We often find ourselves saying things to kids that, in hindsight, might not be very helpful. As a parent of three young kids, there's one question in particular that I've found challenging.
It’s ubiquitous, and people ask it almost automatically. Often, it’s the second question an adult asks a kid, after “What’s your name?”
What’s this eminently bothersome question?
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Here’s why I dislike this question — and what questions you should ask instead.
We’re Really Asking About a Profession
My biggest gripe with this common question is that we’re not really asking kids “What do you want to be?”
Instead, we’re implicitly asking them “What profession would you like to choose?”
The question presupposes that people are defined by the job they do — that their place in society is based on their choice of work.
There are plenty of things that a person can “be” that have nothing to do with their job. Yet when people ask kids this question, they’re usually expecting a response like “a doctor” or “a football player.”
No one asks this question and expects to hear “I want to be a father,” or “I want to be a good Jew/Christian/Muslim/Hindu,” or simply, “I want to be a nice person with lots of friends, a hammock in the backyard, and an abundant supply of decent but not overly frou-frou coffee in my pantry.”
These things are just as important as what you do for work — indeed, far more important. But the question “What do you want to be?” rarely makes space for them.
Basically, by asking kids this question, we’re implicitly inviting them to a future world where their value to society will be judged by their job.
Who wants that?
It’s Often Deliberately Limiting
If an adult asks the question and a kid responds “I’m not sure,” we’re often quick to jump in with some ‘helpful’ suggestions.
“You like kitty cats! Do you want to be a veterinarian?”
“I heard you play with Legos. Maybe you’d like to be an architect?”
“You did baseball this Summer. Maybe you’ll play for the Giants!”
Nearly 100% of the time, the options we provide kids come from a very narrow grab-bag of easily recognizable, high-social-status professions that require a graduate degree (or incredible luck), and existed at least 100 years ago.
People rarely say “Do you want to be an SEO consultant? I hear SGE is going to be huge!” or “Charities always need good development professionals! Why not start honing your donor pitches now, Timmy?”
The range of potential jobs in the world is massive. Yet we tend to track kids into believing that their options are simply “doctor,” “lawyer,” “teacher” and the like.
As a person who has never held an easily definable job (“Professional photographer and agency owner who is also an AI expert and SEO pro with multiple niche websites and who works as a journalist sometimes and is also a YouTuber”), I resent that we needlessly limit kids’ understanding of the incredible options on the table.
We also tend to exclude certain types of jobs.
People rarely say “You could be a plumber! You can get paid $165 per hour, own your own business, and get started with a paid on-the-job apprenticeship that leaves you with zero student debt and total control over your time!”
It’s a disservice to kids to trick them into believing that the only job options on the table are “high-status” professions that need a graduate degree. There’s so much more available in the working world than that!
It Assumes They’re Not Anything Right Now
My biggest problem with this question, though, is the wording “What will you be when you grow up?”
It assumes that kids aren’t anything right now.
The whole idea of “when you grow up” implies that there’s some black-and-white divide — some switch that flips, where you become a grown-up and the things you do start to matter, when they’ll “be” something.
Kids are small people. They might not hold an Amex card, but they have plenty of unique and original thoughts and ideas that are every bit as worth acknowledging and celebrating as the ideas of bigger people.
In many cases, kids are far more creative than adults. As a pro photographer, I love seeing the ways my kids notice things in the world that I — a jaded adult — reflexively turn a blind eye to.
Some of my six-year-old’s ideas for my YouTube channel have way outperformed my own ideas. When he told me “Dad, you should make a video about cleaning out the little hole in the back of the sink,” I thought “Why would anyone want to do that?”
But I trusted him and made the video. It’s received 39,000 views and has 23 comments from grateful viewers.
Sometimes we’re so focused on what kids will “be” at some point in the future that we overlook the creative and talented people they are right now.
Also, there’s no such thing as being “grown up.” We’re all constantly evolving, growing, and learning new things. We should teach kids that — not the idea that at some vague time in the future, they’ll be “done.” No one is done.
What To Ask Instead
If the question “What do you want to be when you grow up” is useless, what should we ask instead?
Here are a few ideas:
- “What do you like doing these days?” or better yet, a specific question about an area of known interest: “Have you done any cool Lego builds lately?”
- “What are you studying in school? What’s your favorite class/subject?”
- “Did you take a trip this summer? What did you like about it?”
- “What’s your favorite show?”
Kids live in the moment. Really, adults should too.
Any question that focuses on specifics of who they are right now is much better than “What do you want to be?”.
It will give you more insight into who they are as a person as well.
The things kids remember and choose to do say a lot more about who they are than their adult-prescribed 20-year plan.
Sometimes, as a parent or adult, you’ll have to ask or answer “the question.” It’s such a default part of interacting with kids that you’ll probably find it on at least one questionnaire, school “about me” poster, etc.
In those cases, you should let your kid (or the kid you’re speaking to) answer the question however they want. If they want to be a social media influencer with 100 million followers, fine. Be that.
Sometimes kids say “I don’t know.” Accept that response, or if you feel you need to provide options, make sure to expand beyond the typical grab bag of high-status, white-collar professions.
Maybe your kid should be a plumber, or a roofing contractor, or a physical therapist. Maybe they should learn to code. Not every great job requires 8 years of post-secondary school.
Ultimately, the ubiquitousness of this question is a reflection of how our adult society works. We tend to value people based on what they do professionally, and we equate this to who they are as people.
It’s a bad way to treat adults, and an even worse expectation to read onto our kids. By teaching our kids young that who they are isn't determined by their professions, we can re-frame this outdated narrative.