Kids 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.
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.