All kids go through that phase of wanting to be a firefighter, or astronaut, or a dinosaur (no? Your kid didn’t want to be a dinosaur?). But once children hit adolescence, those dreams morph into more practical ideas of employment, like biomedical engineers and back-end coders. Phyllis Fagell is a middle school counselor in Bethesda, MD, and it’s her job to help young people to find their calling. So, how would she put your kid on the fast track to career success?
Your Kids Can’t Necessarily Be Whatever They Want To Be
Tyler Durden was right: we’re not our jobs (or our f—ing khakis). “If you were a product of the ’90s, you probably grew up to believe you could be whatever you want to be, you just had to figure it out,” says Fagell. “That’s a little misleading because, generally speaking, people are not good at everything, and they don’t like everything. Part of figuring out the best match, in terms of career, is figuring out what you like, what you’re good at, and trying to figure out where those two things intersect so you can narrow it down a little bit.”
Get Serious In Seventh Grade
You don’t really need to start worrying about fostering job skills until middle school. Fagell says that the biggest change in kids’ attitudes towards what they want to be is between sixth and seventh grade — right about the time a flood of hormones turn your sweet little boy/girl into a free-thinking sociopath with opinions.
Fagell says, “Sixth graders are still very concrete thinkers. They know what they know, they know what they see, and they still tend to talk about careers that they’re most familiar with. By seventh grade — particularly for girls who are interested in STEM careers — they come in asking questions. “If I want to come up with a cure for cancer, what job would I get?”
Let Your Kids Lead
Once your son or daughter has an idea of what they want to be when they grow up, support it at an arm’s length and don’t start throwing opportunities at them. “If you find that you are very involved, particularly with older kids — giving them extra problem sets or signing them up for Kumon — this kid isn’t going to develop a sense of competence of intrinsic motivation,” says Fagell. “You’re defeating your purpose. The more exploration is self-driven, the more successful they’re going to be.”
Don’t Discourage Unusual Careers…
When children are young, it’s not the time to start crushing dreams. The world will take care of that! You just want to foster creativity and expand their horizons.
“I think [parents wanting kids to take safe career routes] comes from a place of anxiety,” says Fagell. “There’s no blueprint anymore for what will be a successful career. A generation ago we thought becoming a lawyer would make a good salary and have a good quality of life. Now there are a lot of unemployed lawyers, and they’re not making partner. As the world changes, different careers become hot and careers that were formerly stable become less so. Parents who try to control what their children are interested are trying to help their kids, but paradoxically may be hindering them.”
…Unless The Career In Question Is Sports
If your kid (or you) thinks they might be the next LeBron, remember that fewer than one percent of high school basketball players will make it to the NBA (pick your sport, Little Tom Brady — the odds are bad across the board).
Still, Fagell doesn’t think you should laugh loudly while repeating those stats to your kid: “I don’t think it’s necessary to discourage a child who comes home from the fifth grade and says, ‘I want to be a basketball star.’ I think you let that start a conversation and talk about things they learn from the activity, as opposed to focusing on whether they’ll be the best.”
Well-Rounded Is Better Than Laser-Focused
It may seem obvious, but thinking analytically and being able to communicate are both pretty important skills. Encourage bookworms to explore math. Push future scientists to be creative writers.
“The more well-rounded your education is, the more you develop your own curiosity,” says Fagell. “Yes, they may have a specific interest, they may find they’re drawn to AP courses in high school or IB courses in a specific field. But that doesn’t preclude them from growing in other areas.”
Liberal Arts Vs. Pre-Professional
Call her old school, but Fagell still sees value in the traditional liberal arts educational model. “If they’re 100 percent sure they want to be a speech pathologist or a nurse, you’re going to have to find a school with a pre-professional program,” she says. “Liberal arts schools aren’t going to offer that major. That being said, they can still pursue any of those fields even if you go to a liberal arts college.”
Remember, Your Kids Are Going to Change Their Minds
“Don’t expect a return on your investment. Kids’ interests will shift and change with every developmental stage and exposure, so by giving them the freedom to explore, the more likely they’ll explore different careers,” says Fagell. “If parents choose to devote extensive time to an activity, and later on the child doesn’t have an interest in it or needs a break, parents feel like they’ve invested so much time and money that they can’t pull back. That’s not fair to the kid.”
Keep that in mind before you take out a second mortgage to send your kid to Space Camp. Then again, maybe you’ll get lucky, their interest in going to Mars will wane before camp starts, and you’ll get to go in their place.