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[WHAT] Stop asking your children what they want to be.

Updated: Feb 19, 2021






Last month I bought one of those “It’s my first day of Kindergarten” chalkboards that comes with the pre-written questions and the cute chalk paint markers. This was exciting: I was becoming a mother of a school-ager. My son was going to ride the bus!

“What is your favorite food?” I asked him, shaking up the green marker.

“Bacon,” He says. “I want to do it!”

He writes ever so carefully: B-A-C-O-N

The next question stops me in my tracks:


I want to be a _______ when I grow up.

The need to protect him rises up. Why? I know my son will grow up with baggage about this question. I know from experience working with hundreds of college students that this seemingly innocent statement is nefarious. Specifically, It’s the blank that makes me concerned. The blank that leaves room for ONE word. Suggesting that we pick ONE THING.

You see, when there is one blank, it only leaves room for one option. It may seem innocuous, but in practice it's shaping your child's brain to believe that 1) we choose 1 career and are stuck with that choice for our life time and 2) the choice we make today will still be a choice in the future.

Likely, your child will grow up into a young adult haunted by this blank space. Here are the worries voiced in my office:



What if I pick the wrong thing?

What if I’m bad at it?

What if I hate it?

What if I get stuck doing it forever?

What if I waste all my time and money on the wrong choice?

How come I'm the only one who hasn't picked their thing?

And it's not limited to college. This persists post-graduation. I have worked with adults (with varying levels of formal education) who are paralyzed by this blank; by this one word that evades them. The problem so big it's unsolvable.


I suspect the reason they ended up in this position is they were asked to fill in the same blank as early as kindergarten, resulting in the limiting belief system that has carried through adulthood. This comes up a lot: I’ve spoken with adults trapped in miserable, unfulfilling careers, paralyzed by their lack of ability to fill in that blank and the sense of overwhelm that prevents them from enacting change: Once I figure out the one thing I'm supposed to be, then my life will be so much better. And yet, here they are, having done nothing to effect change.


Pro-Tip: the only way to get unstuck is to do something different. Big or small. Just get started.

We have been taught to believe we are supposed to know exactly what we are supposed to do, when in fact, the opposite couldn’t be truer. There are many things you’ll end up doing. Some will be planned, some will be happenstance, some will be mistakes, some will be random, and none of it is wasted.

So, let's stop asking kindergartners to fill in this blank.

This is the time they should be encouraged to be curious.

To tinker.

To explore what they enjoy.

What makes them excited.

Curious.

Thankfully, my son can’t read yet. So I edited this question for him, based on the following set of grounding beliefs:

  1. Who you are is NOT what you do.

  2. You will have many careers/jobs over your lifetime.

  3. You’re not going to pick one thing; just pick the next thing.

  4. The only way to learn what you are interested in is to TRY IT.

  5. You can only be curious about something that you are aware exists—seek new things.


As a parent, you can make subtle changes to the way you speak to your children about careers. You might learn a thing or two about yourself along the way.

I'll end this post with a quote from the late John Krumboltz, developer of modern career theory, who suggested a better question:


“What would be fun and helpful to try next?”



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