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How to help your child choose the right career, without being overbearing

By Elisabeth Leamy Special to the Washington Post

Alisa Weinstein didn’t expect to start talking to her daughter about potential careers when Mia was only 4 years old. But when the opening presented itself, Weinstein took it. They were at Target, and Mia was begging for yet another tube of sparkly pink lip gloss.

“Get a job and pay for it yourself,” Weinstein told her daughter, joking. Saying those words, though, gave her an idea.

Weinstein, who lives in Maryland, went home and scribbled her idea on a sticky note: Instead of paying her daughter an allowance to do chores around the house, she would pay her to test drive real careers. “Her first ‘career’ was her dad’s: Market Researcher,” Weinstein said. “She made a list of 15 friends and family members and asked them to choose between three flavors of ice cream … She presented her results to me and I paid her.”

Weinstein learned that other people were searching for ways to motivate their kids around careers and finances. So she interviewed nearly 50 professionals, broke their jobs down into 1,000 child-sized tasks and wrote a work book called “Earn It, Learn It.” Weinstein’s concept works best with children younger than 12, but there are plenty of ways to encourage older children to explore career options, as well.

Here are several guidelines for helping children find the career that will best suit them.

DO: Support. DON’T: Hover.

Think of yourself as a foundation, lifting your children and supporting them as they find their way to the ideal career. You boost them up, but they are the ones reaching for different possibilities.

By contrast, helicopter parents hover. You’ve heard the tales of parents who accompanied their 20-something offspring on job interviews. Make sure you are behind them in a supporting role, not circling above directing their every move.

DO: Speak the language. DON’T: Speak for them.

Discuss the trials and triumphs of your own job with your children from an early age. Also introduce them to career lingo. They should know about resumes and cover letters, job applications and interviews.

Yes, it might be easier to fix their resume yourself than to coach them on how to fix it, but resist the temptation. It’s all a learning experience.

DO: Identify strengths. DON’T: Identify careers.

Psychologists call it “strength spotting” and since you know your child well, you can help with this. Remind your offspring what they do well on a micro level. For example, “organizing your thoughts before you speak.” Note the circumstances under which your child works best. All of these skills and preferences are clues to possible careers.

To use the same example, if your child is good at “organizing their thoughts before they speak,” you might be tempted to make more macro suggestions, like “you’d be a great lawyer.” But this same skill applies to broadcast journalists, politicians, professional speakers and more, so why box your child in?

DO: Tap lists of careers. DON’T: List only careers you know.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook lists 25 career categories, descriptions of hundreds of jobs within those categories, and even average salaries for those jobs. It’s a great brainstorming resource.

We, as parents, are not aware of the entire universe of available jobs, particularly those that didn’t exist when we started our own careers.

DO: Use your network. DON’T: Push your field.

Once your child has named some careers they are interested in, you can leverage your contacts to help. On the quick-and-dirty end of the scale, you can help them find professionals to interview or shadow for a day.

But stop there. Pressing your offspring to follow in your footsteps into the same field probably won’t work.

DO: Encourage summer internships. DON’T: Think they have to intern full time.

There is no better way to know for certain that you like – or dislike – a career than to work in that field. Summer internships are a great way to try different professions.

But don’t get hung up on finding a paid position. Your child could always intern part time and work part time. Twenty or so hours a week is plenty of time to figure out if you’re passionate about a profession.

DO: Push passion. DON’T: Push prestige.

My parents pushed hard for me to find something – anything – I would be passionate about as my career. But they didn’t push me toward a particular field, and I’m grateful for that. We spend 40-plus hours a week at work.

At one point, the stereotype was every parent wanted their child to be a doctor or a lawyer. You may covet a particular job for your child. But ask yourself: If they’re important, will that make you happy?

Leamy hosts the podcast “Easy Money” and is a 25-year consumer advocate for programs such as “Good Morning America” and “The Dr. Oz Show.” Connect with her at leamy.com and @ElisabethLeamy.

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