I am twenty-four-years-old and, dare I say, none the wiser than I was at four-years-old. The “when you grow up” concept is a tricky, overly-flexible concept that has, without question, been warped into a myriad of recognisable and (some) unrecognisable shapes. Pinterest will tell you that you should want to be happy, or content or fulfilled “when you grow up” and yet when we are posed with this question for the first time – standing in our pre-primary classroom called “Fireflies” or “The Green Group” or “Silly Stars” or something else elementary, meant only to appeal to the alliteration-alert ears of those under the age of five… when we are posed with this question, we shoot out with “fireman!” or “a fairy princess!” or “a teacher”.
A few years closer to those (now known as) career ideals (as if that’s all they are) and we’re told that our answer has been wrong all along. Well, maybe not wrong, but definitely not right either. I’m enough of a case in point to demonstrate how (too) often this is the reality.
Growing up I wanted to be (give or take a few thousand) about 1 million different things. Sometimes my “life goals” oscillated between two distinct points, other times I was convinced I could split my relatively-composed self into five different parts to perform five different integral and influential roles in this great big world. The older I became I systematically crossed things off that I knew I would never amount to, which wasn’t always a bad thing. Quite honestly, if I were ever dubbed a genetic scientist, I imagine I would only succeed in causing my cat to grow another limb (lab mishaps and all that…). Similarly, I could never be a doctor; imagine how awkward it would be if once the patient on my theatre table had been sliced open and just as I was about to operate I passed out – obviously stabbing the closest nurse because I was holding a scalpel at the ready at the time of my, somewhat embarrassing, encounter. To a lesser degree, some skin infections give me the heebie-jeebies so, no. A doctor was never on the list.
I wanted to be a teacher, and to some degree I have fulfilled this role but in the traditional “classroom” sense. Incompetence and ignorance cannot be cured by throwing whiteboard erasers at heads, and hard rock music has not yet been likened to having the same mentally stimulating effects as classical music. Pity that is.
I wanted to be a civil engineer; dismantling all useful appliances was always a hobby (after which they were soon no longer useful) and to this day, I claim that I learned something every time I took something apart. I built a rather elaborate race car track entirely out of paper once too – it had loops and levels and pillars and ramps and everything! That’s paper though, and toy cars don’t have living people in them. Engineering requires mathematics (apparently) and after a dismal 3% in a maths test nearing the end of my school sentence, it was confirmed that I shouldn’t be responsible for structures that other people would be using.
While “dressing up” as a kid was still acceptable I transitioned from being a cowboy to a police officer at least six times a day. Some weeks I was a famous BMX trickster, a world-renowned cricketer, a hippy that only ate from the earth, a carpenter, a soccer player, a wrestler, a professional roller blader. All that just to learn that it is essential for a child to dream. Yes, if they don’t dream they may avoid some disappointment, but life is full of disappointments whether you dream or not. So what’s there to lose?
I was told once – by no one significantly important in the grander scheme of things as far as “big issues” like politics and solving the world hunger crisis goes – that you cannot trust a man without dreams. From so many angles this makes so much sense. If a man wants nothing for himself – if he has no ideals, doesn’t strive for excellence in any sense – then he will not want anything for another. He will not uphold any ideal for someone else and that is perhaps the greatest disappointment of all – settling for what is, settling for the not-necessarily-better than yesterday.
This collection of thoughts is turning out to be longer than I imagined but I feel that it’s necessary to write what I write. Let me say that the fireman- or the fairy princess- or the cowboy- or the doctor-dreams are not for nought. They represent the values that children – as small and sometimes innocent as they are – have come to recognise. So perhaps they can’t label “happiness” because they don’t know how to say it; perhaps they can’t label “courage” or “strength” or “intelligent” but they do know the other words and the people that represent them.
After all this, I think children know what they want. They are not yet tainted; they have not yet been told what to think. And maybe “bravery” doesn’t translate to being a firefighter in the end, but to being a motivational speaker. Maybe “successful” doesn’t translate to being a lawyer, but to being an understanding, compassionate teacher. Maybe “intelligent” doesn’t translate to engineer or politician, but to being a profoundly influential businessman. Maybe “happy” doesn’t amount to being very rich, but to being a gentle stay-at-home mom.
Don’t question what children say when they tell you what they want to be when they grow up. Simply listen; watch them as they teach their teddies the basics of geography, as they build castles in the sand, as they fire their toy guns at friends and birds and dogs and trees and cars… they are aiming for something. They might hit something if you let them. They will face enough opposition without your dissent. Let them be what they want to be when they grow up.