Parenting Solutions:What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Helping a child explore his personal interests and attributes gives him a starting point in the search for a career.


Children who take part in the family garage sale learn a basic lesson of the entrepreneur: Things can be turned into money.

When Vince McGinniss was a child, having fun meant searching through the trash for things he could use in his basement laboratory. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an inventor,” says McGinniss, who today is senior research leader at Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, one of the largest independent contract research groups of scientists, engineers, and specialists in the world. Fortunately, McGinniss was allowed to explore his interests at an early age, a process that helped him cultivate a lifelong career.

To help a child achieve happiness in the world of work, one should start exposing him or her to a variety of career possibilities at an early age. The things he loves to do now—his hobbies and interests—could play a large role in deciding a future vocation. Naturally, a child can’t be certain about his ultimate career, but those who are given the opportunity to explore a variety of interests and hobbies are more likely to get involved in a job they love. Such experiences should begin early.

Elementary guidance counselor Josie Kendrachs at Wickliffe Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, knows just how important it is for students to be exposed to classroom speakers and field trips that introduce them to the world of work. “It helps students build an awareness of their own skills and interests,” she says.

It is important that they have that awareness before introducing them to the world of work. Here are some ways parents and other significant adults can help children identify and apply their talents.

Brainstorm about career possibilities with a child

Many children don’t seriously think about possible careers until junior high school (at about ages 11 and 12). When discussing career possibilities, mention interests or activities the child enjoys and talk with him about related job possibilities.

For example, if he likes music, point out that there is more to the music field than being a musician. Sound technician, promoter, radio disc jockey, and composer are jobs that also evolve from a love of music.

If you don’t have all the answers to a child’s questions about different careers, help him find the answers. Visit the local library, at which there are plenty of nonfiction books on careers. These resources can help you and the child identify the education and skills needed for a particular job.

Expose a child to jobs that interest him

Children should not only make an effort to meet people who have positions in areas in which they have an interest, they should also talk to those people and stay in touch with them. Chad Foster, an entrepreneur, TV host, motivational speaker, and author of Teenagers—Preparing for the Real World (South-Western Publishing, 1999), says: “Young people should go out and try a job before they pick it as a career. It may be what they definitely do not want to do.”

Foster recommends job shadowing—when students leave the classroom for a day and “shadow” someone working in their field of interest—as well as internships. Internships are not just something students do for a semester in college, he notes; they can vary in length from one day to several weeks, and children can begin experiencing them at about the age of 12 or 13. This is often accomplished in a volunteer setting.

Says Foster: “If a child wants to become a veterinarian, he should be introduced to what vets really do. Otherwise he may go all the way through school without ever spending time with a vet.”

Look beyond high-visibility jobs

Every child is exposed to the type of work that teachers, waiters, police officers, mail carriers, and store clerks do. But there are plenty of jobs that are not as easily identified—aircraft mechanic, surveyor, sound technician, or social worker, to name just a few.

Bonnie Drew, author of Jumpstart to Business (KidsWay, 1999), a self-study guide for children, urges parents to show children behind-the-scenes jobs. Says Drew: “Do you know someone who owns a restaurant? If so, take your child on a tour of the kitchen.” Talk to the owner about what it takes to get a meal to the table in 15 minutes, she says.

Showing children behind-the-scenes jobs is important, Drew adds, because most jobs are not as high-profile as those found in the want ads.

Keep dreams alive

If a child has hopes of becoming a movie star or professional athlete, a parent or other significant adult can help keep those aspirations alive.

Says Chad Foster: “If a child pursues his dream every single day, it will either come true or other doors will open up.”

So suppose a child has dreams of playing professional sports. Even if he or she doesn’t graduate into playing for a pro team, by pursuing that dream, the child may become a coach, scout, manager, or enjoy a career in sports promotions, administration, or marketing.

Foster experienced this firsthand when his dream of becoming a professional tennis player didn’t work out. Instead, he developed a surface for tennis courts and eventually the rubber surface used on playgrounds at fast-food restaurants throughout the country.

The contacts he made while playing tennis helped him achieve his eventual goals. (At the same time, one should not discount the fact that some kids do grow up to become movie stars and professional athletes.)

Encourage a variety of extracurricular activities

When children are exposed to many opportunities, they often learn to develop their talents into something they love.

Bonnie Drew says that if a child likes to ice-skate, for instance, parents might encourage lessons and watch how things develop. Later, they might suggest he become a teacher’s assistant or work at the rink during the summer months. Then the child would be getting paid for something he enjoyed.

Says Drew, “I think we should encourage our children to do things they love.”

Encourage an entrepreneurial spirit

From baby-sitting to lawn mowing, entrepreneurship teaches kids that they can be actively involved in their world. Even young children who take part in the family garage sale learn the simple lesson that things can be turned into money.

When Vance Whitaker of Oak Ridge, N.C., was 6 years old, he started selling pumpkins from his garden to family and friends. As he got older, he began selling his produce at roadside stands and farmers’ markets.

Observes Bonnie Drew, “[Adults can] use experiences like that as teaching tools to show children that they can start a project, make decisions about it, complete it, and reach a goal.” Regardless of whether the experience is a positive or negative one, kids can learn from it.

Try not to talk about your job in a negative way

A child who hears his parents complaining about work may grow up thinking that all work is drudgery. Instead, mention some of the things you like about your job, even if all you can share are stories about some of the people you work with or the fact that your job gives you the opportunity to travel and see new places.

Teach children to consider a career for the right reasons

According to Chad Foster, there are three wrong reasons for picking a job—money, fame, and because one’s parent has that job. “Careers are not inherited,” says Foster. Instead, children should focus on what they’re naturally good at (aptitudes) and what interests them, he says.

Like inventor Vince McGinniss, children who are given an opportunity to explore their interests at an early age will be better equipped to choose a lifelong career that they enjoy. Parents and other significant adults can help them facilitate that important decision.

Lori Murray is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.

Explorer Posts: Hands-On Career Experience

As part of the BSA’s Learning for Life career education program, more than 13,000 Explorer posts are active nationwide, helping to build relationships between boys and girls and community organizations. This is accomplished when an organization teams up with an Explorer post that has similar interests. The result is a group of participants [aged 14 (and have completed the eighth grade) or 15 through 20 years old] who are involved in activities that help them grow, develop, and pursue their special interests in a career field.

The program gives participants a chance to experience new things while getting involved in various leadership roles. All of this takes place in a caring environment in which young people are exposed to a wide variety of career opportunities. Most importantly, it is a youth-led, hands-on, workplace-based action program that provides boys and girls with an opportunity to “try on” careers.

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