You walk into an examining room and discover a 3-year-old in his underpants wearing a fireman’s hat and what must be his older sister’s rubber boots. You have to ask: “Are you going to be a firefighter when you grow up?” If he is a sensitive kid he will resist answering, “What do you think, Dr. Obvious?” and instead he politely replies, “Yes, and an EMT [emergency medical technician] too.”
Adults, even ones who have devoted their professional lives to the care of children, can’t seem to stifle the urge ask every young person they meet about his or her career plans. It is a strange sort of obsession, and may simply reflect the fact that most adults are at a loss for conversation starters when it comes to talking with young people. Children don’t seem to have much concern about the weather. And most of them don’t have opinions about the current political situation. They don’t have stories about their grandchildren they would love to bore you with. You could ask if the child has a pet, but that may be picking the scab of an unresolved family issue.
Most adults realize that their career plans prior to adolescence have no relationship to their present situation. Thinking back on this disconnect in their own lives may provide them with a good chuckle. But they also may hope to store away the child’s naive answer as ammunition for a future embarrassing challenge. “Do you remember that you once told me you were going to be a forest ranger?”
It may be that the child’s answer will give the adults an opportunity to share their “wisdom” based on their own career decisions. How lucky for the child who has stumbled on an unsolicited life coach.
For the most part, these interrogations about career planning are just idle banter. But as children get older, reality begins shining its harsh light on choices and decisions. What was once a seemingly harmless question about the distant future may no longer be so innocuous. I try to sound apologetic when I say to high school juniors and seniors, “I’m sure everyone is asking you, but what about college?” However, after reading a story in The Wall Street Journal, I now wonder whether I should be skipping the apology and just simply not raising the subject of college ( “What’s Worse Than Waiting to Hear From Colleges? Getting Interrogated About It,” by Sue Shellenbarger, March 8, 2017).
In communities where most high school graduates have been on a college track since middle school, tension and anxiety hangs over the older adolescents like a cloud that darkens as application deadlines herald the long and painful wait for acceptance/rejection letters and emails. High school seniors are tired of thinking about the process and certainly don’t want to talk about. They consider questions about their future an invasion of their privacy. Redbubble, an online marketplace based in Australia, is seeing rising sales of T-shirts that read “Don’t ask me about college. Thanks.”
The unwelcome interrogations don’t stop with college acceptance. Adults want to know, “Have you chosen a major?” And as college graduation nears they can’t resist asking, “Do you have any job offers?”
Most adolescents and many 20-somethings don’t seem to have a career goal. It may be that they are afraid that the process of setting a goal will make them more vulnerable to failure. It also may be that revealing, “I’ve always wanted to be a …” will label them as being a bit childish and weird.
Where does all this adolescent discomfort with the near future leave us pediatricians? The complete evaluation of a high school–age patient should include a question or questions about how our patient is weathering the college and career planning process. The challenge is how to present those questions in a manner that makes it clear that we aren’t just another one of those career-obsessed nosy adults.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .