By Liv Pennie 


‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ It’s a common question that we hear time and time again throughout our childhoods. Adults are prone to asking it to children of any age, at any time – from birthdays to dinner times to car rides. 

The question is a big one, but one that’s often disguised as small talk. It might seem innocent enough at first glance, but there’s a reason why the question is dreaded by so many children. 

A constant focus on choosing one singular role – one that will determine what a child is going to ‘be’ – is a huge pressure to put on children. It’s not only stressful, but it’s the wrong question to ask. It implies that a job is the most important part of a person, and will define who they are when they get older.

Children absorb ideas about different job roles from an early age. If a child says ‘a doctor’ or ‘an architect’, they’re likely to get approving nods. These clues slowly embed ideas into children’s minds about what jobs are ‘accepted’, and which ones aren’t. 

As early as 11, the idea of our ‘future’ becomes a stressful mission to choose the right job, the right career path, the right uni course, the right classes, the right grades… the list is endless. 

People are more than our jobs, and our conversations with our kids need to reflect this. If we’re not careful, we risk turning our children into the kind of people whose very first question at dinner parties is ‘so, what do you do?’ before they’ve even been introduced. 

 So, what’s the alternative? It’s important that children don’t feel pressure to make one choice and stick to it. Parents should use uncommitted language to show that they are making a low-stakes career choice ‘for now’ or that they can ‘try on for size’ – and we need to be absolutely clear to them that they can change their minds. 

Children should feel free and able to make a choice based on genuine self-reflection: ‘what really interests me now? It is, after all, only an early test case or practice for decisions they make in later school years. So keep the stakes low and make it very safe to play around with ideas of ‘future me’.

Plus, careers aren’t all about the role itself, but about what kind of lifestyle they might want to build around it. Do they want to go swimming every morning before work? Perhaps a role with an early start and a huge commute isn’t right for them. Do they love travelling and tasting new foods? Perhaps a job where they can travel to different countries might excite them.

If your child has a ‘grownup’ role model, try to show them that even their biggest role models have had ups, downs and knockbacks throughout their careers. Be open about changes in your own career and any ideas you might once have held about careers that you discarded along the way. 

This models authentic skills in future-building: making choices, overcoming obstacles, revising and learning about what motivates you and the types of environments you want to work in. It shows that people grow, learn and change in their careers, taking some of the anxiety away from ‘getting it right’ immediately. 

To get to a truly good idea about their future, they need a good awareness of what’s even out there. This might go beyond what you, as parents, even know is possible – and that’s okay. Don’t expect to have all the answers, and don’t snort if they say ‘YouTuber’ or ‘Fortnite player’. Believe it or not, these are actually legitimate options. 

The best way to support your child to make great career choices is to provide a safe space for them to explore. In the primary years, encourage them to go off-road a bit and give them the opportunity to explore in fun, unique ways.

A single experience at a musical, for example, might open up a child’s eyes to the roles of costume designers, lighting and set design and operation, PR companies, social media influencers, voice coaches, choreographers, theatre front-of-house, stage managers and many more.

No matter where our children are headed, it’s important not to force them down any particular path – especially while they’re still very young. Careers are flexible, lives are filled with so much more than work, and children should be left feeling excited about what the future holds.


About Liv Pennie, co-founder and CEO, BECOME Education

Liv Pennie is the co-founder and CEO of BECOME Education, a careers education company with an evidence-based, student-centred approach. BECOME provides the opportunity, tools and resources for students to design their own future. 

With an MA in psychology and a postgrad in career development, Liv’s postgraduate research in vocational and educational psychology informs BECOME’s careers education program. 

Drawing on her experience during her 15 years in the world of advertising, digital product and experience design, the BECOME program brings together the worlds of academia and innovation to deliver best practice careers education from primary school onwards.