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“What do You Want to be When You Grow Up?” Doesn’t Need a Definitive Answer

3 min read

Since I was a kid, I’ve probably changed my mind a dozen times about what I wanted to be in life. First, I wanted to be a firefighter. Then, an astronaut. Then, Spider-Man. I went through about a dozen more career choices before settling on “scientist.” Scientist stuck, but even then, I wasn’t sure what area of study I wanted to be in until I hit college. Heck, there are even days when I wake up and say to myself, “I would love to be an architect.”

The point of it all is that few people really know what they want to do in life and even fewer know early on. But that doesn’t stop parents from asking their kids, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” For little kids, it’s an innocuous question—in their mind, they can grow up to be whatever they want. They have no idea what it takes to be an astronaut or Spider-Man.

But as kids get to be 10, 11 and 12 years old, that question gets to be a little scarier. What if they don’t know? What if the thing they want to be is hard? What if what they want to be isn’t what you want them to be?

By their early teen years, kids are starting to look ahead in life. They start to develop aspirations. But they’re not always sure of what exactly they want to do. It’s important for parents not to harp on this.

Probe, don’t prod. Ask questions, don’t insinuate.

If you ask your child what they want to do when they grow up and they say “I don’t know,” ask them what they’re interested in or what they like. Create a dialog with them. Remember, they’re still learning about the world and all the possibilities in it. If they like sports, introduce them to ideas they might not know—physiotherapy or sports medicine, for example. Chances are, a kid who likes bugs doesn’t even realize there’s a job for collecting and classifying them (entomologist)!

The same goes for kids who positively know what they want to do. Just because a child says they want to be a rocket scientist doesn’t mean that’s what they want to do 10 years from now, when they’re in college. Locking them into a career when they’re 12 can have major psychological ramifications if they decide to change their focus when they’re 22.

Parents can and should provide gentle guidance as they talk with their kids about careers. If your kid wants to be a doctor, it’s worth being upfront with them in a gentle way. “You’re going to need a lot of school to become a doctor” is a nice way to set the expectation. Provide constructive feedback and ask questions—let them tell you what they like and what they see in their future.

This is all to say that “what do you want to be when you grow up” is a great question to ask kids, but not one that should set any type of precedent. It’s a way for parents to gauge what interests their children have and a way to talk with them about what their expectations for the future are. Who knows what they’ll actually grow up to be? I’m not Spider-Man, but I’m pretty happy as a scientist.

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