When Words Matter: Why I won’t ask my kids what they want to be.

“Mama,” he said softly as we walked down the street, “I really don’t want to be a palaeontologist.” I looked down at him and smiled. It was the third time that week he informed me he didn’t want to be a palaeontologist. I could tell he was annoyed that every one kept asking him about his future career with dinosaurs. “That’s okay buddy!” I said cheerfully, “you don’t have to be a palaeontologist. You can be anything you want to be.” He said nothing as he took my hand and we crossed the street. “So,” I asked unaware of just how much my words mattered, “If you don’t want to be a palaeontologist, what do you want to be when you grow up?” He let go of my hand and hung his little head so low it pulled his shoulders down into a slump. I instantly knew I had said something wrong.

I stopped and knelt down on the sidewalk in front of him. I put both of my hands on his shoulders and asked him what was wrong. He ignored me. Using my sound, grownup logic I concluded that maybe he didn’t know what he wanted to be, but felt pressure to decide on something. I tried to explain that he didn’t have to decide what he wanted to be for a really, really long time. I told him that people only thought he would want to be a palaeontologist because he loves dinosaurs so much. He looked up at me with an expression of total frustration. “I know what I want to be! And I don’t want to be a palaeontologist!” he said in protest. I was surprised and confused. For the life of me I had no idea why he was so upset. “Well, what do you want to be then?!” I asked again. He hung his head and answered me. His sweet little words barely audible over the sounds of the busy street. “I just want to be me.”

I took a deep breath and absorbed his words. It took a few minutes of listening to him speak before I finally understood. He thought he had to grow up to “be” something else…someone else. If you conjugate, “What will you be?” into present tense, it would be like asking, “What are you?” This is a question of identity. While as adults we often associate our job as part of our identity, for my five year old, what someone does and who they are, are very different.

The association of job and identity is inherent in the answer to the common question “What do you do?” After talking to my son, he made me realize that even though we ask, “What do you do?” we answer by using the present tense of the verb “to be.” For example, when asked what we do for a living, we answer by saying things like, “I am a doctor…I am a teacher…I am a lawyer.” When we speak, we mix up what we do with who we are. When grownups describe their jobs by saying “I am” not “I do,” my son hears people describe their identity. It sounds to him like they are describing who they are not what they do.

Technically he is correct . The verb to be is used to describe the identity of a person or thing. However, in common vernacular, the verb has a more liberal definition and is often used to describe what we “do.” I sat there and stared at my little boy. I was amazed that he had made such an astute observation. He heard adults talk about what they do, by describing it as who they are and it bothered him greatly. In order to “be” a palaeontologist he thought he would have to stop being himself. Every time someone asked what he wanted to be rather than what he wanted to do, he thought there was an expectation that he should want to grow up and be someone or something other than who he already was. I loved that he had such a strong sense of self that he was willing to give up his passion to prevent having to surrender his identity to something he’d do. He loved being himself more than he loved a seemingly awesome job. His thoughtful and innocent proclamation made me grab him and hug him tight.

I also felt a little sad because while I’d like to believe my son was just being overly literal, the truth is he was kind of right. As a society and as individuals we tend to tie up a person’s job into their identity. Unfortunately, what we do often garners more respect than who we are. A lot of value is placed on our identity through what we do. It was surprisingly transformative for me to realize that we use the verbs “to do” and “to be” interchangeably in the context of professions. Even more revealing was that it took a five year old to bring our use of to be to my attention. Value and identity being wrapped up in what we do is one of the harsh realities of being grownups. It’s a reality my sweet, innocent little boy was hoping to avoid.

I pulled my son onto my lap so I could hold him as I explained how grownups sometimes use the wrong words. I told him that everyone was really trying to ask him what he wanted to do when he grew up, not what he wanted to be. As he soaked in my words, the relief on his face was undeniable and it made me hug him even tighter. Then, sitting on the sidewalk of a busy downtown street, I made my little boy promise me that he would never be anything but himself. He nodded and kissed my cheek and promised me he would always be him.

I knew in that instant I’d never ask another child what they wanted to be when they grow up. Now I ask things like, “What kind of job would you like to have?” or “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Thanks to my little boy, I now understand the power and influence of the language we use in a way I never had before. I saw for the first time the confusing messages the adult world can send to a young person. I knew our words mattered, but I underestimated how much. I wondered what other negative messages I was sending inadvertently with my words and descriptions.

I got up and I took my little boy’s hand. As we walked down the street I decided to start the conversation over. “So, my love,” I asked him smiling, “What would you like to do when you grow up?” He didn’t miss a beat and I knew I had asked the correct question. He looked up at me with a happy grin, “I’m going to dig up dinosaur bones!”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

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