Ever since your son or daughter was little, you’ve been showering him or her with positive affirmations about the future. “Follow your dreams.” “The world is your oyster.” “You can do whatever you set your mind to doing.” And, one day, when you’re having the “what do you want to be when you grow up” conversation, you get the payoff for all of that empowerment: A crew member on one of the Deadliest Catch boats. An undercover homicide detective. Nik Wallenda’s next protégé.
Kids say the darnedest things–and sometimes their future career fantasies can be downright terrifying. The choices may range from dangerous to financially insecure, and somewhat far afield of what you had in mind, even if you’re loathe to admit it. But be careful in your response. A 2010 report by George Holden of Southern Methodist University found that the way we react to these types of situations can have a great deal of influence on the trajectories our children follow throughout life. The research found that the things to which we introduce them, how we help them navigate obstacles, and how we react to their actions and ideas has an impact on the decisions they make.
So, how can you help your child discover the best career path without imposing your own will? (Because you know how well that goes.) There are a number of things you can do to help guide the process.
Every one of us has some areas that are stronger than others, and these are often indicators of where we might be happiest and most successful later in life. Workplace psychologist and career coach Karissa Thacker in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, suggests playing “strength spotting” as a family game. Encourage each family member to help others notice what they did well or where they have aptitude, which can help get everyone comfortable hearing about and embracing their talents.
In addition, Barbara Kreisman, associate dean of the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, suggests taking into consideration personality strengths and attributes and supporting them through school work, activities, and other opportunities.
“Different personality types and styles expose themselves early in life, and a parent should pay careful attention to the kinds of talent and interests of their children that unfold over time,” she says. “You’ll see children who love to take things apart, figure out how they work, and put things back together go into professions like engineering or science. Parents should help their children engage with their interests and follow their passions.”
Typically, career aspirations may be launched by something the child saw or someone he or she met. So, if something comes from seemingly left field, try to determine where he or she was exposed to the profession or the idea of the profession, Kreisman says. That can give you some insight into why the profession is appealing. For example, if he or she saw a job that looked exciting on television or met an interesting person with a particular career, that might make an impression that sticks, she says.
Instead of dismissing the idea of a particular career path, encourage your child to start finding out more about it and what it entails, suggests Peg Hendershot, executive director of Glen Ellyn, Illinois-based Career Vision, which helps students find career direction. That may uncover more opportunities, including some that are possibly better suited to the child and his or her strengths.
“If I say I’m going to be a rock star, then I’m interested in the music industry. I want to understand the whole industry,” she says. Once your child starts learning more about that industry, it’s clear there are many opportunities there beyond just the “rock star” idea, she says. The interesting science components the child saw in that TV version of crime scene investigation might also be present in a research lab, as a genetic counselor, or in other jobs.
Virtually any job is going to require responsibility and a strong work ethic. So, start at home. Give your kids areas of responsibility in both the household and for money–either money they earn or allowance. This will help them understand the realities of how much things cost and what it’s like to be responsible for certain actions being done, Hendershot says.
Specialty camps and programs, internships, and even accompanying adults to their workplaces can all give kids a more realistic view of what the job is like, Hendershot says. Seek out these opportunities to help your child find out the realities of working in that type of job. Even professionals you don’t know might be open to having an informational interview or answer questions via email for your child.
It’s important to remember that your child will likely go through many career aspirations before settling on the one that’s right for him or her. Being supportive and curious in your reactions can help your child feel more comfortable finding strengths and figuring out on his or her own what the best career route will be, even if it’s unconventional or risky.
“Parents are looking through a different set of values and perspectives, and we’ve forgotten that already, and the last thing we want to do is crush dreams. Somebody’s going to be the detective. Somebody’s going to be the rock star. You never want to totally close the door on that,” she says.