It’s the question everyone always asks kids. I’m not sure if we really want to know or if we think we will be amused by the answer. People ask children as young as four or five. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It is such a loaded question. How does a five-year-old, with his limited view of the world, know what he wants to be when he grows up? He doesn’t even know what he is good at yet. He may not even understand what is fictional and what isn’t. How does one go about becoming a Pokemon or a Superhero? Heck, I’m a middle aged woman and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Once, when our children were small, we were having this conversation around our kitchen table. We were enjoying some ice cream and had invited the neighbor girl to join us. Our kids were tossing around some possible employment options when the girl, about eight years old at the time, chimed in. “I’m going to be a Victoria Secret model!” Crickets . . . . My kids were a bit sheltered and most of them didn’t even know what Victoria Secret was. My husband and I laughed a bit under our breath and changed the subject. Turns out her dad had coached her just to get a rise out of other adults.

It’s kinda fun to ask little ones. I don’t think they take it too seriously or feel pressured to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They are just trying to make it through to snack time. What happens when we start asking teenagers? Some of them know and they have a plan to get there. Others have a couple ideas they are tossing around and aren’t too stressed. Then there are those who have no idea and are losing sleep because of it. My husband once asked a young lady on the verge of graduation about her plans for the future. It seemed like a reasonable question considering the circumstances, but this poor girl left the room in tears. Her mother later explained that she had been struggling with that question for months and still hadn’t decided.

It’s a lot of pressure. We are asking young people to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives and to go into enormous debt to achieve that. College is crazy expensive and doesn’t show any sign of becoming any more affordable any time soon. That is expecting a lot of someone who is 17 or 18. We push them to make these huge life altering decisions and then we wonder why anxiety is rampant. Why wouldn’t it be when you may be stuck doing something you don’t love doing for the next twenty years just so you can pay off your student debt? Why isn’t it ok to take a year off? Why isn’t it ok to explore unconventional educational experiences? Why is community college or technical school looked at as if it is somehow less desirable? What is wrong with apprenticeships?

While I think the tide may be turning, I don’t think it is happening overnight. What is it going to take? It is going to take a few valedictorians, a few members of the National Honor Society, a few serious students to take a stand and do something out of the ordinary. Recently, a young lady I know who graduated in the top ten percent of her class, did just that. She was all set up to attend a well respected state university. She had received a few generous scholarships, declared a major, picked her courses and been matched with a roommate, but as summer wore on, she just couldn’t do it. She was doing it because she thought that was what was expected of her and that just wasn’t a good enough reason. She wasn’t sure she should dedicate the next four years of her life to something she just wasn’t convinced was the right thing for her.

When she finally gathered enough courage to tell her family and friends, they were shocked. How could she back out now? What was she thinking? Surely this meant she would fail at life. Everyone was convinced she was making a huge mistake. Give me a break! When her family gave her permission to decide to do something else, she came up with an alternate plan. No, she wasn’t going to set up housekeeping in the basement and become a video game expert, nor was she setting out on a road trip to “find herself”. Within a week she had secured an entry level job with a local company and had enrolled in community college. This is her plan for the next year or two at which time she will reconsider that state university. Perhaps life will take her in a different direction by that time, maybe it won’t. The point is, she was brave enough to do something out of the ordinary while also realizing that she can always redirect her plans.

What are your goals? What do you want to be when you grow up? Brave, I want to be brave. . . brave enough to do the unexpected. . . .brave enough to think outside the box. . . brave enough to succeed even though I may have taken an alternate route to get there.

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