Why I Ask My Kids Who They Want to Be When They Grow Up Rather Than What They Want to Do

When I found out my 10-year-old was secretly stressing about her chances of getting into college, I realized I needed to teach my kids a different way of thinking.

Paula Faris and her kids
Photo: Courtesy of Paula Faris

While visiting my sister in South Carolina after Dad passed, I was reading a book to Landon, my preschooler. It wasn't a particularly compelling book, not one with some grandiose moral or teachable point. There was a dump truck involved. And as I read it, I was bored out of my mind. (I'm mildly ashamed to admit it, but I'm not the kind of mom who loves reading with, or to, her kids.) As he sat on my lap, I stopped reading and asked the question that popped into my head, almost without thinking.

"Landon, what do you want to do when you grow up?"

No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than I pulled myself up short. I'd fallen into the typical societal trap. I was inadvertently teaching Landon his worth was in what he did instead of the kind of person he was. And in that moment, one singular thought came screaming into my brain. Oh my gosh, society sucks and so do I!

Before Landon could answer the wrong question, I said, "You know what, buddy, forget that. Let's go get some juice."

As we walked to the fridge, I wondered how I might engage with him in a different kind of conversation, one that revolved around the right questions and invited him to root into who he is and what kind of person he is and wants to be. Being versus doing—we could start there. So I offered a simple statement, one I hoped he'd remember.

"You know what buddy? What you do doesn't matter as much as the kind of person you are. You know?"

He looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Yup!" I wasn't sure the message stuck, but it was a starting place, a building block. I poured a glass of juice for Landon and considered how many opportunities I'd blown, opportunities to direct my kids into their faith calling, into what kind of person they'd want to be rather than what they wanted to do for a living.

I remembered when my daughter Caroline came to me the summer after her fifth grade year. Only 10 years old and she'd had an idea. She wanted to join some kind of bike across America campaign after she completed the sixth grade. I pushed, asking her what the campaign was all about, but she couldn't quite say. I pressed harder, asked why she'd want to do something if she didn't really know the cause behind the campaign. Her answer was astounding: "It'll look good on my college applications."

I nearly fainted. Sure, Caroline had always been an overachiever, but to be thinking about college applications at just 10 years old? Come on. And yet, could I blame her? She'd only been doing what society (and so many of us parents) had trained her to do: run after achievement and vocational success.

Sure, Caroline had always been an overachiever, but to be thinking about college applications at just 10 years old? Come on. And yet, could I blame her?

Considering my moment with Landon, pondering Caroline's question, I came to a simple conclusion: Something is fundamentally broken with our society when we care so much about success that we slam preschoolers with questions of vocation and when fifth graders are considering résumé-builders for college admissions.

But it wasn't just Caroline. That very month, news had broken about a college admissions scandal, one in which wealthy parents cared so much about what their children would do that they were willing to compromise who they were. Weeks before, I'd watched that news unfold. Rich and famous parents had allegedly paid thousands of dollars to a college admission "consultant" to inflate ACT and SAT scores, and to create fake athletic records. Why? It was a scheme designed to secure admission to schools like the University of Southern California, Stanford, the University of Texas, Georgetown, and Yale. And if it was true, didn't this confirm that our society, our system, was rooted in the wrong thing? Didn't it confirm that we'll do anything to achieve in what we do, even if it means perpetrating criminal fraud?

Later that evening, my husband John and I sat in pool chairs, talking. I shared the moment with Landon and recalled my conversation with Caroline. I told John I wanted something different for our kids.

John nodded in agreement, and said we could still cultivate Caroline's inclination toward the arts, toward singing, dancing, and performing. We could still give our other son JJ the tools he needs to be successful in sports, natural athlete that he is. I added that we could cultivate whatever Landon's unique skills turned out to be, though his most promising skills to date are telling fart jokes and navigating fart apps. (I know I'm not helping him grow out of it either, because I always laugh.) After all, there's nothing wrong with giving our kids the tools for success or teaching them that excellence matters. But it only matters as far as it gives them the ability to use their vocational calling to share their faith calling.

It was a moment of marital agreement. Instead of teaching our kids to pursue success at all costs, we would teach them to live a different way. We would start asking them, "Who do you want to be when you grow up?" instead of, "What do you want to do when you grow up?"

This excerpt was adapted from Called Out: Why I Traded Two Dream Jobs for a Life of True Calling by Paula Faris. Used with permission of Bethany House Publishers. Copyright 2020, Paula Faris.

Paula Faris is a senior national correspondent at ABC News, host of the popular podcast Journeys of Faith with Paula Faris, and author of the new book Called Out. An Emmy Award-winning journalist, Paula previously was co-anchor of the Good Morning America weekend edition, as well as a co-host of The View. She lives in New York with her husband and children.

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