While I was putting my son to bed the other night he was uncharacteristically sad and when asked what was wrong, he said, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” This is not what I expected to hear from my 6-year-old and it broke my heart to see that he was upset and ashamed that he didn’t know what he wanted to be. After a bit more conversation, he shared that he had been asked a few times by family and at school what he wanted to be when he grows up and had felt pushed to have an answer. I told him that I never knew what I wanted to be growing up and tried to assure him that he doesn’t need to know what he wants to be when he grows up. Realistically, the job that he will end up doing may not yet exist.
This conversation has been on my mind a lot lately and I have been more aware of how I talk to kids (mine and others about their futures). Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up seems to be an easy way to get to know what kids are interested in but it is too often how we categorize them. There are countless units and projects from preschool on up where teachers ask kids to identify what they want to be when they grow up and expect every kid to pick something. I am guilty of doing it myself even though I always hated when adults asked me growing up.
Even though this question is typically asked with the best of intentions, it can also end up having a lasting impact how kids see themselves. Early messages about what is valued and what is accepted in both family and in social circles are translated by reactions to this question. Career theorist Linda Gottfredson says that the career aspirations of children are influenced by the perceptions of what is appropriate for one’s gender and class than private aspects of their self-concept such as their skills and interests. At this early age, kids are forming their self-concept and identity by attaching value to what adults like and is seen as acceptable based on what gets positively reinforced.
How can you aspire to a career that you don’t know exists?
I can empathize with my son. Growing up, my mom was a teacher and my dad was a car salesman. This was all I really knew about careers or all that I really saw as a career path. I had very little exposure to any other jobs aside from a career day at some point in high school that I probably treated as a day off rather than an investment in my future. I remember thinking I don’t really want to sell cars so I guess I will be a teacher.
We are influenced by our surroundings and what we experience, which can limit our understanding of the world and especially the possibilities that exist. My colleague and friend, Ed Hidalgo’s poses the question in his TEDx talk, How does a child aspire to a career they don’t know exists? He argues that the key to changing a child’s trajectory is providing diverse experiences early on that allow them to see themselves in the world of work and see new possibilities for their future.
Rather than narrowing the path for kids and pushing them to think about a career disconnected from one’s own passions and interests, Jaime Casap urges, “Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up but what problems they want to solve.” I think this is a great way to reframe this typical question and it made me think about what else we could ask kids instead of, What do you want to be when you grow up? What if we asked kids questions like:
- What are interested in?
- What do you love to do?
- What makes you happy?
- When do you feel like you are successful?
- How do you like to work/play with others?
- What comes easily to you?
- What do you want to learn more about?
- What is important to you?
As my children are in the early years and developing their identity, I want them (and ALL children) to have opportunities to understand and build on their strengths, explore their passions and be empowered to solve problems that matter to them. I want them to see the world full of opportunities where they can create jobs rather than ascribe to what they perceive as the “right” path. This can begin with asking different questions than “What do you want to be when you grow up?”