A while ago, I saw this photo from the Humans of New York series, captioned with a response from the girl in the photo to the photographer’s question. I love that instead of answering the question, she challenged it instead.
“I don’t like that question. Everybody always asks me what I want to do when I grow up, but nobody can tell me what they want to do. Anyway, even if I tell you I want to do something, I’m probably not going to want to do it anymore once I try it. Did you want to be a photographer when you were my age? Didn’t think so.”
A common fallback question adults use to engage kids they don’t know well—after the ubiquitous “what grade are you in?” and “what subjects do you like in school?l”—is “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
The question shows a lack of interest in the life the child is living right now. Many adults don’t know how to engage with children as equal human beings. I suspect that most of us subconsciously remove ourselves as quickly and as far as possible from memories of what it really felt like to be a child. It was then that we were powerless to make decisions about our lives, and our ideas and opinions were only just tolerated or dismissed entirely by the adult power structure.
If our culture and we as products of that culture didn’t devalue kids, we might be better able to connect with our own childhoods more deeply and feel greater kinship with the children we encounter, rather than objectifying them as proto-humans and adults in training.
It would be valuable for all of us to recognize our adult bias. The next time you talk to a child of any age, challenge yourself to wonder who s/he is right now and what s/he finds engaging. What experiences bring happiness, sadness, or anger? What does s/he feel proud of? What is important right now? How does today feel?
These are questions not to ask the child, but to help you observe and listen from a state of genuine curiosity about this person in front of you. Children respond and appreciate genuine interest in who they are now. Whereas, those same kids will mumble and extricate themselves as quickly as possible from interactions with adults who approach them with some kind of internal fantasy about who they must be just because they’re kids.
It continues to delight me how kids I don’t know will respond fully and with eye contact when they realize I’m talking to them as a person, rather than as a generic kid. It’s really fun with babies who choose to stare and stare at me, constructing knowledge I can’t fathom, and all the time I know that I am actively connecting with another human being.
The thing is, we continue to be ourselves from the moment we’re born. We do not magically change into an alternate state of being called an “adult”. Although I’ve had lots of life experiences and have gained knowledge and wisdom from many years of living, I have the same feelings and many of the same internal struggles I had when I was a kid. My friend Pearl, who posted a wonderful piece on her blog, “Feeling Grown Up”, articulates this internal experience so well.
The odd thing isn’t that I don’t feel grown up, or that the old people I know — ahem, oldER people — don’t. The odd thing is that we expect some feeling to come in and replace how we have always felt since we were born.
When I am the only responsible grown-up on site, when I have to deal with an intimidating bureaucracy or a family member’s health crisis or mailing in correctly filled out documents, I don’t feel any more grown up than on my first day of school every year or when I ask for help at an information desk.
It would be valuable for us to remember that children feel the same emotions as adults. Each struggles with their particular insecurities and relishes the joyous experiences of their lives. We are all human and we all want to be seen and valued for the people we are, not as some future idealized effective adult–whatever that means.
I’ll leave you with two more quotes from a couple of writers.
Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along–the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective–the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s. –Orson Scott Card, from his forward to Ender’s Game
We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish* in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations. –Anais Nin
* Except for her regrettable use of this word that I riffed on in another post, I love Nin’s perspective in this quote.
Just wanted to say I love your blog. I enjoy reading it every time.
Thank you so much, Jen. I am grateful for your support.
Something that I find problematic as well are some advertising posters that I have seen on display in airports. On them there is a picture of a child supposedly saying that “I want to be a ______ when I grow up.” Usually the occupation is one that has a certain level of celebrity attached. The poster I found most offensive was the the one showing a child with an oversize guitar saying “I want to be a Rock Star when I grow up.” It’s no longer okay to aspire toward having a helpful and useful role in society, now one has to clamber after fame and stardom. Of course this is already endemic in our media mad world and the posters only echo what has been an established pattern for some time, still I was saddened to see yet another representation of it and one that was aimed directly at children.
This blog post triggered an old memory for me. Growing up a preacher’s kid in a fundamentalist, evangelical household, my parents occasionally hosted visiting evangelists in our home. On at least one occasion, the visitor asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up (I was probably 9 or 10 at the time). At the time I wanted to follow in my maternal grandfather’s footsteps, so I told him I wanted to be a farmer. Rather than engaging me in a discussion about my choice, he said to me, “I think God is going to call you to be a preacher!” That career choice did not appeal to me in the least, then or afterward, and I think his declaration probably strengthened my determination NOT to be a preacher – ever! Of course, the farming gig didn’t work out either, but what else is new? I would have appreciated much more the visiting evangelist engaging me in the here and now at the time, as you suggested in your post. Thanks for the clarity, Shawna.
You make an interesting point, Joseph. I’m curious what the ad posters are selling that show a child wanting to be a rock star or some other famous kind of person. I don’t think it’s unusual for children to have all kinds of fantasies about what they’d like to be when they grow up and fantasy occupations that are associated with power and influence would be especially attractive. It may be that those fantasy occupations are more representative of adult fantasies than childhood ones and that’s who the posters really target. I haven’t seen the posters, so I’m probably not addressing the issue at all.
How presumptuous of that visitor to speak for God, not to mention deciding what profession would be the right one for you. No wonder you resisted the idea. Even though farming didn’t work out for you, I’m glad you tried it because I had experiences on the farm that I remember with great fondness. It certainly shaped a big part of who I am. Of course, it’s neither better nor worse than any other environment I could have grown up with, but I cherish it anyway.