Bright Futures

Why Do We Ask Kids What They Want To Be When They Grow-Up, Anyway?

I still haven't figured it out.

A girl dressed as an astronaut looking through a window
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

My daughter recently experienced one of life’s timeless milestones: the first moment where you are compelled to make small talk with a dentist while your mouth is stuffed with gleaming, mildly fearsome instruments of torture.

“So, honey, what do you want to be when you grow up?” the pink-scrub-clad dentist asked.

Gargle. Swish. A blink in the fluorescent lights overhead.

“I want to be a dentist,” my five-year-old mumbled, dribbling water onto her chin.

It’s a common question to ask kids, and it’s a topic that’s been on my daughter’s mind lately. This answer, summoned on the spot, is just the latest in a series of chosen occupations that she can rattle off without pause, some as specific as Gumbo Chef, inspired by a viewing of The Princess and the Frog. In daily life, her mind is fixated on all things occupational. But she’s not thinking about practical limitations — for her, at this age, the future is a vast expanse of possibilities.

At the dentist’s office, once the mouth mirror was removed, my daughter sat up and added, “And I also want to be a ballerina. And a teacher for babies. Do you have a baby who can come to my school? They have to be two years old. No diapers.”

Once we got home, she rifled through her mountain of toys to locate the doctor/dentist combo kit her aunt gave her one year for Christmas. She took out an oversized red toothbrush and a clacking model of horse-like teeth, and began to practice her newest vocation. It’s unclear how she will balance all her jobs, but she’s nothing if not determined.

I recognize this phase well. The first time I laid eyes on my second-grade teacher, the warm and blazered Mrs. C, I decided I would devote my years to teaching. After I saw a caricaturist working at an art fair one summer, I spent my allowance on paints and dawdled with my sketchbooks in the sun until my neck turned bright red. It’s a common-enough stage in a child’s life to survey the career landscape. You explore and sample. You try jobs on to find the forever-one.

And yet: I never exactly left this phase of life. I’m what you would call a job hopper — or more accurately, a career hopper. In a recent bio, I listed myself as a former Executive Editor, a former Managing Editor, and a former Design Director. I have racked up an impressive list of “formers” — barista, babysitter, hostess, computer programmer, library clerk. After one ill-advised response to a Craigslist posting, I was a room organizer for a day. I still believe that in some future version of me, I’ll go back to school for counseling.

I suspect my daughter is drawn to the same prospect as me: possibility. There’s a kind of magic in reshaping our lives based on one change, one recalibration. It’s not that this curving, untraditional path doesn’t have drawbacks. For one, my family has stopped asking what I do for a living. The corporate world is often unfriendly to inscrutable resumes like mine (“So why do you have an MFA?”). I also recognize that there may be some pathology at play here, an inner discontent girded by a steadfast if unrealistic belief in “greener pastures.” I sometimes wonder if I’m unsuited for any vocation — if there is such a thing as too many jobs, after all.

Yet in the era of Great (and Not-So-Great) Resignations, it’s more common than ever for workers to have many career jumps — some lateral, and some so wildly flailing that we don’t actually know where we will land at the end of it. People are changing careers for a variety of reasons: ill treatment, money, shifting passions. The choice of a job is not so different, after all, from the choice of a life partner. We aren’t all lucky enough to land on Mr. Right after the first date; why should job-seeking (or career-seeking) feel any different? Of course, I’m bolstered by many privileges, such as higher education and savings and a supportive partner, all of which gives me the scaffolding of security to pursue my varied interests. This is not a given for everyone.

Sometimes I consider the question we ask kids so often: What do you want to be when you grow up? This question assumes a correlation between identity and occupation. But dentist/ballerina/teacher is not an identity. It’s a job. One thing I’ve learned in all my career hopping is that I’m the same person I’ve always been, with a few different skills and maybe some extra baggage along the way. At the core of me, the trait that has made me successful at my jobs (okay, maybe not the one-day organizing gig) is a desire to keep learning. To strive for what is just beyond the limits of my experience. So instead of asking what kids want to be, we should consider asking them what they want to learn. What are they excited to experience? How do they want to spend their days?

Perhaps I’m not the best person to impart lessons on stability to anyone. That’s okay; I’m certain my daughter will learn those lessons elsewhere. But I hope I’m able to teach her something about possibility. About wild leaps and adventures. I could wish for nothing more than for her to have the luck and imagination to pursue her careers of choice. May she find the resilience to start anew; to flail, sure, but also to land where her curiosity takes her, arms full of the richness of experience. And if she finds her Forever Job right away? Well, then she’ll be able to teach me a thing or two, as usual.

Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.