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What do you want to be?

Published:Monday | April 19, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

"When you grow up, what do want to be?" It's a hell of a question to ask pre-adolescents, who do not have much of a clue about who they are in the first place, much less what they want to do to earn their keep for the rest of their lives. But, they are somehow expected (and chances are this has happened to all of us when everybody over 16 years old seemed tall) to know what they are not only capable of but also passionate enough about doing to keep doing it every day for the rest of their working lives.

It's ludicrous, actually, to ask someone who has yet to deal with the very pressing issues of pubic hair and facial bumps what career they wish to pursue, yet we do it through the outright question - and career days - and demanding that they go 'sciences' or 'arts' at 14 and 15 years old.

Of course, 'what do you want to be?' and 'who do you want to be?' are two very different questions, but not many children seem to be asked the latter, which deals with personal values and character. It seems to be assumed that 'what' someone wants to do for a living somehow translates into who they want to be as a person. Needless to say, it does not.

Plum careers

Having now lived long enough to see people who have somehow picked and assiduously pursued supposedly plum careers end up extremely happy and others doing the same and winding up miserable, I know that a natural predisposition to and training in a particular field does not necessarily make for the perfect situation. Hell, there are sufficient persons in various standard careers who have more than a passing interest in the arts (music, theatre, literature, dance) to show that if they could make a decent living out of performing they would chuck the nine-to-whatever tomorrow morning.

I once read about how a human being's career options narrow rapidly as they get older. I can't remember the specifics, but it was along the lines of: at five years old, if they had not yet started training, they could never be a professional gymnast; at eight, without having started learning the rudiments, there goes that life on the high wire in the circus; at 11, forget about playing football professionally if you are just starting to learn how to dribble.

So, as a parent, certainly in terms of academics, my intention is to keep our children's options as wide as possible, for as long as possible. Why paint them into a corner, as apparently lucrative a niche as it may be, when there are so many things to do (consecutively or concurrently) in a single lifetime? It is a hell of a thing, to encourage children to 'be all you can be' and 'explore the world', then try to nail them down to a specific thing that we approve of.

And that is part of the rub too, that oftentimes we somehow assume that our children must do something that we think is a good choice for them. One way of putting it is that we want our children to be 'better than us' - which more or less translates to them doing something for a living that we want them to do, and we probably wanted to do ourselves but did not get the opportunity to.

So, let's be careful about attempting to live our lives by proxy, existing vicariously through the supposed accomplishments of our children who then end up at 45 years old, unhappy as a crash dieter in a pastry shop, asking herself/himself "what did I want to be?"