‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and why to avoid asking kids this question…

A sixteen-year-old came to my clinic for treatment yesterday and said she was feeling anxious.  As we explored the reasons for her anxiety, it became clear that the nub of it was connected with her fears of the future.  Specifically, she was anxious that she did not know what kind of work she wanted to do.  What struck me most about our conversation was her feeling that she should, at the age of sixteen, know what job she wanted to do as an adult. 

To some degree, childhood, and especially adolescence, has always been a waiting ground for adulthood. Many older children and teens spend their days dreaming of the time when they will be able to make their own decisions, have all the freedom they want and begin real life.  But when dreaming of the future tips over into being anxious of the future, something has gone awry.   

It seems to me that childhood has become a constant race to get to the next stage.  Parents are often desperate to get their young babies to sleep through the night, and see it as a victory when that first happens.  Reward charts are used in an attempt to get kids to potty train, get themselves dressed or eat more vegetables.   Parents say to their twelve-year-old child ‘How are you ever going to cope at university if you can’t get out of the house on time for school without me nagging you?’.  Parental anxiety can mean that we assume if our child cannot do something when they are 12, that they won’t be able to do when they are 19.  

Of course, children need encouragement at times. But they also need to know that they are OK as they are. Of course, it is only natural for teens to think about how they want their future to be.  But not at the expense of making the present OK.   The best way to ensure a child develops in a healthy and timely way, is to meet their emotional, psychological and physical needs at any given moment.  Constantly urging them to be mastering the next skill or thinking about their future potentially has two negative effects.  It gives them the message that they are in some way not enough as they are now, and it can breed anxiety about the future.  

In Chinese medicine, our relationship to the future is governed by the Water Element (click here for more about the Water Element).  The spirit of the Water Element (the zhi) enables us to ‘go with the flow’ of life rather than trying to control it.  Every time we push a child to achieve something that she is not quite developmentally ready for, we are teaching her to override her innate wisdom.  Encouragement is one thing, but pressure is another.  The more we can trust our children’s potential to unfold at its own pace and in its own way, the better.   When the Water Element is not strong, a child will have more of a tendency to be fearful of or catastrophise about the future.  And the more a child is anxious of the future, the more depleted her Water Element will become.   One way to help minimize anxiety building up in older kids and teens, is to allow and support them to make the present as good as it can be, instead of overly focusing on the future.

Growing and developing from a baby to a child to a teen and finally an adult has never been a straightforward, linear path.  It is usually a messy business which involves wrong turns, some pain and a bit of to-ing and fro-ing.  When development is artificially accelerated, it is always precarious.  Childhood is all about building strong foundations, on which our adult self can trust and rely.  When we rush it, the foundations are weakened.  

I endeavoured to bring the conversation with my sixteen-year-old patient back to what makes her feel fired up and evokes her passion, to what lights a spark inside her.  Using this as a guide for decisions she has to make now, provides her with the best chance of a happy and successful future. 

As Sophocles wisely said:

‘Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Future cares have future cures,
And we must mind today.’

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