What do you want to be when you grow up?

As soon as your child hits a certain age, they are constantly bombarded with the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I am guilty of asking kids this question. Generally we expect the answer to this question to fall in line with a familiar career path. Why is this?

We were sitting at the doctor's office recently when the doctor asked my son this very question. He had just turned 15, and he was entering his first year of high school studies. It made sense. You're near graduation. What do you want to do with your life?

career path options

His answer over the last couple of years has been "Eye Surgeon". Wow! That sounds lovely doesn't it. Eye surgeon. When people hear this answer they think ambition, dedication, and dollar signs. You can support a family well with this career! That's exactly what the doctor told my son. Then she went on to lament her own college aged daughter who is pursuing archaeology. There's no money in that. It doesn't matter that this same daughter is in Ireland discovering treasures in an old castle. It doesn't matter that she's doing what she loves. She's never going to make money, and that's a waste of a life.

Or is it?

I propose that we need to rethink how we ask and encourage our children to answer this question.

What's Wrong With a Career Path?

Narrowing Your Options Too Soon

Who in the world knows what they want to "be" when they grow up at the age of 10, 15, or even 20? While there is that rare human out there that has it "all figured out," more frequently kids have no idea what they'd like to pursue. If they pick something when they're young, they might never find satisfaction in the work they're doing. There's no need to narrow down their options early.

Lack of Education on What's Out There

My son kept answering "Eye Surgeon" because that's what his grandpa does. He sat in on some cataract surgeries and loved seeing people's sight restored. All my son knows is the version of his grandpa that is a retired eye surgeon that travels the world restoring sight. It's a pretty amazing job, but that's not the only amazing job in the world.

It's so hard to know what's even out there as far as job opportunities go. Encouraging your child to choose a career path before they've even scratched the surface on gathering options might make them pick something too early that isn't even suited to their giftings. And who knows...the career your student will love might not even exist yet. Can anyone remember "app developer" degrees when they were in school? Not me!

Focus is on Money

When your student answers the question with a career path, the quality of the answer is generally assessed by how much money they can make doing that job. The focus of a career path is the money. That is not a completely wrong motivation, but it becomes the only standard of acceptance or rejection of an idea.

The amount of money they make in a certain career path should not be the deciding factor. When you make large amounts of money, you generally live a lifestyle that requires spending large amounts of money. Money does not satisfy the soul. It can't be the driving force of a life.

A Career Path Alternative

So what's an alternative to answering the question of "who do you want to be?"

If we are not defined by our career path, how do we want to be defined?

Character Counts

Wouldn't the one asking the question be surprised to hear an answer like this:

  • When I grow up, I want to be a man of integrity.
  • When I grow up, I want to be a godly father.
  • When I grow up, I want to be a servant to the poor.
  • When I grow up, I want to be a light in the darkness.

The answers above could be said of a doctor, lawyer, coach, or social worker. The career path doesn't matter so much. An employee that has character can keep a job. They can rise among the ranks. They can get another job when their field of work becomes obsolete. Encourage your student to answer questions they receive with the kind of human they are striving to become.

Look at Your Giftings

Instead of narrowing down your student's educational pursuits to one single career path, what if you backed up and helped them look more broadly at the way God has gifted them. For my son, he loves languages, literature, and writing. If he pursued becoming a doctor, he might be frustrated and feel a failure because he's working outside of his giftings.

God created us uniquely. He gave us those gifts to use. If we try to make something happen outside of how God made us, we are saying that we know better than God does. It will be highly frustrating. The alternative is to work within your giftings. It's hard to embrace something that doesn't look like what everyone else seems to be doing. It's difficult to be different.

But that's why your children are here. They're here to bless the world with the specific way that God has equipped them. Find those strengths and follow them until a door closes. If something is a burden, it probably means that you're working outside of your gifts.

Look at What You Love to Do

Work was created in the beginning for Adam and Eve to do. It's a gift, not a curse. Help your student find what they love to do, and pursue it. The difficulty is that there are so many distractions in this world. It's easy to get caught up in screen time, and never really know what you love to do.

If you've got an indecisive teen in your life, take a break on the screens and start trying things. It will take some time to find out how to love work that doesn't involve electronics. Volunteer together. Survey friends and family about the different kinds of jobs that they do. Find out if they love their work and why.

There is so much pressure on teens to find a career path that will last them the rest of their life. Times have changed. The working force is not the same as it was twenty years ago. More than ever, people need to go back to being generalists and not specialists. The old saying  jack of all trades, master of none, is often misquoted. It actually was: jack of all trades, master of one. If they become good at a wide variety of interests, they'll be even better qualified to get that career once they graduate.

How do your students answer the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?



  1. Michelle Caskey on July 16, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    This is an amazing post! I love it! We’re also at this stage of life where my boys are being asked what they want to do with their lives. I love how you turned it around and gave AMAZING answers without having to choose a specific career path. This is also a good reminder to us parents that we shouldn’t just be focusing on academic skills but also on character issues, which are so much more important, anyway. Can’t wait to share this post with my readers!

    • Betsy on July 16, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks Michelle! I remember the pressure of having to have the rest of my life solved when I was in high school. There are so many things I’ve done with my life that I didn’t even know about when I was his age. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Elizabeth Hafferty on June 15, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Such a great reminder of a greater goal as a parent. Thank you for sharing tips on how to help our teens (and parents) begin to solve this mystery.

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