“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a great question to ask children. It can spark the imagination and, like a spark under optimal conditions, this question can turn into a blaze. If that kindling has enough room to breathe and enough fuel to go, it can become a source of heat and comfort.
However, asking that question comes with a responsibility we don’t often consider. When we ask that question, we have to be prepared for the answer. I mean, I’m not sure that any of us are prepared to hear “I want to be a tightrope-walking firefighter who flies to the moon,” but we must prepare ourselves to help the child build that dream into a reality.
Maybe the question we really need answered is the one we should ask ourselves: “Does this child have everything they need to explore becoming what they want to be when they grow up?”
Certainly, whether or not the child has what they need is out of the child’s control. By definition of being a child, they don’t already have what they need to reach their full potential. It’s on us, the adults, to provide the conditions in which children can expand their capacity.
I grew up on a farm. All I knew was the farm and I knew it well because that’s where I spent all my time. Now, consider where the children we know spend most their time. Right. Maybe there’s a reason teenagers want to be social media influencers.
So how do we help today’s young people expand their interests beyond the 4-inch screen glued to their hand? Yes, great teachers make a difference. How would a child know that they could be an artist if they never had a passionate art teacher? I decided to become an accountant partly because I had an economics professor in college who really believed in me. Pretty soon, I believed in me, too. He thought I was good with numbers and once I agreed with him, I was, indeed, adept at math.
We are all grateful for great teachers. But if we’re going to ask children what they want to be when they grow up, shouldn’t we then accept the responsibility of helping them achieve their goals? Let’s show them all their options, all the paths available to them as they reach into their futures. Let’s help the tightrope-walking firefighter fly to the moon.
William W. Brown is founder and board chair of Legacy Early College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.