Dear Dr. Debbie,
How important is it for a child to have a good idea of his or her future career? I’m not talking about the typical 4-year-old who wants to be a firefighter or paid member of the Justice League, but more around the age of 12 when they’re given more options for what they can study in school. My children range in the middle of these years and frankly, none has held onto a career dream for more than a few months.
Prologue to What
Don’t miss last week’s column How to support an active imagination — Good Parenting
Childhood is its own special time. Children easily drift in and out of fantasies about future roles because, after all, it’s all so far in the future. More pressing needs take precedence, such as getting an invitation to a hoped-for friend’s party or beating a sibling to the best seat on the couch.
Adolescence, meaning “becoming an adult,” is the next phase of life, roughly between age 12 and 25. This is when body and mind undergo a significant metamorphosis before fully functioning as an adult. At 20 years old and beyond, a person can more easily appreciate time’s steady march forward and money’s finite limits. The abstract notion of actually earning your own way in the world becomes more than a passing fantasy.
Coincidentally (to the child) or intentionally (by the adults), choices about classes in middle school seem to be leading toward something as near as classes to choose from in high school. Should she stay in band or add a foreign language? By age 12, she can understand the logic that to play in the high school marching band she will need a few years of experience. On the other hand, the more languages she learns the better equipped she’ll be for that international fashion, or travel writing, or humanitarian aid providing career she dreams of. If pin-point thinking that far ahead is still difficult, she may grasp (at least by eleventh grade) that she will probably need two years of high school foreign language classes just to get into college.
For now, while future thinking is still a tough task beyond how she plans to spend her next day off of school, there are plenty of ways you can enhance the early building blocks of career development.
Interests and Passions
Childhood is a great time to explore the universe of things to do. Help your child try out various subject matters through books at the library, internet surfing, visits to museums and nature centers, short-term classes in diverse arts and recreation, and the marvels of her own kitchen and backyard. A child can also be invited to share a hobby or passion of her parents and other family members and friends. She’ll soon find out if forays into beekeeping, board games, astronomy, needlepoint or a cappella harmonizing feel like imprisonment or fit her like a glove.
Whether or not she sticks with any of these hobbies for long, she will have the experience of being motivated to expand her knowledge and improve her skills based on an area of interest. She will also learn that there are communities within her community, and the world, with whom she can share and enjoy these activities.
Studies on “career awareness” — the breadth and depth of knowledge children have about career choices — suggest that life experience including interactions with adults can make a significant difference. Can your children list the various work roles of the adults in your family and social circles? How about throughout their school building or medical center? As you and your children encounter individuals employed in all manner of professions, use vocabulary and simple job descriptions to define each of them.
For example, at the library tell them, “Put your books here so the librarians (not ‘library ladies’) can put them back on the right shelves.” Point out that librarians are experts at knowing how to find particular books and obviously love the hunt. Note that the youthful staff members at the libraries, ages 14-17, are called “pages.” (These can be models for employment in the not-too-distant future.) Also note that the library staff at schools have been renamed “media specialists” to acknowledge that they have much more than books at their fingertips.
Needless to say, occupations can almost universally be referred to in gender neutral terms. It’s a mail carrier (not necessarily a “mailman”) who delivers letters to your home mailbox and will also help your outgoing mail get to the sorting center. Research on career awareness also suggests that girls, especially, need to see females on the job to more clearly imagine themselves doing similar work in their future.
When a child shows interest in someone’s occupation, this is a teachable moment for learning the path of training and experience that led to it.
It’s Just Me
Ask anyone who truly loves their work why they love it and how they got into it, and you are likely to uncover a story about a natural talent or personality trait that was recognized. Childhood is a good time to start, however there is no time limit, to have one’s gifts revealed. Athletes, artists, those good with plants, animals, children or the elderly, and countless others in a career will tell you that their work truly lets them be who they are.
A variety of childhood experiences and activities can help children discover and express themselves. School is part of this puzzle, with its subjects, projects, clubs, social dynamics, etc. Self discovery can also happen through scouts and other youth groups, as well as infinite informal activities for the family, a few friends, or just a child alone. Adults should be sure to point out special aptitudes and connect the dots to a good career match.
The unsatisfying opposite of a good match is just a job.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.