How to help your child choose a career without pushing
I often wonder what our three-year-old son will choose to do with his life. From the simplest moments, I try to glean his interests, what makes him tick and what he’s passionate about.
Does the fact he always likes to “be the leader” and walk ahead of my husband and I suggest he will gravitate towards a position of authority? Will his fascination with dinosaurs and the intricacies of each one take him into palaeontology? Will his love of music blossom into a talent in the arts?
As I over-analyse his daily habits and behaviours I also wonder how much we bear influence over his chosen path. How much do our own histories and experiences subconsciously cast judgement over certain professions? Are we excited he loves writing out letters because we know there is a gifted interpreter in our family? Do we smile when he plays with fire trucks because it’s a reflection of the late grandpa he will never grow to know? It’s food for thought, especially as a parent who genuinely wants their child to find a career they love.
I asked Reinekke Lengelle how parents can help channel their child’s passions without pushing them into specific careers. She specializes in career development and life writing and is with the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences at Athabasca University. Lengelle’s message is to focus on the themes and stories your children reveal about their true interests. For example, a child who loves to play with trains may appear to want to be a conductor. But if you ask more probing questions about their experience with trains – whether that’s through media or in real life – you may find out they are fascinated by the mechanics of a train or even the teamwork involved in working on a rail yard.
Here’s some of our conversation:
Laurel Gregory: How much influence do parents have in the career path their child chooses?
Reinekke Lengelle: Parents are the go-to people. Maybe parents don’t always believe they are but they certainly are so there’s always an opportunity for children to reach out to their parents. The only problem with parents, of course, is that we tend to be a little anxious about our children’s futures so we don’t always have the conversations with them that we should be having.
LG: How do our own job experiences influence what we tell our kids about their own career path?
RL: As parents, we have life experiences that really strongly influence the way we view how you should prepare for life and so we bring our trauma as well as our knowledge and everything to the table. That can be a good thing but also a not-so-good thing.
LG: What are the pitfalls?
RL: The pitfalls are because then we don’t have the conversation with our child about experiences that are relevant to them.
We actually are having the conversation about experiences that are relevant or were relevant to us in some way.
Children are not really ready or teens are not really ready to talk to you if you are bringing your anxiety or experience into it. What you need to do is actually talk to your kids about experiences that are meaningful to them.
LG: So how can we do that? Should we be looking for the things our kids are passionate about?
RL: One of the things we know from our research is we don’t focus so much on just passion because I always associate passion with sort of burnout potential there, but definitely careers that are meaningful to them. So definitely things that they want to get better at. So what you want to do with your child is see where their interests go to and to have a conversation about those interests. But not in a way like, “Oh, what are you interested in?” That’s what we call the front-door approach and that usually does not work. That is like asking us: “What is your five-year plan with your career?”
What you want to do is ask them about concrete experiences that they’ve had. Specific things they’ve done.
For instance, say a child comes to you and says, “Mom, I want to do horse riding lessons,” and you think, where did that come from? I haven’t heard that one before. What you might say is, “Tell me a little bit more about that.” They might say, “Well, my friend Kendra at school she does horse riding… Kendra is really popular.” So all of a sudden we see that the horse riding is not about horse riding, but it’s about popularity and belonging. So you find out so much about asking questions.
LG: How else can we help our children choose a career?
RL: Look at where his interests are. Ask about his experiences. Ask about those concrete experiences. In our work, we call those small stories. Don’t only say, “That’s cool that you are interested in that. Tell me more how you are interested.” Say, “When you do that with your friends, what do you guys look for on YouTube? What are the specific movies you are looking for? And then he says, “We really like the blah, blah, blah,” and then you say, “Tell me more about what scene of that film really appealed to you? Tell me more about that.”
You know what to look for in the conversations is the emotion words that a child uses, so “I loved it when,” “It was really cool,” “It was just so sad when that happened” or “it wasn’t fair.”
It’s those emotion words in the story they tell that you will be able to pick out what’s actually salient for them.
LG: Is there a specific age when kids tend to make up their minds about a career?
RL: I don’t think there is an age because we all know kids that have known what they want to do and actually have done it since age eight… Some of our own friends and family will still say to you, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up,” and they might be in their 40s. So, career development is actually a lifelong learning process. We call it an identity learning process. It is really life-long.
LG: What’s your best advice for parents trying to guide their children into finding the right career without pressuring them?
RL: The best advice I can give is really talk with your child, leave your own agendas behind, park your anxiety and ask them for those specific stories and you will be amazed.
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