For as long as most of us can remember, young children have been asked the mind-numbing question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Since they are creative and resilient, children learn to deal with this intrusive query with such culturally approved responses as “a doctor” (why not go for the number one prestige and money), “the president or a TV star” (interchangeable in some young heads these days), “gourmet chef” (now, there’s a sophisticate) and “computer geek”(a pragmatic choice).
A range of occupations from the adventurous “astronaut” to the prosaic “lawyer”, flows without hesitation from the lips of the youngest tots. Have they been primed, coached, influenced by their parents, relatives, friends and television shows and games? Of course. Will their designated choice last? Perhaps. One thing is sure. The good old days of answers like “fireman” (now firefighter), “farmer”, “teacher”, “policeman” (police officer today) and “nurse” are long gone. These kids have moved ahead with the times. They know how to operate Ipods, Ipads and Iphones by the time they are three or four. (But that’s another subject for a future blog.)
What about us, the adults who keep asking the same nagging question? Each time we pose it, we are making four assumptions:
* Children already know the answer. Management experts might label this “very early goal setting.”
* They should know the answer.
* When one is grown up, there will be one position for each of us in the work world.
*One’s being is defined by one’s occupation.
If the questions we ask determine the answers we get — as philosophers have been telling us for centuries —then, we need to stop asking children what they want to be when they grow up. We need to break the cycle and ask ourselves what we want to matter most to our children when they grow up. If the answer is the best paying job, then we can go back to the original question and refine it a bit. However, if the answer includes occupations related to clean air and water, beauty, human compassion, health, freedom, mature love, world peace, a sense of accomplishment, and the pursuit of truth and wisdom, then we need a very different set of questions for our children.
Here are some possible open end questions for young children:
What makes you very happy?
What makes you very sad?
Who is the kindest person you know?
What is the most beautiful thing you ever saw?
How do you make other people happy?
How do you make other people sad?
Who should take care of the trees and flowers?
For older children, possible questions to pose:
Why should we be honest and tell the truth?
What makes you laugh or cry?
How do you feel when you help someone else?
What does love mean to you?
What does it mean to be free?
What does peace mean to you?
Or, if you must stay with the vocational bent,
What do you like to do most of all?
These lists, of course, are tentative and personal. We each need to create our own lists for our own children and those we know and care about. Our questions reflect our values; they emphasize and pass on to the next generation those values that matter most to us. This should not be a casual or habitual transference. Young minds are open to questions. They pose them constantly to us. They tell us with their questions what concerns them. We need to do the same. To develop meaningful conversations from the answers they give.
If we want them to become adults who care about other people as human beings with feelings, the environment of air and water around them, the ideals of truth, beauty, wisdom, compassion and peace, then we have to stop outlining their futures in terms of jobs, careers, money and prestige. What they want to be when they grow up should be a reflection of the values and goals we are striving to teach them now.
…………………………………………………………………………… Joyce S. Anderson
Op Ed in The New York Times