What do you want to be when you grow up?

Here’s something I’ve never understood: Why are we so obsessed with asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Seriously. Have you ever thought about that? Favorite color— sure. Favorite cartoon— absolutely. Favorite parent— doesn’t instill great social sensitivity skills, but I’ll allow it. But why do we ask them what they want to be when they grow up? 

I remember when I was in kindergarten already saying I wanted to be a teacher or an author. So far, I’m neither. And even in kindergarten, I was already cautious enough not to say I wanted to be a ballerina or an astronaut. Even at that age I was so desperately worried about rejection and humiliation that I preferred to keep my dreams a little more down to earth. When it was time for me to actually decide what I wanted to do with my life, the decision boiled down to a truly great science teacher who figured out how to incorporate episodes of CSI into anatomy and physiology class. This is what convinced me to go into nursing at all. 

So I did bedside nursing for a while, then public health nursing, then graduate school. I eventually got everything I ever wanted professionally. The seemingly perfect niche. Yet the one thing that sticks out in my mind when I was at the beginning of my college education was how terrified I was that I was making a huge mistake. How unrealistic it seemed to me to take someone who is 18 years old and ask them what they envision for their life for the next 40 years when they possess zero life experience, an underdeveloped frontal lobe, and not one half of one clue what their identity is in this world. And then we ask them to spend thousands of dollars and hours of their lives they will never get back to achieve this arbitrary goal that they maybe don’t even understand. Who decided that this is the right way to do things? I can honestly say that every educational experience I’ve had in my life has been valuable, but the value is in the experience itself, not the end goal it was propelling me towards.

I asked Mary Ann and Benjamin Button (both within the past couple of weeks) what they wanted to be when they grow up. Mary Ann has a whole list ranging from an interior designer to a scientist to a baker. Benjamin Button mostly felt like he must be somehow lagging behind the rest of his age group because he had no idea yet. This made me feel terrible because there’s enough pressure in life already without me making my kids feel somehow less-than for not having their futures carefully mapped out like the yellow brick road. I reassured them both that, yes, you can be whatever you want, and you’re smart enough and special enough to be anything. But on the inside, I was secretly relieved. 

Thank God they have no idea what they want to be. Thank God their path is wide open. I mean, I chose this path at 18, and it has been good for me. It has taught me about how to care for other people, show compassion, relieve suffering. But it’s such heavy responsibility. People who exist outside of healthcare have no frame of reference for the weight that those of us inside healthcare carry on our shoulders every day. The wondering if we can do enough, be enough, try enough to protect the rest of the world from death. If, on a personal level, we are inadequate to do what needs to be done and know what needs to be known and learn what needs to be learned. How we lay awake at night praying for people who are suffering using energy that we siphon from our own families. 

I remember thinking recently, while in the drive-thru line at Starbucks, “Why didn’t I just go to work there? That woman looks so happy. She’s smiling. She can leave her job and go home and not worry that anyone is dying or suffering. She can live her life and enjoy it.” I’ve had similar thoughts about the cashier at TJ Maxx, the car salesman who sold me my Jeep, the chef at the farm-to-table restaurant I love so much. Don’t get me wrong— I’m more than aware that every job has its own unique stressors, and the grass always looks greener on the other side. Adults in (I’m guessing) every single field have had the same thoughts I have just expressed,  but that only goes to prove my original point. What I realized is that here I am asking my kids what they want to be when they grow up, while I’m trying to figure out how to un-become what I am. 

So I decided that this is not a realistic question. Why do we think we can can or should pressure our kids into making such an enormous choice so early in their lives when, if most of us are honest, we can’t even answer the question? I’m twelve years into a career that I have both loved and hated, and still something in the back of my mind whispers, “Wonder if there’s something out there that would be better for your soul?” 

Here’s what I’m saying— let your littles be little. Ask them about their dreams? Absolutely. But maybe ask them just that— what are your dreams? What if, when you were a kid, someone had asked you that? Would it have changed what you decided to do with your life? Would it have made you feel more free to pursue the things that aren’t as reliable financially, but make your spirit feel free? I’m starting to ask myself these questions. I’m giving myself permission to reinvent myself. I’m daring to imagine that there can be more to life than survival; there can be joy and purpose and a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day that has nothing to do with societal expectations. I want that for you too. Whatever you turned out to “be”, you can still dream. What are your dreams? It’s not too late to ask yourself. That’s where you should start. With you. Let the kids enjoy their innocence. There will be plenty of time for them to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. For now, just let them be imaginative, and compassionate, and kind. If we let them start with that, everything else that flows out of them will be just fine. 

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