When our daughter was 5 or 6 years old, I didn’t give much thought to telling her that she could be anything she wants to be when she grows up. In fact, I said it without hesitation. Now that she’s getting older, though, I’m realizing that I can’t stop there. I’ve not come to this conclusion through sheer brilliance (I’m sorely lacking in brilliance these days!). I meet a lot of college students in my day job. It’s not a fun conversation when a college student has no idea what they want to do with her degree. Nor is it pleasant to see the agony of a student who is well into his major…and hates it. While these circumstances may not be completely unavoidable, there are some things we can do as parents (well before college) that will help.
Conventional wisdom tells us that we must encourage our kids to be anything they want to be in life. There are no limits! But what do you say when your child who can’t carry a tune wants to be the next John Legend? What do you do when your high schooler struggles to pass science courses but wants to be an engineer? How about if they have their hearts set on a thankless career that doesn’t pay well, or one in which they can get hurt? Do we tell them they can do anything they set their hearts on? Heck no! Well, we don’t leave at that, anyway.
Dreams and wishes don’t make singing and engineering careers happen. And, beyond that, the realities of most careers are a mystery to kids. As our children get older, the simple affirmations of being whatever you want must make way for new conversations. As parents, we become purveyors of both optimism and realism. It’s not about crushing dreams. It’s about guiding them on how to make decisions and make their dreams come true.
Here are four things parents can do to get started on this journey:
Research and talk about what that career looks like. Discuss what a typical day might be. What are the highs? What are the lows? Maybe find a way for older children to shadow someone who has this career.
Research and talk about what it takes to achieve the career. What does it take to get your foot in the door? Is a degree needed? How about technical training? Maybe it takes a lot of work and practice (like with singing). It’s nice to want to be a doctor, but it’s also good to know what’s required to get there.
Encourage the things that will make the career happen. This is where we ask ourselves, “What can I do now to help my child’s dreams come true?” It might be taking her to singing lessons, letting her take part in science camps, or allowing her to be a junior park ranger for the summer. (And also being okay with shifting gears a little if she changes career aspirations every few months!)
Teach them to have a growth mindset. In other words, make sure your kids know that they have the capacity to learn and grow. Effort matters. Although many people continue to debate over the 10,000 hour “rule” of success, it can’t be argued that most of us must work hard for many, many hours to achieve our dreams.
Here’s a confession for you: Sometimes my daughter wants to be a teacher…and I don’t want her to. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a profession that is beyond important, and I have complete respect for those who are in it. I happen to have a few family members and close friends who are absolutely amazing teachers. But I see how hard it is. I see the politics, the standardized testing, the long hours, and the lack of appreciation.
So, what do I do when I don’t like what my daughter wants to be when she grows up? I can’t make the decision for her, nor should I. But I can guide her and help her work through her own choices. I can teach her how to think critically and make her own informed decision. Following this path will allow me to help her achieve great things that are congruent with her values, strengths, and passions. It may even help her become the best teacher she can be someday.