The Wrong Question

dont' grow upSince his senior year in high school, middle son has been intent on law school. Eldest son has had a number of varying plans from high school to present day. Youngest son recently said, “I want to be a middle school principal so maybe I can help kids solve their problems before they get too big.”

When I was a college counselor, I would interview juniors asking them a battery of family, personal, and academic questions. Chief among these questions was: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Wrong question.

Last week middle son called. He is a sophomore in college. The upshot of our conversation can be condensed to one pointed question he asked: “What if after graduation I want to do something interesting with intelligent people and go from there?”

The numbers vary, but students in high school likely will encounter many jobs that are not yet invented. So many of my sons’ friends are combining experience and studies and interests into really interesting futures.  My middle schooler might be a principal, but he might be something that is TBA. One real question is:  why do we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up if we can’t even fairly present all the options to them?

In fact, many of the adult generation cannot fully understand high school and college students when they talk about their possibilities. We were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up; we took early weird computerized when did that happencareer inventories that actually suggested a legitimate option for me was “trash collector.” (Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE my trash collector; I had a dog training chat with him last week. I just don’t want his job.) Many of us also thought that our majors in college would dictate what we would do: major in business work in insurance; major in education equals a life in the classroom; major in biology go to med school; poli sci majors went to law school.

There are so  many more options. I admire and commend everyone who saw beyond such traditional paradigms just as much as I respect those who translated such traditional paths into personal and professional success.  But, when we talk to our kids, our job is to open up possibilities for them.

So, maybe the questions we should ask of young people are more along the lines of:

  1. What kinds of problems do you want to help solve?
  2. What kinds of communities do you want to be a part of?
  3. What kinds of people do you want to spend your time with?

Ultimately, we don’t want to present life to our kids as going to high school to go to college to get a job to buy some pay bills and diestuff to save enough to retire to grow old to die.

Middle and youngest son have it right: they want to help and be among interesting people doing great things. And, really, won’t that make the world a better place? It’ll probably be pretty damn rewarding, too.

So, this holiday season when the college kids come home and the high school seniors are getting early decisions from universities, be kind. Don’t demand that someone who can’t even have a legal drink plan their future while decorating Christmas cookies. Forget about what they’re majoring in, the most recent ranking of their school, and what they plan to be when they grow up.

Ask them – ask yourself: What do you want to contribute? Where might you want to do it? If we all open our minds, listen to our consciences, and engage with our communities, we just might find what we are really meant to do. We might just have some fun along the way, too.

Think about it.

Join me.



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