Stop asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As Michelle Obama often says, there is no point in asking a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We have all dealt with this question multiple times in our own childhood from adults looking for amusement in our answers of “Princess!” “Firefighter!” “Mommy!” or “President!” Even they realized the futility of asking such a question when we are barely old enough to understand the weight of it. Do you remember if you felt uncomfortable uncertainty or naive nonchalance when giving your response? Either way, children in the present still do not know what they are saying. They are simply eager to provide an answer, whether possible answers nowadays are “YouTube star!” or “Instagram model!” and they feel bad if they do not have anything to say.

The reason Michelle Obama says to stop asking children this is that there is no room for growth when the emphasis is on a career as the end goal, “[a]s if growing up is finite. As if you become something and that is all there is.” It is a limiting, unrealistic way of viewing life as if who a child becomes is really what profession s/he takes on. S/he will be a teacher, and that is that. There is no room for growth or exploration beyond taking a role in society; however, rarely does life and growth stop once someone accepts her/his first job.

Apart from that, this interrogation puts undue pressure on children to already start thinking about a career, as if they have to decide at this very minute and stick to it no matter what. They are so busy learning basic concepts, everything from numbers and letters to feelings and expression, in order to build a strong foundation for the rest of their life. At such an early stage, how are they to know what interests, skills, and proclivities they have that are more suitable for one career than another?

Right now is the time to explore these interests, skills, and proclivities, which is how JEI Learning Center comes into play. JEI is all about setting up a foundation for children starting from a young age so they can learn about themselves and foster healthy creativity, emotional quotient (EQ), and communication skills. JEI also explores the concepts of vocational vs. academic routes, as most children are more suitable for one than the other, without pushing ideas prematurely onto malleable minds.

Going off that, career theorist Linda Gottfredson also points out that children are too easily influenced by their surroundings. They end up choosing careers based on what they see around them or through the power of suggestion–and these are usually dependent on class and gender. For example, if a parent is a plumber and often dressed around the house as one, the child will think of becoming a plumber. If a child is often taken to fancy parties by his/her lawyer parents, s/he may think of lofty goals like becoming a fellow lawyer or a politician. Additionally, children may often see female nurses and male police officers, and limit themselves by these gender roles. All of this serves to only confuse them because they have yet to figure out what they like, who they are, and what careers are out there.

As an adult, you need to provide children with room to grow and time for them to make the right decisions for themselves. Asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is not the right way to do it–save that for high school at the earliest! If you want to learn about a child’s interests, ask about what they like to do, what hobbies they have, or what books they like to read. Asking questions like these or simply observing are other ways to learn about children than asking right off the bat what career they want for the rest of their lives when they are just getting started.  

All children need right now is guidance. They do not need to have the answers to everything. To help your child develop the basic skills to learn and grow into curious, decision-making intellectuals, find a JEI Learning Center near you, and start from there.