soccer player or, yes, a video-game maker (no reason to move on from that one completely).
When he gets done listing all his options, he asks me, “What do you think I should do?”
I shrug and say, “I think you would do very well at any of those or all of those. The great thing about being a kid is you have so much time to figure it out. And the great thing about being an adult is you can always change your mind and try something new.”