What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?
The Question Adults Can't Help but Ask
By Christina Wood
It's the eternal question that sometimes leaves kids squirming. Learn how best to inquire about a child's aspirations, if you should ask at all, and how to respond to his or her answer.
When I was a kid I dreaded the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Yet I was still a little startled when my son snapped, "Stop asking me that!" when I asked him the same question. I hated the question because as soon as I answered "writer," people started trying to talk me out of it. My son hates it because, he explains, "I just never think about it." I couldn't help wondering if the questioning is universally hated or--worse--if it makes kids think twice about pursuing their dreams. So I asked around.
It turns out that many people actually liked being asked this question when they were kids, as it was positive attention that they enjoyed. Others felt put on the spot, embarrassed that they didn't have an answer ready, and horrified that they were being asked to consider something as impossible as growing up.
"I don't see it as a bad question to ask, as long as the parent doesn't have an agenda," explains Julie C. Dunsmore, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hamilton College. "The answer may be what appeals to the child at the moment and may not be realistic at all."
I managed to keep that advice in mind when my four-year-old daughter told me she wanted to be a Barbie Princess. I didn't laugh and I withheld my scathing editorial on the limits of Barbie's intelligence. But it's clear that not all parents remember to treat a child's answers carefully. Even laughing at a cute answer, says Jacquelyn Haines, Director of Training and Clinical Services at Gesell Institute of Human Development, can be taken the wrong way by a sensitive child. "We have to be careful as adults so that the adult agenda doesn't become the child's agenda." She feels it is dangerous to the child's sense of self to even imply that you've already chosen the child's future. It can affect what the child thinks are acceptable choices. Even saying, "We are all doctors in this family," can give the child the impression that she can't choose to be something else.
Annette, an artist and firefighter in Oakland, California, liked the question and answered it honestly, carefully gauging the reaction each career choice got from her audience--until she was about 10. And then, "some adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up when we were in the presence of my father. My favorite answer at that time was 'veterinarian.' Upon hearing that, my father took me aside, sat me down, and explained in a stern voice that veterinarian school was extremely difficult to get into and very expensive. He said that since I would be getting married, having children, and staying home to raise my children, it would be a waste of money." Annette never answered the question honestly again and identifies that as the moment that her relationship with her father began to wither.