What do you want to be when you grow up?
This is a topic adults raise when talking to children the same way they raise the weather when talking to each other. When adults ask after the weather they recognise it as a social convention whether they question it closely or not. The weather conversation is social WD40.
However, children seem to take things far more literally than adults. They treat questions seriously.
Next time you are in the position to observe a child’s responses when they are asked what they want to be when they grow up, watch carefully! You will see thoughtfulness if not puzzlement; you’ll observe a certain level of abstractedness if not downright panic; you will witness a processor at 90% plus if not the social equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death!
So the child slips into cliche the way the adult slips into small talk.
A bus conductor. A nurse. An astronaut.
We could change the way we talk to children but let’s face it adults are more set in their ways and the answers here don’t matter that much to them. The minty uncle is only making small talk. It’s the child who is petrified by the possibilities. It’s their future they are defining irrevocably.
So it’s the child who needs to change their response. And this is how I see it.
A plan is better than no plan. Having a plan means progression. But what the child often doesn’t realise is that it is OK to change plans; that planning is all about development and revision on the fly. So even if they do decide to say: ‘An astronaut’, as long as they are aware that this can become pilot or groundcrew or cabin staff or even plane spotter, and isn’t a final word on the matter, then so much better for them. What the question does is pin them to a decision like a display moth to spreading board. They need to know that careers are more like living things and that they can wing it.
Better still, in my view, is for the child to be coached so that the response is open in the first place. I asked my 12 year old what she wanted to be this morning. I watched the bewilderment and uncertainty build before she said that she wasn’t really sure. I know she loves baking and cooking generally so I prompted that in the past she has indicated she would like to be a chef. This is fine as it adds a direction to her thoughts, but what if she had been able to say some thing like ‘I want to work in the food industry’? She could be a chef, or a retail manager, a hotelier, or an author. The more open response allows the possibility of superficially quite unrelated options.
How can the question be worded so that it is less constraining? What other types of responses are possible? Would love to hear comments and ideas!