“What do you want to be when you grow up?” may be one of the most asked childhood questions.
When I learned to read in first grade, I realized the power behind the written word.
Words created sentences, which painted new worlds with every book I opened.
I knew that I wanted to live in a world of words. I wanted to be a writer.
It wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I suddenly thought in dismay, “Oh, shoot! What do I do now?” I had written my way to a bachelor’s degree in English, and the real world of jobs and salaries were waiting for me. It was a daunting realization. Why weren’t there any wanted ads for someone who enjoyed sipping tea and reading the Classics?
As a former high school teacher, I have had similar conversations with students. As they reach their final year of high school, many are confused about what to do next: College? Trade school? A job? Well-meaning adults may complicate the discussion even further by asking, “What are you passionate about?”
Now don’t get me wrong. Passion is relevant, but sometimes the things that make us tick and the jobs we end up doing don’t always go hand-in-hand. Sometimes passions are grown (or are hidden in other pieces of the job).
Last year I read this Forbes article about a project that analyzed whether it was better to find your passion or develop it by exploring interests. Basically, they were looking at if students had fixed or growth mindsets. The students with growth mindsets fared better and were more successful in all five studies performed.
What is a growth mindset?
A growth mindset believes skills and interests can be developed. Think about toddlers and food. On Tuesday you feed your two-year-old mashed potatoes. She throws them up against the wall. The following Thursday do you skip the mashed potatoes or do you serve them again? If you serve them again, you are showing a growth mindset. The toddler may not have liked them on Tuesday, but Thursday is a new day. She can learn to like them through multiple opportunities.
Growth mindset is also found in the words we use. Instead of saying, “She doesn’t like mashed potatoes,” a growth mindset says, “She hasn’t learned to like mashed potatoes YET.”
In the educational world, a fixed mindset, the opposite of a growth mindset, is when a student doesn’t believe he or she is smart because something is challenging. Dad wasn’t good at math. I’m not good at it either.
Why is having a growth mindset so important?
In the case of the toddler, without a growth mindset, the parent severely limits what the toddler will try and what she believes about food. She may think she doesn’t like potatoes solely based on the picky eater label the parent places on her. She may also be apprehensive about trying new foods with potatoes in it or anything that looks like potatoes. Now is it a big deal that she doesn’t like or eat potatoes? Probably not. But switch over to math. If a student has a bad experience with math or thinks he or she is bad at math, it makes learning new skills harder. The student may not try as hard because he already believes he will fail. He has a fixed mindset.
So how can we, as parents, encourage our students to develop a growth mindset, setting them up for success in their future grown-up jobs?
- Be Specific with Compliments. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart!” Say specific things like, “I like how you didn’t give up even when it was tough for you” or “You did a great job with…” Look for ways to sincerely encourage your child in their strengths and weaknesses. This takes some time at first to retrain how you compliment your child. But with a little practice, it becomes natural. Being specific with feedback gives them a better sense of their abilities and helps them value characteristics beyond just the focus skill like hard work and creativity.
- Don’t Let Them Quit Because it’s Hard. I understand. If a kid hates something, it’s easy just to let them move on to something else or put it in a box as “just not her cup of tea.” But developing a growth mindset includes working through obstacles and even failing. Gasp! For me, that was math. (But I am proud to say I DID NOT fail my pre-calculus class!) Helping students find healthy ways to keep going, even when things are frustrating, is a life skill that will help them in many situations. Developing grit is such an essential skill in today’s job market, especially in a culture where everything is “instant.” And by powering through, it gives students a sense of accomplishment.
- Highlight Unique Interests and Skills. Even at a young age, students have unique personalities and talents. Just watch a room of preschoolers at play, and you’ll see a myriad of different interests, social interactions, and skills. Some kids excel at physical dexterity. Others may have a vast vocabulary or a knack for music. For example, does your child like to play by himself or with others? Is there a particular subject or sport he excels in? This can be a clue to a future career. But the idea is not to label, instead, give your child room to develop–and the freedom to discover other things as well. For older students trying to figure everything out, look back to their childhood. What did they like to do?
- Don’t Compare. As mentioned above, kids are unique. They may have similar skills and interests at the same age, but not necessarily. Every student is on their own learning and discovery journey. Don’t compare your child’s strengths or weaknesses to someone else’s child. This creates unrealistic pressure, both for the kids and for you as a parent. Helping your child see the beauty in differences gives them a better perspective on their abilities and makes it okay to be themselves. It can even help them become encouragers: It’s okay that Sam doesn’t kick the ball as far as you do. What’s something he does really well? What could you say to him that would encourage him as he practices?
- Start asking, “What do you want to help or solve?” Instead of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”Asking your child what they want to “fix” puts the focus not on themselves but society as a whole. How can your child make the world a better place? What excites or concerns them? The great thing is there are tons of careers which can solve many circumstances. For example, say your child wants to provide homes for people. This passion could translate into a career as an architect, interior decorator, social worker, foster parent, aid worker, construction worker, etc. These jobs, all within the same broad interest, run the gamut of specialized skills and abilities. And the best part of this question? It doesn’t put a time limit on it. When are we indeed grown up? I don’t always feel like I’m quite there. The question doesn’t assume that a child has to wait until they are grown to create change in their world. Just look at these inspiring stories of local Charleston kids making significant impacts in the world: check out here and here.
Does it take a career counselor to see the hidden gems inside our children?
As parents, we can help children of all ages understand their God-given abilities and interests. In today’s world, career possibilities seem endless (which may be why so many students struggle with the what-to-do-out-of-high-school decision). But with the right guidance, even at a young age, students can become independent, contributing citizens with growth mindsets. And with a growth mindset, whatever career path they choose, they can be open to new interests and malleable and adaptable to the ever-changing job market.
As for me, it turns out my wanting to be a writer was a passion for collecting, creating, and sharing stories.
To date, I’ve had the pleasure of using that skill as a founder/director of a non-profit girls’ organization, writing tutor, dance instructor, mentor, waitress, teacher, and my favorite–mom.
No two jobs have looked the same or used the same skill set. Yet, I’ve loved every job because I’ve gotten to use the written word and the power of story.
How will your child contribute to the world?
How will you help them accomplish it?