It is every uncle’s favorite question and one every kid gets to expect: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Psychologist Ashton Trice has been asking that question for five years of 1,200 schoolchildren - in Washington, D.C., Boston, New Orleans and in north central Virginia - and says children’s answers are more serious - and ought to be taken more seriously - than adults might guess.
He’s learned that about 50 percent of children want to follow in the footsteps of a parent and now that so many mothers work in diverse jobs, kids are more likely to want a job like mom’s than like dad’s.
The chief reason for that, he said in an interview, is that children are more likely to know what their mothers do at work. When a snow emergency or a child-care crisis arises, it often is the mother who takes the child to work with her. If dad does, he likely turns the youngster over to the care of a woman, so the kids don’t get to see him work anyway.
Trice teaches psychology at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. With the help of student researchers, he has been interviewing children in kindergarten and in grades two, four and six about career ideas. He intends to publish a scholarly report on his findings and a guide for parents about the importance of talking to kids about work.
Some of Trice’s conclusions so far:
Boys still make sex-stereotyped job choices, but girls are far less likely to do so than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Girls’ top career choices are lawyer, teacher, doctor, veterinarian and nurse. Among young boys, the top choices are fireman and policeman; older boys tend to want to be professional athletes.
Children are surprisingly rational in their career choices. “Even as second-graders, a lot of kids say they don’t want to be truck drivers because they have to work such long hours and are away from their families so much,” Trice said. On the other hand, he said, in rural Virginia, where truck driving was among the best-paying jobs, “The kids all wanted to be truck drivers.”
By second grade, virtually every child has a career choice. But by sixth grade, 12 percent don’t, and boys are more likely to be uncertain than girls. In families disrupted by divorce or unemployment, children are more likely to be uncertain.
Children from poor families differ, too. “Economic conditions don’t lower aspirations for girls, but they seem to for boys,” Trice said. So these boys “limit their job choices early and severely” while the girls aim for the professions.
Trice hasn’t been researching long enough to know whether children’s career choices forecast their future, but a study in the 1920s of gifted children found that 50 percent of them achieved the aspirations they held at age 10.
For all the rationality Trice finds in children’s work choices, some quirkiness shows up as well.
For example, “Almost all the kids who want to be lawyers are the children of divorce. The boys say they want to be a lawyer because they’ve heard their fathers say they’ve paid them all their money. And the girls have heard their mothers say something like, ‘If it weren’t for our lawyer, we’d be out on the street.”’