Stop asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“He has so much potential…”

“If only he’d apply himself…”

“She doesn’t take her work seriously…”

“She has no motivation…” 

“He has no direction…” 

“If he would only show some commitment…”

James Scott, Unsplash

We’ve all heard statements like these.  Perhaps you’ve even made them yourself.  Or maybe you have been on the receiving end of those statements at some point in your life. All of these statements come from an assumption that starting at a young age, we must set our focus on some fixed destination in our future (straight A’s, university acceptance, career, etc.) and then begin to methodically tick the necessary boxes to reach that destination (and by doing so, guarantee our success and happiness) regardless of whether or not we find the path itself interesting, engaging or relevant.  

I know young people who have arrived at the destination they set out to reach 10 years earlier, only to find that it was the “wrong choice”.  The kid who majors in chemical engineering because he is “good at it” and it guarantees a good income, but all he really wants to do is create art. The young woman who finishes law school only to have a hidden desire to become a teacher instead.  Do we (or our children) just need to suck it up and tough it out in our careers because we’ve invested so many years (and usually a load of money) into that one outcome?  

We get frustrated when 25 year-old Johnny STILL has no idea what he wants to be when he grows up.  But how is Johnny supposed to know what he wants to do with his life when up until very recently, he’s been obediently doing what his parents, teachers, and administrators have told him to do?  

One of the many benefits of home education is that, instead of ticking 12 years of prescribed boxes and patiently awaiting the day that they can declare a major and finally explore their own interests, our children can explore those interests today.  And tomorrow they can do the same.  And 5 years from now, they can still be learning content that they find stimulating and thought-provoking, while building skills that they see as relevant to their lives and their future (though the subject matter may be entirely different than is was 5 years ago).  

When we discover our children’s unique qualities, interests, and desires, we can help them create a one-of-a-kind path of learning based on those interests, thereby minimizing the “risk” of them reaching adulthood with either no direction or stuck in a career they don’t enjoy.  The inherent difficulty in creating such a path, is that there is no standardized or prescribed way to do it.  The point of every curriculum out there, of course, is for children to learn the same content and skills as their peers, not develop unique ones.  

Caleb Jones, Unsplash

So, how can we, as home educators, capitalize on the opportunity that we have to customize our children’s learning and help them develop their one-of-a-kind learning path? 

For starters, we must know the hearts and minds of our children very well. This is key.  So many children grow up trying to fulfill their parents’ dreams while sacrificing their own and that doesn’t work out well for anyone.  We must be excellent students of our children- observe them, take notes, ask questions.  We must allow them to lead the way in expressing what it is that they are passionate about and find engaging and relevant to their lives and to their future.  With that information, we can affirm who they are and help them map their future one step at a time.  

The question is no longer, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Instead, it becomes, “What are you learning about who you were created to be?” 

It might make sense to not have our child learn boring or irrelevant material for the sake of a curriculum or an exam, but how do we go about doing any differently?  What if our child would rather do “nothing” all day if they weren’t made to do something specific?  In order to create an individualized learning path for your child, you can start by answering these 4 questions:

  1. What are your child’s greatest interests, desires? These can include anything from the very specific (“My son likes trains and only trains”) to the very broad (“My daughter enjoys organizing spaces”).  It all counts.  Write it all down. One of our children likes to take bits of things and put them back together in a different way- Paper collages from magazines, sculptures from the recycle bin, mixing sounds on GarageBand.  This is a unique aspect of who she is.  If you are having trouble pinpointing those interests in your children, you can use this list of questions to get into your child’s mind and heart.  
  2. How are those interests being fed and developed today? If your child loves to take photos, help him set a short term goal to make himself a better photographer.  If she wants to create a blog, by next month, she should be a step closer to making that desire a reality.  There are hundreds of online courses (and an increasing number of in-person options as COVID restrictions are lifted) available to help our children develop their skills and interests.
  3. What are some possible long-term options that might naturally align with your child’s interests/desires?**  My son is into graphic design, photography, and basketball.  So every now and then I look at some job descriptions in the graphics department of the NBA or sports magazines to get an idea of what companies are looking for.  Then I present Bryce with opportunities to learn various skills in those fields.  Next year, it might be something different.
  4. What are the possible pathways to get there? My daughter is into history, literature and music. When she is 16, she has plans to enroll in Open University and start building up her university credits.  She is also interested in earning a blue badge tourist guide qualification and spending an extended amount of time in a Spanish-speaking country.  She could have chosen a more traditional path of GCSE’s and A-Levels or applying to a Foundation Year at a University at 17 or 18 after building a portfolio of work and experiences.   She holds her plans loosely, but she is neither ticking off unnecessary curricula boxes, nor wandering aimlessly.  

**Question #3 is a potentially dangerous question, because we will always have the tendency to fix our eyes on a destination and then forget to ask if it’s still a destination worth pursuing months or years down the road.  Especially with younger children, interests and desires are ever-changing.  That’s ok.  It’s the culmination of all our experiences that eventually leads us to that thing that we are most fulfilled in doing.

Download a helpful list of questions HERE

For example, I have learned that one of the things I really enjoy is explaining things to others.  At the Science Museum of London, the workers in the Wonderlab are actually called “Explainers”.  I love that.  My desire to make things easier for others to understand has manifested itself in various ways throughout my adult life.  I’ve taught in a public school classroom, I was a group fitness instructor for 10 years, I’ve been an interpreter both in the art gallery and in the forest, I’ve directed a craft studio in a camp setting, and more.  It may seem like a completely random set of jobs, but the one consistent was that I got to explain things to others.  Through these experiences, I learned that I don’t like the classroom setting, am not passionate about fitness and physiology, and that I enjoy the gallery and nature much more as a learner than as a teacher.  It wasn’t until I started digging more into the psychology, sociology, and philosophy of learning that I found it was the subject I most loved to explain.  

This is what we are doing with our kids.  We are observing who they are and what they love.  We are feeding them with experiences and learning opportunities so that they can hold onto some aspects to be developed further, and drop other areas that they find irrelevant.  When days, weeks, and years of this type of learning are strung together, your child will have a much better idea of what sorts of activities, areas of study, and eventually which jobs and careers, will be most fulfilling to them.  They will be affirmed in who they are and what they are doing and, one day, will find themselves grown up and doing exactly that thing.  

I understand that if you come from a traditional educational background as I did, the idea of letting our children lead their own learning may sound bananas.  But it’s really a matter of trade-offs.  Our family chose to sacrifice the ease and convenience of a boxed curriculum along with the comfort of the standard path to university and beyond.  Instead, we have gained happy, more-motivated learners (don’t get me wrong, we all have our days) who are learning how they are uniquely wired and gifted.  It’s a trade off that we were happy to make, but it did not happen overnight, and we don’t have it all figured out.  

What I have learned, is that a huge component to guiding our children on their own learning pathway is trust. If we believe that our children were created with unique gifts and abilities, then we have to trust that when they are ready to pursue something they will, and will also jump through all the necessary hoops to get there.  

My daughter Lydia will find every excuse to avoid even one math problem.  I admit that, not so long ago,  I was harboring some of those thoughts towards her that I mentioned at the start of this post.  

Two weeks ago, this same daughter starred as Macbeth in a neighborhood production of Macbeth, memorizing more than 100 lines of Shakespeare.  She was brilliant.  Is something wrong with my daughter because she won’t “apply herself” to the study of maths, or could it be that she just doesn’t need to be made to learn certain content?  Will she have the same opportunities as everyone else if she doesn’t take trigonometry and calculus?  Of course not.  But she doesn’t need the opportunities that everyone else has, because she is not everyone else.  And neither is your child.  

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