When you ask your children what they want to be when they grow up, it’s hardly an innocent question. You’re pushing them to think about the future, molding their expectations and, in your response, indicating whether you approve of their juvenile aspirations. But, surprisingly, that’s a good thing. Because one of your jobs, as a parent, is to teach your children that they live in a society of rules and standards.
“Talking to kids about what they want to be when they grow up isn’t only OK, it’s vital,” Shane Owens, a behavioral and cognitive psychologist, told Fatherly. “Human beings have an innate need for growth.”
Still, it’s natural to worry that pushing kids too hard could lead to helicopter parenting. When children are not given enough room to figure out life for themselves, there’s an increasing amount of evidence that those kids will grow up to have problems managing their emotions and behavior. They can also experience more anxiety and display more narcissistic and entitled traits when they grow up, research shows.
However, what separates helicopter moms and dads from guiding ones is that helicopter parents cannot distinguish between when kids need help, and when they can cope on their own. They’re not innocently asking their children about the person they want to be as they mature and listening to their answers. They’re trying control the response before they even have it.
Of course, the opposite extreme is leaving children alone even when they need guidance growing up. Failing to engage with young children about growing up puts them at a greater risk for regressing throughout adolescence and adulthood, and hinder them from reaching their full potential, Owens warns.
“It’s best to expect a little more from your kid than they can currently do on their own. If they clear the bar, raise it. If they don’t make it, reward the attempt, and help them to try again,” he says. “If you don’t nudge a kid hard enough, she might rely on you too much and will not develop the independence she needs to do well at a job and at forming relationships.”
The same goes for asking children exactly what they want to be when they grow up — don’t put pressure on the answer, just help kids start thinking about the question. They don’t need to know and it can change, but by talking about what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll start working on who they want to be as well, clinical psychologist Kate Davis explains.
“It is difficult for people to overcome the child-like tendency to focus on their own individual needs at the expense of what’s good for broader society, but all people strive to do so, pushing them into adulthood,” Davis told Fatherly. “It’s the ability to overcome that challenge and to become adults that brings people happiness and fulfillment and though it’s difficult, it’s what people essentially want to do.”