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'What do you want to be when you grow up?' Talking to kids about careers

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Mom and daughter talking

We sat down at a friend's wedding reception recently and started visiting with a nice couple and their kids. My son was asked how he liked his school. His response sounded something like this, "I really love my school, but because it's a private school, they don't receive as much government assistance as public schools. So we're currently fundraising to help buy a new freezer for the cafeteria."

As a professional who has spent the last 15 years in fundraising, development and philanthropy, I was secretly thrilled that all the discussions and explanations I shared about my job had sunk in, but quickly said a small prayer that my son wouldn't continue his innocent pitch and ask these very new acquaintances for a donation to his school.

Since my son was very tiny, he has had a lot of questions about what I "do" for a living. It's reasonable, considering his first-year calendar marked "baby's first ribbon cutting" alongside his first word and first steps. As a mom who really enjoys her career and is passionate about the work of nonprofits in the community, I have welcomed these questions and loved the conversations that have challenged me to think about how to explain my job in new ways to him and his step-sisters; breaking down not only the "what" I do, but the "why" and purpose I find in my work.

Jessica Janssen Wolford mug

Jessica Janssen Wolford is a mom and stepmom raising three kiddos with her husband, Eric, in Elkhorn. You can read more about her experiences on her blog, “A Step in the Right Direction.” You can also follow her on Twitter @jessljwolford.

I remember being asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and having a very limited perspective on the myriad of careers in the world. It wasn't until much later in life that I realized the answer to that question was less about the actual definition and choice of a career field, but so much more about knowing my own strengths and finding work that gave me a sense of purpose.

When these questions come up with our three elementary-aged kids, we try and approach the opportunity with three things in mind.

1. Explain the "why" instead of "what" we do in our careers. My husband and I are both passionate about our careers in higher education, and love the opportunity to tell our kids the stories of the students whose lives were impacted because they continued their education after high school at our respective universities. This unique situation also allows us to reinforce that there are many paths to a career and that, while we believe in the experience of a four-year college, it's not always the right choice for everyone, and that's okay, too.

2. Ask our kids what they're interested in and why. Then we try to really listen. Sometimes we get very straightforward, easy-to-encourage responses like teacher or dentist. Then there are other times we hear "Broadway star or NBA player." While the odds are low with the latter choices, we don't tell our kids that. This is the time they should dream big and reach high.

3. Recognize and encourage their strengths. Why does my son want to be an NBA player? Because he loves the game of basketball, he loves being on a team and is drawn to the strategy of the game. These are the strengths I want him to recognize and lean into, all while he's wearing his favorite Golden State Warriors jersey. These will be the strengths that carry him far regardless of which career field he ends up in.

Our kids are lucky because they have many adults around them who have chosen to follow their passions through their work. As they learn and grow, I hope they can continue to ask great questions as we continue to watch who they are becoming, and where they will find their purpose.


Jessica Janssen Wolford is a mom and stepmom raising three kiddos with her husband, Eric, in Elkhorn. You can read more about her experiences on her blog, “A Step in the Right Direction.” You can also follow her on Instagram at @jessicaljanssenwolford.

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