If you’re not around kids on a regular basis, it can be hard to know what to say to them. Along with classics like “What’s your favorite color?” and “How old are you?” we also tend to rely on asking them what they want to be when they grow up. But in a recent article in the New York Times, organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Ph.D. argued that asking a child about their future career plans actually sends the wrong message: that what you do for work defines you.
Changing the question from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to something broader and less defined provides for more creativity and encourages out-of-the-box thinking, Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy.D., a psychologist based in New York City and author of Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters tells Thrive Global.
Of course, most of us who fall back on asking kids this question are coming from a good place, and aren’t intentionally trying to show that career and identity are interchangable. So what should we ask children instead? There are plenty of other great options that not only get them talking, but also foster critical thinking skills, and dissipate the awkwardness of sitting with your friend’s child… in total silence. Here are three of our favorites:
What problems do you want to solve?
This suggestion comes from Quartz, and prompts a response that is more open-ended, exciting, and, frankly, more interesting for you to listen to. (Enough with all the alleged future actors and rock stars. Even kids know those are canned responses.) Asking children about the problems they want to solve gives them the chance to reflect on their own values and priorities — something that most kids probably aren’t prompted to do very often, but is excellent practice for their futures.
“If a child understands what their values are, they can make big and small decisions that align with their deepest sense of self,” Laura C. Kauffman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in work with children and adolescents tells Thrive. “Of course, people struggle with making choices that converge with their long-term goals and values, but I have noticed that when people have those values clearly defined and identified, they tend to grow toward their best self.” Plus, as Quartz notes, this line of inquiry shifts the focus away from a be-all-end-all career, and frames it in a way that lets kids weigh in on how they think they want to help change the world — whether that’s through work, volunteering, the arts, parenting, or another path entirely.
Who are the grownups you admire, and why?
Asking a child this question could launch a revealing discussion about what kids are noticing in adults, Beth Onufrak, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Phoenix, A.Z. tells Thrive. Their answers also give us a chance to challenge — with compassionate directness — their emerging perceptions of the world. “A stay-at-home mom or dad might be admired because they are attentive, nurturing, and helpful in a child’s efforts to get along with one’s friends,” she explains. “A child may also express admiration for a pushy or bossy person because they seem strong and get their way.” By asking a kid about which adults they admire, it is a chance to have a meaningful discussion about character traits with them, Onufrak adds.
How do you think this would make you feel?
In addition to bringing up broader ideas, it can also help to ask children more specific questions inspired by an event they’ve heard about in the news, or something that takes place in a movie or book you know they just watched or read. The aim here is to help kids develop the skills to evaluate a situation. “I’m a big believer in helping children develop ‘change agency,’ the idea that a person can be instrumental in transformation, which is a positive growth mindset,” Jillian Roberts, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author tells Thrive. This mindset’s default setting is intrinsic motivation, which can inform personal principles and values. A child will already be starting to form these on their own, but you can also help them think through that process by asking probing questions like this.
Other similar questions you can ask a child to help them develop the ability to make connections between actions and outcomes include: “How do you think your friend felt when you surprised them with that homemade birthday card?,” “How do you think that homeless man felt when those people walked past him and ignored his question?,” or “What do you think it’s like to live close to the ocean when there has been an oil spill?” “When kids are intrinsically motivated and wired for empathy, they are more readily able to channel those values into actionable outcomes,” Roberts adds.
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