“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It seems like such a simple, innocuous question. You may have asked it to a kid recently. I know when I was growing up, I was asked this question all the time.
However, I think this question is doing a disservice to our kids.
The first problem is that it doesn’t encourage them to wonder about the world.
Kids can only answer this question with what they know.
Most see teachers every day so they know that’s a possibility, and they’ve probably been to a doctor, and they see firefighters and astronauts on TV.
However, there are many more unfamiliar careers they may be good at and may even enjoy more. They just haven’t been exposed to them yet.
Rather than asking them a question that implies “What careers are you familiar with?”, let’s ask them thought-provoking questions that stimulate their minds and help them think about more possibilities.
Another problem with this question is that it sets our kids up to believe that their career is the greatest pinnacle of adulthood.
You may think, “No, that’s an exaggeration.” However, when this is the question that every adult asks them, its importance may be unintentionally inflated in a child’s mind.
The problem is that when we only focus on preparing them for one aspect of adult life, we’re not preparing them to find balance and fulfilment in all areas of life.
How cliche is the story of someone having a midlife crisis when they reach their forties after realizing that all they’ve done in their adult life is work?
How many times have you heard stories of someone getting through college, getting into their career and thinking, “Now what?” (At least, that’s what happened to me).
I believe one of the reasons the financial independence movement has gained so much traction is that many adults are waking up and realizing that their job is not all they wanted out of life.
However, isn’t that mainly what we’re priming our children to think about?
The adult corollary of asking, “What do you want to be?” is “What do you do?” There are a multitude of articles abounding on the internet about how much people hate that question.
We are more than our jobs. If we start teaching our children that from younger ages, perhaps they can have more engaging conversations as adults.
My youngest sister is many years younger than me and is still in school. Recently, she asked me, “What do you think I should be when I grow up?”
In response, I asked her, “What kind of life do you want to live?”
She gave me a blank stare. That may have been too deep for a 13-year-old.
So, I took a different approach. “What kind of things do you want to do every day?” She told me she wants to work with people and she wants to travel.
I continued to ask her follow-up questions. When working with people, what kinds of activities do you want to do? Do you want to travel all the time or just some of the time? Where do you want to go?
Then, we got on the computer and looked up some jobs that fit her answers. I didn’t tell her what she should or shouldn’t be, but I used it as an opportunity to help her think about what kind of lifestyle she may want and how to fit a job around that instead of the other way around.
Obviously, she still has plenty of time to change her mind.
If your child is totally devoted to the dream of becoming an astronaut (or anything else), I’m not saying you should kill that dream. Support them, let them dream, but don’t make a job the focus of your talks about their future. Talk to them about what kind of person your child wants to become.
So, next time you’re around a kid, instead of asking, “What do you want to be?” Here are some better, alternative questions to ask:
What kind of things do you want to do every day?
This gets them thinking about the actual tasks they may be performing in a job. If they hate sitting still and being in one place, why push them toward a desk job? If they don’t like striking up conversations with strangers, then sales might be hard for them. This is the way many people start thinking about a job they want. Maybe an important flip side is to remind our kids to think about what they like to do that they don’t want to give up for a job.
What do you want to learn more about?
I think children may be most in tune with their true passions and interests. Lifelong success requires continual learning, so let’s encourage them to pursue learning for the love of knowledge.
Who inspires you?
Teaching kids about successful people (I use that in a broad sense) in the world and even just in their communities can be a great way to expose them to different types of careers and ways of living and help them find role models.
What problems do you want to solve?
This is ultimately what our children will be tasked with. The world of technology is changing many industries so quickly that new jobs we can’t even imagine will likely exist when our kids become adults.
If we train them to start thinking about solving problems instead of pigeon-holing them into a specific career path, they will be more ready to step into and adapt to the newly created jobs of the future.
What is the world you want to create?
Children may look at the world through the rose-colored glasses of youth, but if we can encourage them to be original in their thoughts about what the world can be like, maybe we can train them to be true innovators.
What makes you happy?
Let’s encourage kids to think about the things in life that bring them joy. It’s not worth it to have to sell your soul to make a lot of money. If our kids are in tune with the things that make them happy, then perhaps they can find a job that fits that or at least ways to keep those things in their life around the job.
Jobs are important and so is making money, but I believe we can teach kids to hold fulfilling lives and that there is more to life than just a job.