Asking Children: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
A subtle change to this question could offer the guidance children need as they begin to dream about their future
David Cox | December 1, 2020
The problem of too many interests
What do you want to be when you grow up? As a child, my ideas about how to answer this question changed frequently. Whenever I found a subject, industry, or a job that seemed interesting, I would “dive in” and envision myself working in those areas.
My mother and father both had good jobs. Thanks to their hard work, we lived in a friendly, middle-class, residential neighborhood located in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Even though we didn’t have a lot of extra money, we were fortunate to have what we needed.
My parents expected me to stay in school, and one day, have a career. That sounded good to me, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. However, I was determined to work in a field I genuinely found interesting.
Unfortunately, that was a problem for me. I had so many interests, but nothing that captured my attention to the exclusion of all others. How do you choose a single career path when you are interested in so many?
Although I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, I attended McRae Elementary School. Our school primarily served families for whom poverty was the rule rather than the exception.
McRae’s teachers and administrators were unquestionably dedicated educators. They worked tirelessly with too many students for whom keeping a roof overhead and food on the table was a daily struggle for their families.
No matter the challenges, these professionals never wavered in encouraging their students to “dream big.”
For example, each day after lunch, the teachers would read to their class for 30 minutes. The books were usually biographies of individuals in dozens of different career fields who came from humble beginnings with few advantages.
Each story detailed how they became successful and the various contributions they made to the betterment of society. These teachers wanted all of their students to aspire to a future beyond our current circumstances.
Telling the truth
In contrast, comedian Chris Rock tells a story about hearing an administrator encourage entering high schoolers by saying, “they could be anything they want to be.”
Later, Rock confronted the administrator and said, “Lady, why are you lying to these children? Maybe four of them could be anything they want to be. But the other 2,000 had better learn how to weld!”
Rock added: “Tell the kids the truth. You can be anything you’re good at — as long as somebody’s hiring, and even then, they better know somebody.”
It’s time to stop asking the “be” question…
I feel there is a middle ground between “dreaming big” and “telling kids the truth.” In fact, finding this middle ground may be as simple as changing “one word” in the question we traditionally ask children about their future.
I sincerely feel it’s time we stop asking children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The “be” question implies that happiness is an outcome associated with having the right job title.
I also feel the question may be better suited in the context of positive character traits. These are the traits we would want to teach our children.
…and start asking the “do” question
Instead, let’s set the stage for teachable moments by asking the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” After all, most children (and adults) can readily tell you one or more activities they enjoy.
It’s more than merely the question adults should ask children. It’s the question we should teach children to ask themselves.
Answering the “do” question helps children (or any of us) brush aside job titles and focus instead on “core functions and activities.” These are the activities they will want to spend most of their time doing every day.
The “do” question might have significantly influenced my younger self. It would have undoubtedly helped me narrow my interests and focus on fewer and more enjoyable career possibilities.
Guiding children towards future fulfillment
As adults, let’s encourage the children in our lives to consider the activities they enjoy and the different things they might want to learn how to do.
If we provide the right guidance, the children we influence may eventually do something (or several things) for a living that they may genuinely enjoy.
Who knows? What they are good at may help them change the world. But if not, maybe it will make their lives and the lives of those around them a little happier.