When I Grow Up, I Want To Be A…

This post could also be subtitled “Justice Sotomayor is Fair Play’s Five-Pinwheel Person of the Week.” She went on Sesame Street last week and talked about the word “career” with Abby Cadabby. With no pretense or apology, Justice Sotomayor explained that while pretending to be a princess can be fun, being a princess isn’t a career. YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES! But let me back up…

In the course of my research, I ask children all the time what they want to be when they grow up. Most of the time, I’m asking this of preschoolers. I know what you’re thinking – that’s insane! They are four! Precisely. Your four-year-old may not know in any accurate sense what they want to be when they grow up, but their answer to that question reflects the constraints they have already begun to put on their aspirations. Children who consistently answer in a particularly gender-stereotyped fashion generally perceive gender boundaries to their aspirations.

Even young children have a developing sense of opportunity structure particularly in regards to gender and race. This has been well-studied using novel jobs, jobs which were either completely made up or very rare. Children rated the novel jobs depicted as being performed by men as more prestigious than those depicted as performed by women. In another study, children rated jobs depicted as being performed by European Americans as more prestigious than those depicted as performed by African Americans.

It is not a huge stretch to say that your child’s aspirations from a young age reflect their developing ideas about what is possible for them. What is deeply inspiring about talking to young children about their aspirations is that outside of such structural limits, children perceive no other boundaries. Preschool children understand no realistic limits to their own abilities. I talk to a lot of future NFL players, movie stars, and presidents – because in that regard, the extent of their own talents and boundless luck, anything is possible.

So what? The more your child rehearses and reinforces these gender boundaries, the more they will matter once your child can start to make choices that funnel them down particular paths – classes at school, extracurricular activities to develop a particular aptitude – and when they chose one path, they depart from others. There’s nothing at all wrong with that if it is truly their choice. Can you know that? You can probably know that a little better if you’ve left those early doors open, the ones you choose for them in the toys you buy, the activities you sign them up for, the conversations you have, and so on.

Let’s talk about those career conversations. Not every conversation about careers with a young child even makes sense. My favorite answer of all time to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was “swan.” And she was so confident! What you can do in these conversations is ask your child why they want to be whatever they say. Gender-related reasoning (“because that’s what girls do!”) should be addressed by explaining that boys and girls can be anything they want to be. Also avoid gendered language in occupational titles – “mail carrier” not “mail man”, “firefighter” not “fireman.” And, although this is a bit of an ethereal concept for young minds, talk about some of the things it takes to get there, like education or training. We avoid this with young children and it’s the huge missing piece between dreaming dreams and realizing them. I applaud Justice Sotomayor for explaining a career is something you “train for, prepare for, and plan to do for a long time.” So without further ado, Justice Sotomayor and Abby Cadabby:

Dream big, kiddos.

What do you think? Leave a comment!