The Cliché Question That, When Asked, Improves Kids' Well Being

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of those cliché questions that adults ask automatically. It turns out that the answer may reveal a lot about an adolescent’s health.


Photo by Micah Walter/Getty Images
Photo by Micah Walter/Getty Images

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of those cliché questions that adults ask automatically in the presence of kids, and likely don’t make much of the answer. It turns out, however, that the answer may reveal a lot about an adolescent’s health.

A recently published paper in Academic Pediatrics outlines the findings of the first study to examine the link between adolescent career aspirations and their well-being.

The researchers asked almost a 1000 students from low-income families the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They found that the answers could predict the students’ self-efficacy, hopelessness, and health behaviors.

Students who wanted a career requiring higher levels of education, or a higher median income, had high self-efficacy, and lower levels of hopelessness, compared to students whose choice careers required a high school diploma only. The high aspirations group was also associated with decreased odds of alcohol use, at-school substance use, and risky sexual activity. The group with no career aspirations had the lowest levels of self-efficacy, and the highest levels of hopelessness.

Student Valisha Powell demonstrates the installation of a network interface card (NIC) in a computer at Farragut High School's library July 7, 2004 in Chicago. As part of a new Chicago Public Schools program called NetTech, a paid summer technology mentoring initiative, students will learn how to and later actually upgrade excising wired and wireless networks at 20 CPS high schools to the latest technologies. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The findings suggest that asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” may actually be a useful tool in the hands of youth workers and parents — a quick way to get an idea about teens health and well-being in situations where administering complex psychological tests is not a viable option.

Adults should listen to the answer and notice whether a teen might need to address any underlying issues. They should also encourage high-education career aspirations and provide the support necessary to reach those goals. 


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