You’ve seen the scenario before, perhaps at a family reunion or a holiday gathering. A kind, curious family member asks your young child, “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” In one case, Kimberly’s 4-year-old daughter (let’s call her Mia), who loved both books about space and Disney movies, responded, “An astronaut princess.” “And what does an astronaut princess do?” Mia’s response: “They sing and dance in space.” Not a bad gig if you can get it.
While these types of questions may get asked often by well-meaning adults, just as often you have others asserting that we shouldn’t bother children with such questions about future occupations and the idea of work. “Let children be children,” is the argument. “There’s plenty of time later to engage them in thinking about and planning for their futures.”
What few people recognize, however, is that whether we are noticing it or not, children are constantly observing the world around them, taking in information, noticing patterns, and trying to make sense of what they observe and experience. This includes the work of adults and the occupations that they observe adults doing. Children are doing their best to understand and organize the world of work that they see, and at times that means they are forming ideas about who can and cannot do certain jobs based on identity characteristics such as gender, race and/or ethnicity.
So how, then, do we talk about work with pre-school to early elementary-age children in ways that are developmentally appropriate and that support their early career-exploration efforts? The Conceptions of Career Choice and Attainment Model indicates that children in this age group base their understanding of occupations and careers on fantasy and imagination, and use magical thinking to explain how one enters into jobs.
With this in mind, the work of parents, educators and other important adults is to help facilitate children’s exploration of occupations and the development of a simple, foundational understanding of how people prepare themselves for future work. Here are five strategies that any interested adult can use to start children on a healthy path of career development.
- Create opportunities for career exposure: Help increase children’s awareness of a wide variety of careers by drawing their attention to people enacting different jobs in the child’s community. Describe the work that individuals are doing and provide children with a name of the occupation. For example: Look over there! That’s a police officer in her police car. Police protect the public, arrest criminals and help with emergencies. Opportunities for career exposure may be casual (e.g., parent and child at the grocery store) or structured (e.g., teacher and class on field trip to a farm).
- Model curiosity: Model curiosity about the work of others. Pose questions that you playfully explore and wonder about together. For example: What does a chef do each day? What decisions do they have to make? What do they like about their job? How did they become a chef? Did they have to go to chef school? Do you think you would like being a chef? Curiosity modelled by a trusted adult will encourage children to explore and ask their own questions. Teachers and parents can infuse curiosity into everyday conversations and curriculum.
- Talk about the process: Use goal-setting to encourage children’s understanding of the steps involved with career choice and attainment. For example: How do you become a doctor? Brainstorm steps together: graduate high school, volunteer in a hospital, go to college to study medicine. These discussions will help children move beyond a simplistic understanding of career associated with uniform or objects (i.e., you’re a doctor if you wear a stethoscope).
- Ask them to imagine their future: Promote self-reflection and perspective-taking by asking children to imagine their life in five, 10, or even 20 years. Ask them questions about what they want to do each day, how they want to spend their time, what leisure activities they want to do regularly and what work they might like doing. In the classroom, educators can use a self-reflection prompt (e.g., ‘A day in my life when I’m a grown-up’) to help students imagine and draw examples of their future life and career. Use different points in time to promote process-oriented understanding (e.g., In 10 years, I will be in college studying biology).
- Use the power of play! Provide opportunities for children to play with toys that represent occupations (e.g., stethoscope, chef’s hat) and then explain how these toys are related to careers. Dress-up and toys will help children associate objects with occupations; however, without further explanation about career processes, children reason that wearing a chef’s hat is what makes one a chef. For example: The doctor uses the stethoscope to listen to your heartbeat and breathing and make sure it all sounds normal and healthy. The doctor knows if something is wrong because they learned about it in medical school.
So, go ahead, ask the children in your life what they want to be when they grow up. But don’t stop there. Talk to them about your work, too – what you do each day, what you love about it, how you decided on your career path and what you had to do to get there. Keep it simple, keep it positive and be receptive to their questions.