A Pledge to My Children

What do you want to do when you grow up?

It only took about 39 years. This includes four years of college, two years of graduate school, several years in the real world, and a little over ten years as an at-home mom to figure out…

I AM ALREADY what I WANT TO BE when I grow up.

That’s all it took.

It takes many of us a lifetime to answer that ever-present question: What do you want to BE when you grow up? I think it is true for everyone…you already are what you’ve always wanted to be.

So, here is my pledge to my children: I will never again ask you what you want to BE when you grow up. I will never again ask any child that question.

It is a really dumb question for one simple reason: Asking someone, especially a child, what they want to BE implies that what they already are is not enough. It is just the beginning of a journey down a very long road through a dark forest of trees that cannot be climbed because one is not strong, smart, tall, short, old, or young enough. As we move through the forest we learn from everyone we meet and all the feedback we get that what we want to be is far more important than what we already are. We get graded, we try-out, we make it, we get cut, we fail, we pass, and we graduate, all the time receiving signs and signals that we are not good enough as-is. We must learn more, eat less, and lift heavier weights to prove our worth. When in fact, all along we are worthy.

While I do have ten years in the field, I am sure that most “experts” wouldn’t call me an expert in parenting. That’s my disclaimer. I understand that it is really fun to ask kids this question. They say really cute things in response. Until just now, I thought it was a great question. Especially when followed with some heartfelt encouragement like “That is awesome! You can be anything you want to be!” There is value in challenging children to try harder, of course. We want everyone to be the best they can be, right? I think the way we say things matters though, so we need to be careful.

So, here is what I might say instead, if I really can’t help myself, which is often likely in my case. I might say, “What do you like to DO?” And I could follow that with “Wow, I know some adults who liked to [play with Legos] when they were kids and now they have jobs as [engineers and architects and math teachers]. Do you know any [engineers or architects or math teachers]?…” Stuff like that.

In many places I have heard the phrase, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. I’m sure there is a really smart person I could give credit to for making that statement, but I don’t know exactly who she is (okay, or he). One of my favorite yoga instructors often says, “We are human BE-ings, not human DO-ings.” It’s true. We are human beings, and as human beings we are implicitly given permission to BE. Actually, it’s probably more of a mandate. BEING comes with our territory as humans. It seems to me that us BEING has something to do with the architecture here on earth. I think BEING is part of our mission.

So why do we put so much emphasis on what we DO? It is not with malicious intent that we ask, What do you DO for a living? or What are you DOING right now? or What are you planning to DO? It’s because we are curious and quite often we care about the people to whom we ask these questions. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that if you aren’t too crazy about what you “do” it can be quite awkward, disheartening even, to be asked what you do for a living. I think in generations past, we weren’t so obsessed with what people do. I think we understood that what we do all day doesn’t necessarily define who we are. I also think if we spent less time focused on what we are DOing and more time simply BEing, we would be much happier people.

I think one of my mom’s most lucid moments after my dad’s death was when we were composing his obituary. Someone at the funeral home drafted something for us and we sat around a table reading it. It said something like James Shields Hodges was a Sheet Metal Worker…. My mom looked up and said, “that’s what he did, but that is not who he was.” And then she listed all these really wonderful things that he was, like an artist and an activist and a musician. And yes, you could argue that these are things a person can do, but really, if you know an artist or a musician, you know that what they DO in that case is very much who they ARE too. You are an artist in your soul. You create art because you have no choice, but to create. You feel like you might die if you stop. Creating connects you to all that surrounds you and everything beyond that. I was never an administrative assistant because I thought I couldn’t go on if I stopped filing papers or writing memos. Quite the opposite, actually. But administrative work was something I did because it allowed me to support myself when I graduated from college.

When I was a child I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I also wanted to be a teacher, a nurse, and even a parapsychologist. As I grew up, even though I wrote all the time, I lost touch with my dream to be a writer. When I revisited that dream, I knew I could never be a writer because I didn’t have a degree in writing, I didn’t have a portfolio of beautifully crafted writings, and there were people out there who were much better writers than I ever dreamed of being. I was so programmed to believe that what I did every day defined who I was that I didn’t even realize I was a writer all along.

Some people are really lucky and they have amazing jobs that allow them to express themselves. Some people have jobs that allow them to make a living. I will not stop encouraging my children to dream BIG, but I think we need to be more careful when we talk to children about great big things like THE FUTURE. Notice, I’m roping you into this one. Please consider it an invitation, as I understand you might think I’m full of it. Honestly though, you just never know what a child might hang on to as little he or she continues to travel through the dark forest of life. You never know what dreams will get squashed when he or she hears the message that they can’t do something because they are not qualified in whatever artificial way society has created to qualify them for that particular job. And in the meantime, simply being every once in a while…every day even, has so much more value than doing tons of crap anyway.

Each and every little child, and all of their parents, and every other human out there, is enough. Understanding that and allowing ourselves more time to BE, rather than trying to DO more, will go a long way. There is really no need to ask a child what he or she wants to be. Most of them really just want to be taller. Every other thing they are already, is all that they will ever need to be…a sweet little soul having a human experience.

Let them BE. Let yourself be while you’re at it.

2 thoughts on “A Pledge to My Children

  1. Anna, I do consider you an expert — I believe we are all experts on our own children. I’ve learned to choose my words carefully with my (and others’) children. Kiddos pick up on so much that we don’t even realize. They’ll have too much to worry about as they grow. Childhood is too precious to place that weight upon their shoulders. One of my favorite phrases is “I love doing _____ with you.” Or “I love watching you ____.” No performance expectations. Just loving being in the moment.

    Now, I feel like I need to re-evaluate what I’m DOING now that I’m grown up.

  2. Thank you for this lovely post, Anna. Your words resonated with my inner-most thoughts these days. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the goal to “become” something has been getting in the way of “being” who I am. Years wasted striving to “arrive” when I am already exactly where I want to be. You are absolutely right, children are already perfectly wonderful as they are; they do not need to become anything different when they grow up. Your post has totally changed the way I think about that age old question we all ask the children in our lives.
    You are a writer. And a teacher.

Comments are closed.