What do you want to be?
Like most parents, sometimes I get to feeling anxious about money.
And sometimes this anxiety gets tangled up with angst about my career choice. I mean, sure, I like what I do. But writer/editor isn’t the most lucrative of careers. Would I be happier if I were making tons of money as a podiatrist or a high-powered corporate lawyer? Or some sort of super-in-demand IT guy? Would my kids be better off if money were no object?
Modeling meaningful choices
We all want to provide for our families, but when I start feeling angsty, I try to keep in mind that what we’re providing isn’t just money (and the things it can buy). We’re also giving our kids a blueprint for being successful grown-ups by setting an example about what it means to work.
The best careers don’t only bring home the bacon, they also have meaning for us. Most of the time, I feel lucky to make my living in publishing.
The fact is, all work contributes to society in some way. Our kids, ever-vigilant, pick up on how we feel about our own roles. If we can model that our work makes us happy and helps others in some way that we feel good about, our kids are more likely to seek a career that does the same for them. In turn, they’re more likely to be satisfied with their adult lives.
What kids actually say
As I was thinking about this recently, I came across a poll conducted by Fatherly, whichasked 500 kids between ages 1 and 10 what they want to be when they grow up. The answers are predictably cute, with the majority of 3- and 4-year-olds saying they want to be a superhero and at least one respondent answering “mattress tester” and another answering to the siren call of “American ninja warrior.”
What struck me is that, in general, young kids want to emulate what they respect, which explains why 2- and 3-year-olds answered doctor, parent (aw!) and firefighter — in that order. By 5 years old, veterinarian is No. 1, followed by scientist.
Finding a calling
Another thing that stood out to me is that kids seem to intuitively get the “do what you love” motto of most career advisors. Not that the concept should be so complex — after all, you spend most of your waking hours at your job, why not enjoy it?
By about age 8, this seems obvious to many kids — the top career choice for 8- and 9-year-olds was “video game designer.” (That sounds good at any age if you ask me.)
By age 10, the top three choices were athlete, chef/baker and veterinarian — sports, food and pets . . . you can hardly argue with the logic of a 10-year-old.
Watching what we say
I think when most of us parents imagine the futures we want for our children, career satisfaction is more important than wealth. But I also think we sometimes send mixed messages about this. For example, how often do you describe your work as something you have to do to make money rather than as something that makes you happy and satisfied?
I know I’m guilty.
So how exactly do we encourage our kids to hang on to their instincts of doing what they love? For one thing, we can be deliberate about how we describe our careers and jobs. When our kids are young, we can resist the impulse to explain work as something we do in order to buy nice things or pay the bills. We can go a little further and describe the reasons why our work is important or why it makes us feel good.
Think about it: “I just want to spend a few more minutes on this because I really want it to turn out great” sounds a lot different from “I just need to finish these emails so my boss doesn’t get mad at me or I don’t lose my job.”
Another thing we can do is try not to crush kids’ dreams when they’re young (plenty of time for the world to do that).
So if your child wants to be a pro athlete or an astronaut or — as one kid in the poll claimed — a “beast master” — I say cheer them on.
Eric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and dad of two boys. He’s currently working on a financial literacy book for young readers. Learn more about his other published works at heyericbraun.com. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.