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.