What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

what do you want to beKids are forever being asked this question, and the responses are often amusing, occasionally heart-breaking, and frequently implausible. (What percentage of the population, after all, is going to become a pop star, a professional athlete, or a famous actor?)

So. Do you remember what you said when you were asked this question as a kid? Chances are your answer changed with your age, but I remember at various times expressing my desire to be a paleontologist, a lobsterman, and a rock star.

Our eight year-old son is in Year 3 (2nd Grade in the US system), and he was recently given the task of describing what his life will be like when he is an adult. (Which is obviously a much better question for a teacher to ask, since “What do you want to be?” can be answered in a word or phrase.) I was touched by his response to the assignment, but it left me with some questions. Here is a (rather long) excerpt, with spelling mistakes uncorrected:

When I’m an adult…I’ll live in a small rented house and have two children, two identical boys. My house will have a small garden, a terris, a dining room, and two bedrooms with bathrooms attached. I’m gonna have a green tree python for a pet because my dad loves reptiles. I’ll be a street rat for a little while to see how that works out, then I’ll have a job as either an ornathologist or an author. I’ll have a Ford Focus and a bycicle. I’ll have a good amount of money to buy the stuff I need like a phone and a bed….

And now on to the stuff I’m gonna do. I’ll drink one cup of coffee a week, but tea all the time. I’ll work on my iPad a lot and go for ocasional bike rides after I pick up my sons. I’ll take my sons fishing and play padel [a Spanish racquet game] on Tuesdays and Fridays. I won’t celebrate my birthday and my salary will be 500 Euro…. If I become an author, I’ll write horror books and a whole lot of other stuff, such as the Mr. Scribble series, and he has a lot of modes: normal; wizard; detective; devil; angel; stinky; baby; teleport; Super Scribble. That’s all for now. 

The accompanying drawings

The accompanying drawings

I must admit I got a bit misty-eyed when my son read this to me, as I think I would have no matter what he had written, since having your kids think about their adulthood forces you to think about it, and since all you ultimately want for your children is for them to be happy, well-adjusted, successful and kind, you get to thinking about all of the obstacles and uncertainties of life that might prevent them from being so.

Although I was rather pleased that my son’s aspirations and speculations for his future weren’t greedy or grasping or excessive (the kid just wants to make enough money for a phone and a bed, for goodness’ sake), I was a bit surprised at how modest and mundane they were.

You want your children to dream big, to “grab for the gold ring,” to have large ambitions. I mean, why a “small garden”? Why not a big one? Why not shoot for 3 bedrooms? Why not live large and drink two cups of coffee a week?

You can read any number of surveys from different sources that will tell you that the number one job choice of this generation of young kids is astronaut, or doctor, or supermodel, or superhero. Seems it depends on who’s conducting the survey (and what point they’re trying to demonstrate).

A common lament in many of these articles is how much kids in affluent societies these days simply want to be famous. According to The Toronto Star, a 2011 study by the Childfund Alliance that included 4,600 ten to twelve year-olds in 44 countries discovered that “almost half of children in the developing world want to be teachers or doctors…but in developed countries like Canada, they want to be professional athletes, actors, singers or fashion designers.”

In a 2007 study (the same year “Keeping up with the Kardashians” debuted) conducted at the UCLA campus of the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, “fame was the number one value communicated to preteens on popular TV. Interestingly enough, community feeling (to be part of a group) ranked number 11 in 2007, while in every other [prior] year it came in at number one or number two.”

The researchers also asked preteens what they wanted in the future. “Their number one choice? Fame.”

A piece in Forbes looked at the question (unsurprisingly) slightly differently. “In general, the kids we surveyed show very little understanding about how much money different jobs actually pay.” Which is truly shocking in kids aged 5 – 12. “The fact is, many of the most popular kid-friendly careers aren’t the best-paid. In our survey of 5-year-olds, five of 33 kids say they want to one day be firefighters, and three say they want to be police officers–a job that pays a mean annual wage of $50,670.”

You can almost hear the audible gasp (and the derision). Yes, Forbes, God forbid 5-year-old kids dream of pursuing such ridiculously low-paying and meaningless careers as firefighter or police officer.

But let’s not unnecessarily conflate the two questions. “What do you want to be?” and “What will your life be like?,” while intertwined, are two separate things. The latter takes in aspects of culture, technology, environment, and a whole lot else.

My son’s vision of his future strikes me as somewhat banal. In many ways because it’s much like our lives now. We currently live in a rented house, drive a Ford Focus, and have two boys. (We do not, however, own a green tree python. He’s living on the edge there.) In some way I’d like him to aspire to more. But I suppose I’d rather have him dream of living in a small rented house and picking up his boys in his Ford Focus to go fishing, than longing to luxuriate in a palatial estate and own 5 Ferraris. I guess I’d rather have him pining for a tree python than yearning to keep up with the Kardashians.growing_up_cartoon





20 thoughts on “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

  1. Adorable, thoughtful, interesting. I shall stop asking my little ones what they want to be….or at least I’ll try. Children are amazing! Great post.


    • Great stuff, Ross! “Success needn’t be an enormous salary and a lovely home. That is only one measure of achievement. I look at my kids and I know that I’m doing alright.”
      Indeed, my good man, indeed. Thanks for visiting and leaving your thoughts – it’s always appreciated!


  2. I’m sitting here waiting for the little one to get out of school and I’m having such a good, restorative laugh. Thank you for that. Yes, we all hope our kids will choose to dream big, but may I just say what a practical, intelligent and interesting person your boy is? And so articulate for his age!
    My son, ever the train enthusiast, wishes to be a train ” fireman”. The guy who shovels coal into the firebox, that is. He also wants to increase the amount of trains nationwide, reducing the usage of cars – but that’s not driven by a desire to be eco-friendly. He just really likes trains. My daughter would like to be a veterinarian and also have a pet unicorn. Reasonable.
    As for me, I wanted to be a marine biologist or an astronaut after graduating from MIT. Well, given my tendency to lose my equilibrium on boats and my discomfort in confined spaces (and the fact that I was a slacker in high school – MIT wouldn’t even have used my application as toilet paper), it was probably wise that I headed to the kitchen to bake cakes instead.
    Great post, one of my favorites of yours lately.


  3. I really enjoyed this post and found it quite touching actually. As a new mum I have spent a lot of time recently wondering what my daughter will do with her life. I think your sons humble nature is truly wonderful and says a lot about his good values. Thanks for posting and I look forward to reading more from you.


  4. Very nice post, yes in SA, we want to be doctors and such, I wanted to be vet, farmer, or whatever had to do with animals. Now I adore plants! Also love the question and answer – wonder what my boy will say at the same age – time will tell. Thanks.


    • Actually, although I’ve never had a green tree python (they have nasty tempers and tend to bite), I’ve had loads of other boas, pythons, and assorted reptiles, so he’s fairly on target to be a little me here. (I pity the fool.) Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments!


  5. very cute, when I was his age I didn’t have a clue, and he has it down to details such as how many coffees a week he would want to drink 😀 jokes aside, seems to me like your kid is already a very determined, down-to-earth person, who knows what he wants. He wants to be happy, essentially, surrounded by things and people that make him happy, and he also wants to make his loved ones happy (he wants to buy a snake because you like them, Matt :D: D). These childhood dreams usually change loads, as you get influenced by people in your life, but seems like your kid has got the basics sorted 🙂


    • He does indeed seem to have the basics sorted, Gretee, for which I’m both grateful and proud. Not of myself, for helping to shape him in this way, but of him for taking the very best of who we are and what we do and sieving out the bad bits. You know what? I really appreciate you taking the time to read the stuff that I write and even more for leaving your comments. You are obviously a young woman of discerning taste :), and it’s nice to think that you are still a part of my (and my family’s) life after so long. Cheers, my good woman!


      • Thanks, Matt! My taste is obviously impeccable… and also your blog is very interesting 🙂 I said it before in a previous comment, I was suprised at myself for reading it 😀 I am usually not into “parenting” blogs, as I am not even close to being a parent, but somehow your writings are relatable to me. It is probably because it is not really a parenting blog in the “traditional” sense, it is just about what you experience in your life… and you also happen to be a parent, which makes things even more interesting 🙂 so thanks for sharing all of this!!!!


  6. I find your son’s response very sweet and what I do understand from this is that he is being raised in a loving, down to earth surrounding. If you only take the places he has called home (first Hungary & now Spain) into consideration. You are giving him the gift of diversity. I find this priceless. Let him dream about the Python, you never know.


    • Thanks, Tatu! I thought it was really sweet too, and my minor misgivings about its mundaneness (is that even a word?) are more than offset by the thought that his perfect adult future largely mirrors his childhood present. How are things for you, by the way? Still having a baby or did you decide ‘You know what, I’m sick of dirty little creatures.’? 🙂
      About the lice, by the way. I’ve never experienced that, but my brother had an episode with pin worms. Google it, if you dare, but you probably don’t even want to know.


  7. This is a great post Matt. Rather thought provoking and well researched. I love the fact that your son expresses contentment through what may seem like a banal dream. I think it’s evidence that you’ve instilled great values within him. I guess things morph and change as time goes on, as children discover and rediscover what their interests and aspirations are. We don’t have kids yet but I’ve often considered the impact of my parents upon my own life choices. Hand in hand with that, I’ve considered what I’d do differently if I was to have children (as I guess most people do!). As a kid, I always wanted to be an animator. It was a rather long-lasting aspiration (from the age of about 7 to around 16), eventually shattered by some well-intended comments from my father and others about how creative people spend most of their lives being broke and unsuccessful. I began to doubt my ability to be ‘competitive’. A year later, I finished my high school exams and ended up in law school. To cut a long story short, I spent many years fluffing around at uni changing courses before graduating in social work (purely to make money and get myself out of the education system). I don’t think I’m terrible at it but I do have many days when I wish I’d just pursued my lifelong dream. Funnily enough, I’ve married an animator. I’m doing my darndest to help him succeed whilst living in the most isolated city in the world. In some ways, I’m sad to admit that my dad was right… it’s not a guaranteed cash-in-hand career choice. But my husband is definitely happier with his career choice than I am. I think that’s worth all the money in the world 😉


    • Thanks, Laura. Love your blog, by the way. Fantastic photos and recipes, and I’m already planning to try the lamb ragu with pappardelle and the pulled pork. I’m a former chef, you see, but I occasionally get into major ruts in which I’m uninspired, fueled at times by having to keep the food preferences (and aversions) of two young boys in mind.
      I have two cousins who were told from a very early age that the only professions acceptable to their parents were doctor or lawyer. One is a doctor, and one is a lawyer. They are reasonably happy, I think, but both claim to be somewhat scarred by the pressures their parents placed upon them. Honestly, whatever my kids decide to go into as careers far in the future, I would back without hesitation, as long as I thought their choices would bring them satisfaction.
      Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments – it’s always appreciated!


  8. This is lovely. You’re right, it made me think about what my twins (now a mere 22 weeks old) will be like when they grow up. I do love the question, “What will your life be like?” instead of the usual, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It also makes me wonder what I would have written as a child. Maybe I’ll try answering that question myself one day!


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