There is a question I have decided to stop asking children.
Despite what you might think, that question is not “Why don’t you just go to sleep already?” or “What is that stuff on your shirt?” or even “Who came up with snorting Smarties? I mean, seriously?”
The question I swear to never again ask is this: What do you want to be when you grow up?
It seems innocent. But that question packs a punch that I didn’t realize until recently, when I thought about my own childhood.
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When I was about 7 or 8, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. My family had a dog, a mixed-breed terrier named Sam who followed me home from baseball practice one summer afternoon. I loved him, and I loved animals. I loved turtles and birds and cats and rabbits. When the teacher needed someone to watch the class guinea pigs over Christmas break, I shot up my hand and begged for the task.
I took horseback-riding lessons at the Army base in my hometown, where I was content to spend hours mucking stalls or grooming an old gelding named Sarge. I read everything James Herriot ever wrote, and I envisioned myself an old-fashioned country vet, carrying a black bag and making my rounds through the British countryside. Never mind that I had never been to England nor seen any real veterinarians in action.
I decided I would be a vet, and from third grade on, whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up – which seemed a popular question for adults making small talk – I said it clearly and with conviction: I want to be a veterinarian.
There was no binding contract, but there might as well have been. My path through high school featured lots of math and science and two years of Latin. When college time came, I applied and was accepted to one with a reputable vet school. And I went.
Then, sometime during my sophomore year of college, while trying to comprehend organic chemistry, I had an epiphany: I didn’t even like this stuff. I liked animals, but not sick or bleeding ones. What I really loved was literature, poetry, reading and writing. I liked reporting for my college newspaper, which I had started doing on a whim, thinking journalists seemed like a fun crowd. (They were.)
Just like that – and fortunately for me (no offense to veterinarians) – my life changed. I still wonder what might have happened if I had ignored the niggling doubts in my head and blindly stuck to my childhood mantra.
My kids, 13 and 16, are deep into life-planning mode. They fill out “interest inventories” designed to pinpoint their passions and get them thinking about potential careers. They craft “individual plans of study” and choose courses designed to get them there. That’s all fine, probably even helpful, but I hope they keep their minds wide open.
I follow lots of high school students on Twitter, and they seem to fall into two camps: those who know precisely what they want to do (or think they do) and just want to get started already, and those who have no idea.
“I wish high school was like college,” one freshman tweeted recently. “You pick the route you want to take and take classes that relate to what you want to be.” She was clearly frustrated with a math assignment at the time, cursing the invention of graphing calculators.
But how do you know what you want to be, I asked, if you don’t explore lots of different classes and subjects?
“That’s what middle school should be for!” she said.
I chuckled, but her theory isn’t far from modern reality. Try finding a dance school or soccer league that doesn’t demand laser-focused commitment from 12-year-olds or even younger kids. Good luck getting your teen or tween to try out different sports or other activities, when each assumes he or she is an Olympian in training. Preparations for “college and career” start earlier and earlier.
Children should have goals, sure. They should have dreams. There’s nothing wrong with finding a passion and choosing a path. But as many adults can attest, your goals at 13 can be wildly different from your goals at 31.
What they need, I think, is a little more freedom. Instead of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” how about “What did you learn today?” or “What makes you happy?” or “What’s on your plate for tomorrow?”
Short-sighted? Perhaps. But maybe there’s wisdom in looking ahead and just wondering.