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Stop Asking Kids What They Want to Be When They Grow Up

careers culture reflection relationships Jun 20, 2023

Written by Brooke Conklin (@brookeconklin19)

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question is a rite of passage for children everywhere. It seems like as soon as a child enters the doors of pre-school we are asking them this question. In pre-school, the stakes are pretty low. We expect cute, funny, and typical answers ranging from “a chef” to “a doctor” and sometimes the adorable wild card of “a lion”.

But as kids advance through school, that question carries more weight. We pose it to 8th graders deciding which speakers they want to visit at “Career Day.” We ask it to 10th graders as they choose their electives and advanced classes. And the hardest hit are the graduating seniors who are being asked to choose their fate at a very young 18 years old.  “What do you want to be?” Choose your vocation, choose your college major, sign up for $60,000+ in student loan debt, and hope you made the right call. Students who graduate unsure of what they want to be are met with an enormous amount of pressure to figure it out quickly.

I used to think this was a great question. It encouraged students to think about their future and what they wanted to achieve. However, over time, I've come to realize that this question is actually doing more harm than good. 

The problem with asking kids what they want to be when they grow up is that it pigeon-holes them into thinking they need to have one specific career path in mind and stick to it. In reality, the world of work is changing rapidly, and our students will likely switch jobs multiple times throughout their lives. Some will even create jobs that are yet to exist.

When we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, we're essentially telling them that they need to find their one true calling. We trap kids into thinking they need to identify their one “thing” that will equate to success. Teacher, lawyer, nurse, soldier, etc. 

This can be incredibly daunting and stressful, especially for young people who are still trying to figure out who they are.

When we do this, our kids are shorted one critical skill that they will need more than we ever did - the ability to create a vision, their OWN vision, and the ability to work towards a vision that evolves WITH them - learning adaptability and perseverance, and appreciation for self.  

What we should be helping kids understand is not “what they want to be”, but “who they are.”


  • Talk to them about their interests and passions. What do they love to do? What are they good at? What do they find meaningful?
  • Encourage them to set goals. What do they want to achieve in the short term? What do they want to achieve in the long term?
  • Help them identify the skills that they need to achieve their goals. What skills do they need to learn? How can they develop these skills?
  • Expose them to different career options. Take them on field trips, meet with professionals in different fields, and read books and articles about different careers. 
  • Help them define and measure what success means to THEM. (This life lesson comes from my colleague Michael Roush). What makes them feel successful? Helping others? Crushing goals? Creating art? Discovering something new?


Knowing ourselves, and teaching our kids to know themselves, lays the foundation for a fulfilled life, where we are open to possibility, open to creating jobs for ourselves that don’t exist, and perfectly positioned to solve critical problems for generations down the road.

As a parent, I’m going to stop asking my kids what they want to be. I’m going to help them consider a broader vision for their life, understand their own definition of success, prioritize perseverance, and champion THEIR goals. 

As a coach, I’m going to renew my pursuit of emphasizing skills over content. This means to communicate the importance of integrating skills into instruction, and to support my teachers in designing instructional opportunities that help students develop their vision and definition of success. 

Instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, I encourage you to ask them what they envision for THEIR future. Let’s help them focus on developing the skills, knowledge, and character traits they need to be successful in whatever they do by asking questions that help students develop a broader vision for their life:

  • What kind of impact do they want to make on the world? 
  • What are they passionate about? 
  • What are their strengths (confidence) and weaknesses (still need/want to learn)?

It will help them understand that they have choices and don't have to be trapped in the one-specific-career-path of life.

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