I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but what we Americans love about the New Year is the titillating possibility of change. Out with the old; in with the Better You. It’s that sweet period that feels flush with promise and all that lay ahead. Even in funky times, we embrace optimism and pretend that we will utterly change ourselves and transform our lives. For me, New Years always means ambitious plans ranging from the mundane to the irrational: flossing daily, bungee jumping, enduring hot power yoga, producing award-winning documentary films in Third World countries, becoming fluent in Spanish, climbing Machu Pichu, writing the Great American novel, and cleaning out my underwear drawer.
Most of my goals seem to fade out by mid-March, but his year feels like we have a second chance to feel invigorated by a fresh start and real change. In about a week we will have a new president and the first black family will move into the White House. History is happening. In our country, ANYTHING really is possible.
So tapping into that sunny, syrupy, shamelessly American/Bob the Builder, “We Can Do It, Yes, We Can,” attitude, I thought now was the perfect time to take the temperature of America’s children. Do they feel optimistic about their future? Are they ambitious? What do they want to be when they grow up? Are they sticking to stereotypes? Or are we living in a post-gender age where boys dream of having a gaggle of kids and girls plan on playing professional hockey?
So I decided to conduct an unscientific survey of our kids. When I say unscientific, I mean I asked my friends to ask their kids and than ask their kids’ friends what they wanted to be when they grew up. Given that the average age of my survey pool was six and a half years old, the sampling was indeed limited and further compromised by my just reaching out to the people I knew. But the results were still revealing.
Starting with my own daughter Lexi, my survey found that kids are only mildly persuaded by their parents’ influence. Case in point: I spent oodles of time in the past year exposing my children to politics, namely the presidential election. I hauled my kids to Allentown, PA, to canvass for Obama and took them to campaign headquarters where they consumed candy while I made voter phone calls. They caught debate highlights on the Today Show, could distinguish Sarah Palin from Hillary Clinton, and enjoyed the children’s books I read to them about running for president. So when I asked Lexi, 5, what she wanted to be when she grew up and asked specifically about whether President of the United States was on the list (yes, it was a leading question) she said to me incredulously, “Mommy, I TOLD you I wanted to be a cheerleader when I grow up, NOT president!” It seems “High School Musical” has considerably more impact in my house than CNN’s political coverage.
My seven-year-old son, Jonah, on the other hand, has no interest in the cheerleading companion career of professional sports player. A chocolate aficionado since infancy, he has decided that he will run a chocolate factory when he is a grown up. For the child who had all his baby teeth sealed because of tendencies toward cavities, this may not be such a wise choice, but who am I to quash the dream. After all, it is creative and probably recession proof. People need their chocolate.
Many children, or at least the “Sponge Bob” crowd from which I yielded my research, have multiple career plans, which I think speaks well to our ADD era and over scheduling after school activities. But let’s face it, working 35 years at one job is about as retro as a green bean casserole. Forget the gold watch retirement gift today’s kids see no reason why they can’t sequence their careers. As 7-year-old Max said, first he will be an NFL Hall of Famer and then he’ll become an architect. If Brad Pitt can be a movie star and design houses, well, I am sure Max can do both as well too.
Almost-five-year-old Charlotte wants to be a lawyer, a doctor and a teacher. She hasn’t learned yet that doctors and lawyers usually hate each other. For a while she wanted to stay home with her four children and not work. But recently when Charlotte was questioned further by her working mom, she said that she now believes she will work and also be home. Charlotte hasn’t entered kindergarten yet, but is already committed to establishing some work/life balance.
Charlotte’s older brother Lewis wants to be a scientist for the environment and an inventor of games. Seven-year-old Lilly wants to be a teacher and her brother Jedd, 5, a football player. Levi, 7, aspires to be president (go Levi!) or if that doesn’t work out, he’ll be a police officer. Levi’s twin sister Raya says she will be a veterinarian. Gemma, 8, wants to be a horse back rider and her five-year-old brother, Josh, a race car driver.
Interestingly no one saw themselves working at Google or creating anything techie or virtual – but then again, I don’t live in Silicon Valley. There were plenty of rock stars and athletes and teachers and mommies.
So even in 2009, a time when Barack Obama is making history with his new gig in the Oval and redefining what’s possible, there was nothing surprising in the jobs the kids chose. Not one boy said he wanted to stay at home with the kids and none of the girls saw themselves as MVPs. An equal amount of boys and girls thought being a doctor, dentist or a lawyer was a good idea.
So while I still have my own career angst and don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, I think it’s smart to take cues from our kids and know that you are not limited to one career. You can reinvent yourself often and after all, it is a New Year.