What do you want to be when you grow up?


I am currently working with a 16 year old who has a severe case of school refusal. Through many sessions of counseling, one of the most constant thought patterns I observed in the boy were ones of being utterly de motivated. He says that he is bored at home, but does not “feel like” going to school. When asked to imagine himself a few years down the line and tell me what he foresees for himself, he responds by saying that he would probably be continuing his father’s granite business. He also flippantly mentions that he is sibling-less and hence, the huge assets made by his parents were sure to help him continue his current lifestyle!

This got me thinking. Growing up, one of the most common questions asked of a child must be “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Parents, random uncles and aunts, neighbors, teachers… everyone seems to want to know what aspirations a child has. In my professional life too, I have asked this question to many of the kids who come to me. It has been a useful tool to start a conversation with a child that I know nothing much about, or to steer the child in a direction that I want.

But recently, I saw a vlog by Vishen Lakhani, an author, entrepreneur, and the founder of Mindvalley, a forum for the world’s smartest to speak on.  He eggs us on to change the way we ask this question. Rather than the routine “What do you want to do when you grow up?” he opines that it would be a better option to ask “How would you want to contribute to the world?”.  This he feels, changes the way the child thinks and gives him/her the feeling of being responsible, even in a tiny way about the world that we inhabit.

Children of today, at least in our country, are largely the products of second or third generation literates. Our parenting systems make sure that the child is supported through his education, both financially as well as emotionally. Even young children are smart enough to know that they are well off and that their parents would have made for them, a comfortable nest egg. The guilt of being rich belongs to an era bygone. The children of this generation take to their parents’ wealth and its offshoots of foreign travel, posh schools and techno tools with the ease of a fish taking to water.

Now, when you have everything, or almost everything handed to you on a platter, why would you have the motivation to work hard and best it? The easy gratification which comes with being handed a cell phone with internet, probably tops all the happiness that you get when you work really hard to get a measly A+ in the exams.

As the rural urban divide grows, children from cities do not get to meet their less fortunate peers on a daily basis. As we globalize and become materialistic, our kids lose sight that there is so much more to do, than sit stuck to a video game in a virtual world. Parents do have a hard time making their children conscious of the value of money and hard work.

In such a scenario, how do we make our children grow up as people who are responsible, goal oriented, conscientious and hardworking ?

The only way is probably by making them aware that they have a responsibility to the world that they live in. To make it a better place than what it is today.

In the process, maybe there is a lot we can learn from them. Because, when children dream, they dream big. They do so without fear. They are more imaginative. And to kindle their passion at a young age would probably give us thinkers and doers who have the power to change the world. Now. Rather than wait forever till they lose their passion for life and become addicted to mind numbing television.

It reminds me of this Ted talk by ten year old Ishita Katyal from Pune (who, by the way is an author already and the youngest Indian to speak at a TEDx event ) who directs her talk to asking why we adults ask children what they want to do when they grow up? “Why not now?” she wonders.

Hmm….something to ponder upon indeed.

So, the next time you spend time with a child, and are likely to pop this question, you know what to ask. Maybe if my client were asked the same, probably, he would have been a teenager with a mission.