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Let’s Stop Asking Kids What They Want to Be When They Grow Up

If you stop and think about it, it's pretty amazing how early we start talking with children about their future career choices. Although we don't really take the question seriously (and our kids are most likely just playing along) the tried-and-true kid conversation starter, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is asked, often, to even our youngest children. By age 3 or 4, a lot of kids have even worked out a pat response.

If you stop and think about it, it’s pretty amazing how early we start talking with children about their future career choices. Although we don’t really take the question seriously (and our kids are most likely just playing along) the tried-and-true kid conversation starter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is asked, often, to even our youngest children. By age 3 or 4, a lot of kids have even worked out a pat response.

doctor costume

(Photo Credit: AZAdam/Flickr)

But, are these kinds of questions influencing our kids’ future career choices? Let’s take a closer look and consider the messages we might be sending, without even knowing it. Here are some things to think about.

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1. What message do we send when we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up?

Is there something a little funny about the fact that we start asking children about their future career aspirations just about the time we’ve decided their able to decide between pretzels or Cheerios as a snack choice? Probably! Sure, we ask the question lightly, without even thinking about it, and kids don’t seem to take the question too seriously anyway, but it still has an impact.

Consider the way we ask the question – “what do you want to BE…?” Without meaning to, we’re linking identity and value to career in a profound way when we ask this question. It’s just like adults asking each other, when they’ve first met, “What do you DO?” It says something about what we value as a society. And, when kids grow up in a culture that compulsively grills them along these lines from a very young age, they get the message too.

2. What message might they receive from other questions?

It all seems harmless enough – so, what’s the big deal? Well, consider this: What messages might our kids receive if we asked other questions instead of this one? What if we asked, “What types of things do you love to do?” Or, “What interests you? What do you like to learn about?” Imagine how hearing these questions, instead of the standard, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” could change the focus. Now, the emphasis is on passion, on curiosity, on following your dreams….

We tell kids that they can do anything they want to do, that they should follow their dreams. But, are we emphasizing this when we ask how they imagine they’ll fill in the occupation line on their future 1040 forms? Maybe there is a better way to direct our kids toward their curiosities and their interests without burdening them with our culture of defining people by what they do.

3. Praise what you want to encourage.

Educators have been talking about emphasizing process over product for years. Understanding and practicing this method could make a big difference in the way we speak to our kids, and ultimately, in the messages they receive from us about themselves and the world.

Instead of praising our kids for the “Beautiful!” picture they just shared with us, we can try to praise aspects of their process that we want to encourage instead. “Wow! I am so proud of you for how long you focused on that drawing. You really put in a lot of effort!” Or, “I loved watching you work on that piece. You were so excited and engaged!” Kids can learn a lot more from praising the skills we want to see them develop than by rewarding them for a final product.

4. They learn more from what we do than what we say.

We can praise process over product all we want. We can try to drive home the idea that there is more to life, and people, than professions and careers. But, kids will learn a lot more from what we do, what we model, than what we say. So, if you’re super stressed about work, if you let your professional position define you, if you feel deep down that intrinsic worth is tied to salary – your kids are going to pick up on that.

So, try to be the change you want to see in the world. If you want your child to live a happy, curious, passionate life, be sure to do that yourself! Show them that it’s okay to forgive yourself when you make a mistake, or that family deserves one’s full attention at the end of the day. When you introduce an old friend to your child, don’t say, “this is my friend Bill from college. He’s a doctor!” Demonstrate that you value your friends and family members for their hearts and minds, not their job titles.

The work of raising children in today’s culture is trickier than ever, and we have to be conscious of the messages we give our kids about adulthood and careers. Let’s start by banning the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And start directing our kids’ attention toward another focus.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think we should stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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