Stop asking your daughter, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Instead, try these helpful habits to promote her adult and career development
It’s commonplace to ask our daughters, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” This simple question can be fun as children begin to envision ideas of their adult selves. Young girls like to play teacher, or doctor, or other grown up roles they see in their own lives.
When we ask this question, we are generally creating space to think about future careers. However, when you pose a different version of the same question to parents, “what do you want your daughter to be when she grows up?” the nearly universal answer isn’t a job title, but rather an overall state: “happy.”
In thinking of how complex this question and reality actually are, how do we change the conversation in order to encourage young girls to achieve fulfilling adult roles?
My earliest memory of what I wanted to be when I grew up was of becoming a lion tamer. This was clearly inspired by a trip to the circus, by the awe and wonder of the greatest show on earth.
I also cherish childhood memories of visiting my mom, a psychologist, at work and playing “Dr.” I would ask to sit behind her desk and say, “tell me your problems.” I remember my mother playing along, answering with “I never know what to cook my family for dinner.” And I, the all knowing, replied, “just ask them what they want.”
Those childhood experiences may have forecasted my career journey to become a counselor, an advocate for all things mental health related. Though as a mom of 4 young children, I could arguably also include “lion tamer” on my resume.
Career is absolutely a valuable component of adult identity, self-worth, and happiness. But other pursuits and experiences also contribute to our satisfaction during the many decades of adulthood.
Help her understand career as an experience, not a destination
Gone are the days of retiring after 25 years in the same job. On average, people now have 7 different careers over their working years. And because of the continuous growth of technology, many of the jobs our children will occupy in future decades don’t even exist today.
When she is daydreaming and planning future visions of herself, introduce the idea of "BOTH" and "AND". Planning a career doesn’t have to be an "OR" decision. Rather than “I might be an engineer or an artist” help her understand she can be both. That might mean time spent on one career and then another. Or it might be integrating both into the same job. Or it might be one interest as a primary avocation and the other as a secondary job or even a recreational hobby. Ultimately, confidently envision herself in many occupations will provide a strong foundation to launch her into her career journey and everything she pursues.
Help her understand that multiple roles (not just career) build her identity
If when we ask the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” we are only referring to career, we are creating a very narrow image of her future self. Who she is and who she is becoming is not an easy label taken from one activity. A rich sense of self is fed by many sources, including relationships, leisure activities, and daily habits.
This is important not just for her future self-worth and value, but immediately applicable to her self-confidence and esteem today. When she has a sense of her worth attached to multiple activities, domains, and contributions, she’s more likely to weather a storm that comes and disrupts one of them. The high school student who doesn’t get the role she wanted in the school play, but is actively involved in community service through her religious organization, is likely to bounce back from the disappointment faster than if she didn’t have multiple areas for a positive sense of self. The child or adult who has a clear sense of her values and beliefs will stand strong during times she is challenged.
Let’s ask questions that help her clarify her values, her multiple roles, and the various experiences she wants to pursue. Create conversation that considers how these multiple roles will be integrated together and how life satisfaction will come from many pursuits, not just work. Just as her childhood and adolescent identity is found in many roles, so will be true in adulthood. Encourage her to pursue activities and interests that may be lifelong passions and the idea that even if the specific activities change, personal avocations always have an important place in her life.
Expose her to a wide range of occupations and fulfilling adult roles
Young girls begin building their future visions of themselves based on adults they admire and see as like themselves in some way. Our daughters will emulate these role models when they believe they can attain success in those roles. Encourage caring and trusted friends and family to share in developmentally appropriate ways about their career paths and experiences.
Everyday life provides the opportunity to notice and consider valuable work. Tap into children’s natural curiosity. Even watching television is a moment to ponder “who helped this show get to our house?” From the creative to the technology to the logistics, your daughter can think about all the people involved in making anything possible.
All of these ongoing conversations will help her understand that life satisfaction and sense of self is rooted in multiple adult experiences over many decades. Each role can bolster career success and contribute to her overall wellbeing. And at that heart of it, I think that’s what we hope for our daughters when they grow up.
I'm a mom of four children, a wife, and a Licensed Professional Counselor. My parenting life helps me be a better counselor, and my professional experience helps me be a better mom. Both allow me to be creative, to learn and grow, to make mistakes, and to rarely sleep. I love the beach and gardening, reading if I can stay awake, running (which these days is after my kids and not much else), and using humor through it all!
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