When did we start asking kids what do you want to be when you grow up?

There must have been a generation when the window of life choices opened up wider. When anyone could look beyond their own family farm or factory and aspire to positions in medicine or science, teaching or creating. Going into space, opening a restaurant, or writing a book.

Isn’t it great? I remember looking at the sweet little face of my own daughter, wondering where life would take her. What she would love – who she would love. What would make her laugh or cry, what would grab her attention? What would leave her flat and what would bring her life-long joy?

I’ll bet long money that her dad and I started asking that same old tired what do you want to be when you grow up? waaaaaaaay before she even knew what grown up really meant.

And it only got worse or more frequent as she – and her friends – tried to navigate through the land-mine-filled episode we call high school. Good golly, Miss Molly.

High school. Yowzers. I won’t even begin to regale you with those days of my youth. The ones I recall with a smile – as I cringe.

Because high school was so much more than just what I learned – and didn’t. So much deeper than unremarkable regrets and boys whose names I’ve long forgotten. So much more complicated than selecting accelerated or regular calculus, Spanish or French, foods or photography.

High school, with all of its chaos and young love and SAT scores and broken hearts, is when they start hearing more often and in more serious voices What are you going to do when you graduate?

Why do we do that? Why do we insist on shrinking the possibilities of a 15-year-old into 3D art or advanced placement chemistry when they haven’t experienced either? Why do we force gangly and indecisive young people into the most narrow of paths when they don’t even know for sure what a 3D artist or a chemist really does? When they don’t even know how to balance a checkbook or apply for a job?

The University of Rochester Medical Center tells us this may not be a very good plan…

The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.

In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with … the brain’s rational part… Teens process with … the emotional part.

In teens’ brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing–and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.

Please don’t misunderstand. I do not for one minute question the sweet passion of even the youngest child for the arts or science or the ministry or a life at home with children. Let them plan away, pretend, imagine. Explore. Dream.

Yes, let’s listen to the whimsical and outrageous notions of a five or fifteen year old as they describe a crazy homework invention or how they will build a hospital in Haiti for people living in poverty.

Yes, let’s be their cheerleaders, their advocates. Let’s help them break down walls of resistance and ignore the cynics. Let’s work side by side with them as they pave their way into the world.

But, instead of peppering them with the what are you going to do with your life? … instead of hurriedly pushing them toward the expected or assumed, or what seems safe and reasonable, let’s encourage them to grow into who they are. And at their own pace.

It may take a while. I mean, how many people do we all know who spent (and are still paying) BIG money to attend four years of college and never, ever walked into the profession for which they so dearly paid. (Not everyone will agree with this, but I’m not sure taking a year – or two or three – off after high school is a horrible idea. If they are not ready to commit to something they will l*o*v*e, what good is “getting the general ed courses out of the way.” OK, we can talk about this later…)

And, in some cases, like mine and the farm or family business kids back in the day, children can be steered into making a decision – even if unintended – that isn’t authentic or well-suited to them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think one day I was in the classroom was wasted. But, looking back on my own family life and experience, becoming a teacher was expected.

No, it wasn’t dictated. It wasn’t “this or nothing.” But it was assumed. My brother went into education. So would I. Illinois offered a tuition-free program in education without even so much as a commitment to teach in the state and, well, that was it. I’d be a teacher.

Not for one minute did my family pressure me into it. They didn’t have to. But nobody ever really asked me about it either. No one said anything about choice. We didn’t talk about what my gifts or talents were. Or how I was special.

It wasn’t awful. I’ve had a good life. And, yet, every once in a while I indulge myself: What if I had become a conductor? or a writer? or a successful shop keeper (instead of a floundering one)? What if someone had talked to me about my love of paper? or singing?

What if…?

My lovelies, I wish there was a better way to become what you are supposed to be. Like a magical way to get measured for emotional and musical and mathematical size, or take a special class to find the very best box for you – in a good way. Or look into a crystal ball, picturing yourself in all kinds of places with all kinds of people. And I wish there were scheduled chances to make a change in life – even a U-turn – right in the middle. Without judgement or guilt.

But most of all I wish our high schools were filled with opportunities for children to find themselves, with the help of people who could care more about them than their test scores and college applications. I’m not disparaging high school teachers – they are remarkable and cut from durable cloth. And they do what they do because it’s part of the culture we’ve created.

I wish they were given the time to be what students really need… cheerleaders, advocates, supporters, champions. Instead of repeating the age old what do you want to do after graduation? I’d like to hear:

Who are you?
What’s important to you?
What do you like to do when school gives you a break?
Which is more important… kindness or fairness? Why do you think so?
How can you live a life that is kind
and fair?

Being a grown-up has its advantages. Less people get to boss you around and you don’t have to explain ice cream for lunch.

But being a grown-up should come when we are grown up. It shouldn’t be rushed, and it certainly shouldn’t interfere with the wonder of youth. Being young is such a gift and so short – growing shorter with each generation.

God makes everything beautiful in its own time (Ecclesiastes 3) … and the time to be a kid is when you are one. How about we leave the grown-upping to the grown-ups?

This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, with the prompt this week being “high school.”

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

One comment

  1. You’re so right and I completely agree that we should ask kids what interests them, and remind them that if they get to college and something isn’t as they’d hoped, that it’s ok to change their minds. I got so trapped into thinking I had to choose and it’d be permanent and that’s just not the case. I am 51 now and still wonder what I want to be when I grow up! Ha! We can still be many things – I really believe that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s