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

Kidopolis is unique in the way that it offers the opportunity to live a hundred lives in the space of two hours. You can be a doctor taking x-rays, a mechanic working on a car, a banker completing a deposit, an actor filming a scene with the green screen, and on and on. When I first visited, I walked through each of the miniature businesses. While in the veterinarian station, a little girl told me my cat was sick. I told her I did not have a cat. She asked me, “Then why are you at the vet?”

It was a good question. After all, she was the vet, and I was in her office, and why was I in her office if I did not have a cat? Did she want to be a vet when she grew up? I wanted to know if the reason she was pretending to take X-rays of a stuffed cat was because she had a young, deep passion for veterinarian science. I wanted to see if she had her whole professional life mapped out by the time she was eight years old, but I did not ask. Instead, I said, “I do have a dog though, and my dog is sick.”

We’ve all heard the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’ve probably answered it dozens of times. Maybe your answers changed a few times, maybe they always stayed the same. Once I learned I could not be a princess when I was ten years old, I decided that I was going to be an actress, the perfect profession. Spoiler alert: I am not an actress and I think about that massive disappointment every day.

While the question gets children thinking about the future and encourages them to dream up multitudes of possibilities, there are also a few downsides to this inquiry.

You’re not supposed to know. Discovering your passions, talents, and skills is an important part of being a kid. How your skills will contribute to the betterment of society is an enjoyable and stressful part of growing up, but it is something to be taken in stride. Childhood is for learning and experimenting. If Facebook memories have taught me anything, it is that the things I said when I was a kid should have almost no serious lasting consequences and should not dictate my life as an adult. We are often under the impression that we never have enough time. But, trust me, for this, you have time. When you are a kid, you have time to figure out what you enjoy doing and what you consider yourself good at. There’s no rush to discover your passions.

You are not your job. Having a career that you feel happy with can greatly contribute to the overall satisfaction and fulfillment you experience in your life. You can choose if your career plays a part in your identity. You can choose how large a part your career plays in your identity. But, your identity is not a one-man band or a one-woman show, and your career will never solely define you. When we ask children what they want to be when they grow up and then expect an occupation to fall out of their mouths, we are telling them that their success and worth are measured by professional achievement. People have careers for multiple reasons: to provide, to participate, to progress. But they also have other parts of their lives that contribute much more to their identities – their qualities and values, their meaningful relationships, their philosophies and ideologies.  

You have more than one true calling. Each human being is a multi-faceted human being and can never nor should ever be boxed into just one thing. Some callings are just not as lucrative in the modern world as we would like them to be. Some callings are not the same in reality as you pictured them in your head. The danger comes when an adult has said repeatedly since they were a child that they would be one thing and then realize that they might have to or want to become another. In some ways, getting older is just making decisions and then choosing over and over again whether or not to change your mind.  It is very rare that an individual will have one job their whole life. Most people have several jobs from the time they enter the workforce to the time they retire. The more willing you are to accept positions within your wheelhouse but outside of any one true calling, the easier it will be to weather any of the changes that will come.

You’re always growing up. While there is a widely recognized benchmark for the transition from childhood to adulthood – when you turn 18 – human beings are always growing. We are always discovering new things about ourselves. We are always becoming our best selves, and thank goodness for that because I, personally, could not have done it if I had to do all my growing up in my first eighteen years. So, what do I want to be when I grow up? Who says I ever completely will? 

Asking a child “What do you want to be when you grow up?” will not be world-ending or cause any identity crisis or trauma too deep to overcome, but there are better questions to ask instead. Things that still create dialogue and promote aspiration.

What is important to you?

What impact do you want to make?

What problems do you want to solve?

Kidopolis was not designed to help children have an answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, though it does provide viable options. It is a place children can explore their interests and see what they’re drawn to without any looming expectations. They can learn about society and the systems within it by playing pretend and mimicking the things they see in real life in a controlled environment with plotlines of their own invention. They learn about service and about working together by creating and solving the conflict they’ve written in.

Here’s to letting kids be kids – encouraging them to be curious, not in pursuit of the answer to some outdated, premature question, but because we are excited to see what they discover about the world – and most importantly, what they will discover about themselves.