Yesterday I was hanging out in my daughter’s class at our parish Mother’s Day Out program, and one of her classmates came up to me while I was sitting on the floor. The three-year-old boy approached with a smile and asked if I could help him get a stray wheel back on his truck. As I fumbled around with the repair, I felt like I should make conversation. Not having had enough coffee to come up with a topic that was both interesting and appropriate to someone who can still count the number of years he’s been alive on one hand, I defaulted to the age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As soon as I did, I regretted it.
It sounds like an innocent question, and I know that people who say it don’t mean any harm (case in point: me). Nevertheless, I dream of it being retired from our cultural lexicon.
Because the expected answer to this question is always a type of job, it reinforces the idea that the way to find identity and value is through career. Our society is already saturated with messages that the title on your business card is directly connected to your worth as a human being. When kids are bombarded by the questions about which job they’ll eventually hold, it trains them to view adult life through the lens of their place in the workforce.
Similarly, it undermines the concept of vocation. Recently I saw a coloring book where kids could choose to decorate the picture that represented what they wanted to be when they grew up. Among the options were a nurse, a lawyer, a veterinarian, a police officer, a firefighter, and a mom. It was disturbing to see the fruits of a worldview that has no understanding of the difference between a vocation and a job, with motherhood listed alongside ways to get a paycheck. And when a child is constantly encouraged ponder her future career—with the issue posed, as it often is, as one that will define her life—it channels her discernment efforts toward whether she wants to be a musician or a teacher, rather than the more important question of whether she’s called to married life or religious life.
All that said, I do understand where the question comes from, and why it’s useful. It’s like the ubiquitous question of the adult world, “What do you do?”: It’s a shorthand way of getting to know people. If you ask someone “What do you want to be when you grow up?”/“What do you do?” and he answers “corporate tax attorney,” that gives you a pretty good feel for his interests and talents, as would the answers “microbiologist,” “ballerina,” or “professional alligator wrestler.” It’s a quick way to learn a lot about someone’s personality, and is a great conversation starter for situations where you need to make polite chitchat.
So I get it. But I wish there were a more widespread understanding of the concept of vocation, as well as of gifts and charisms, so that we could use those topics to get to know others. Because people in this society—children especially—need all the reminders they can get that they are not defined by their careers.