Discover more from The Mmm...Letter
The One Stupid Question
They say there are no stupid questions. I say they were off by one.
There is such a question, and we force children to answer it.
Adults know the question, and they compel children between the age of five and 15 to reply.
I don’t know what causes this nor why the question passes from generation to generation. I suspect unfulfilled adult-life fantasies have a role to play.
On it’s surface, the question is benign. But if you give it a moment’s thought, you’ll understand why the question damages a child’s development and stifles their growth.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Your inner child has a ready-made answer, doesn’t it? Doctor. Athlete. Astronaut. Or if you’re a tad younger: ‘YouTube famous.’
The question and its answers often present as a cute distraction. Be not fooled, this query is poison.
And only one answer can be both true and dignified. But I’ll get to that later. First, let’s explore the damage this question causes.
You’re a Kid?
Outside the precogs in Minority Report, few children predict the future. And even fewer adults do. Hence, we rarely ask kids where they plan to live, whom they plan to marry, or whether they have any hot stock tips.
We don’t ask them those questions because children lack the context to make appropriate choices.
Yet for reasons inexplicable we find it cute to ask a child to predict their lifelong profession.
The same children we task with predicting their future can’t make a bowl of cereal without first looking it up on YouTube.
Anticipating the future world of adult-life is not an innate skill. And an array of adults peppering children to do so can set them down a troublesome path.
Just One Thing
The question also reinforces the idea that we must be one thing, and adults all know their one thing (right, guys?).
Knowing your one thing brings you that much closer to adulthood. Which is cool, because adults can drive cars and ask children meaningless questions. So you better figure it out and fast, Geoffrey.
Not only should you know what your one thing is, you should want that one thing. Bad.
It must be your calling. But few people know how their particular concoction of talents, attributes, and personal traits will serve them in the future. And fewer know of the possibilities waiting for them to explore.
Yet, we pigeonhole kids right out the gate.
My One True Calling
Growing up, I was going to become a filmmaker. That’s what I wanted to be.
At age 10, my father handed me a camcorder, and in so doing, birthed a creative control freak.
I made short films, entertained my classmates, and stretched the editing limits of a Windows XP machine.
I got as far as applying to the Art Institute of Illinois. My parents’ last chuckle.
Being first-generation immigrants with limited means, they had no intention of paying the tuition. And which financial aid was about to cover somewhere between $0 and bupkus.
I didn’t get to do what I wanted. That moment was a lesson. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t accept that lesson for another 10-years.
The Only Respectable Answer
If you had asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said artist. That’s what I wanted because that’s the life I wanted to have, as if a life were a product I could obtain. One ‘artist’ please.
Another problem with this question lies in its premise. It relies on the myth that we can and should grow into the roles we want. And that’s a lie ten times more damaging than Santa Claus.
In reality, 95% of people dislike their job. Nearly all of them, adults.
And as these adults rev kids up into a frenzy of anticipation for a 2,000-year-old beardo who poops presents, those same job-hating grown-ups pressure kids into chasing the Santa Claus of adulthood: a job made for them. We set them up for a selfish disappointment.
For many, that imagined life never finds its way down the chimney.
A wise child sees past the bullshit. A wise child gives the one, and only respectable answer.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Regardless of their talents or lack thereof, the one thing every decent person should strive for is to be of use.
And anyone can do that. Artist, dentist, astronaut, or otherwise.
Ask This Instead
Asking children what they wish to be when they grow up leads the horse to a poisoned well.
But we ask the question with good intentions. We want to inspire children to aim for something and achieve greatness.
We tell them they can be anything they want to be, which is another pile of horse manure.
Rather than pretend the entire world is their fantasy land, let's aim their focus outward. Ask this:
How will you help people when you grow up? Can you start today?
Okay it’s two questions. Sue me. Yes, these questions still suffer from the expectations of prescience, kids won’t know which people will need help, nor how.
But by placing the focus on helping others, we remind children that their jobs and their passions can only exist in the service of others.
These questions also pack a secret message far superior to the original. By asking what children want to be, we aligned passion with task. Filmmaking is the passion, it’s the what I wanted to do.
This improved question aligns passion with purpose. And our purpose is to serve, the what and the how will always remain secondary considerations.
Stop asking kids what they want to be, start asking them how they want to help. And then ask them how they will get the job done.
When we set our children down the path of service-minded education, only then will we inspire the next generation to greatness.