7 Problems With “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”

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

It’s such an innocent question. You might even say it’s aspirational. What could possibly be wrong with asking a kid what they want to be when they grow up?

A lot, actually.

1. You’re not supposed to know.

It’s crazy to me that we start asking kids this question when they’re in elementary school. And then we keep asking, year after year. By the time they’re in high school, it’s a very serious question. Many students feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t have a definitive answer.

I, for one, rejected this question outright as a 9th grader. That year, we were all forced to take a semester-long career-planning course. We took bogus personality tests (Here’s a quick video about how personality tests are mostly nonsense.) and oversimplified aptitude tests to determine what careers we would be best at. And then we were supposed to job shadow someone in our chosen field. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, and none of the things recommended by the tests seemed appealing. But I was quite sure I didn’t want to spend the day in an office doing “grown up” things, so I job shadowed ski patrol.

Obviously, I could have gotten more out of the opportunity than I chose to. There is value in exploring different career options in middle school and high school. Perhaps if the career unit had been framed more as an exploration and less as a determination, I would have responded better.

2. You don’t have to wait.

The flip side of this is, if you do already know, you don’t have to wait until you’re “grown up.” You can begin right now! You don’t have to wait for adulthood to pursue your dreams, invent, create, discover, and contribute to the world. Here’s a collection of TED Talks from some amazing kids who aren’t waiting.

By implying that you have to wait until you cross some mystical threshold before you can do meaningful work, this question actively inhibits ambitious kids who want to tinker, start a business, make art, or do science.

3. You’ll never be “grown up.”

Oh yeah, and that mystical threshold of adulthood – it doesn’t exist.

Many young people believe that their struggles with procrastination and executive function will just evaporate the day they turn 18, 21, 25, or 30 – the deadline keeps getting pushed back the older you get, until one day, you realize that you’re an adult and nothing has changed. You’re still tempted to procrastinate. You still struggle with bad habits. You’re still disorganized.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” supports this unhelpful belief. It encourages teenagers and young adults to avoid doing the work of strategically cultivating willpower, and it makes kids dismissive of organizational strategies. Instead of fostering this unhelpful mindset, we should be telling young people the truth – that growing up doesn’t happen automatically, that nothing but your own efforts will cause you to change, that you have to make your own motivation.

4. You’re never going to be a finished product.

Despite the supposedly aspirational nature of the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, it’s actually a very fixed-minded way of thinking about your future. It suggests that you will choose a single career, train for it, and then do it for the rest of your life. Once you complete your degree or apprenticeship for your chosen job, you’re done. No more learning, no more growing.

It is from this mentality of “done” that students gripe about school subjects that they’ll “never use in real life” – a complaint that misses entirely the actual purpose of school. It would be far better to encourage students to adopt a growth mindset, encourage their curiosity, and make it clear to them that continuous learning will be a mandatory feature of adulthood.

5. You won’t get to be just one thing.

A long time ago, you might have been able to get away with training for a single career – a farmer, a blacksmith, etc. – but now the world changes too quickly. Most people have to change careers several times, and even people who stay in one career have to constantly retrain and retool in order to keep up with innovation.

Furthermore, there are jobs we can’t even imagine yet that will come into existence as the current generation of students progresses through adulthood. If you asked a kid growing up in the 90’s what she wanted to do for a living, she could not have possibly replied, “I want to be a smartphone app developer.” But that could very well be what she’s doing right now.

And even if you could somehow manage to stay in the same career your whole life and miraculously avoid the need to retrain in order to keep up with our ever-changing world, would you want to? Would you actually want that life? It sounds dreadfully boring to me.

Again, the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question falls short, implying that you have to choose a single career. This is a false choice. You can do many things.

6. You’re not your job.

This question also places too much emphasis on career. For people with prestigious careers, this bogus narrative is a source of overblown pride: “My son is a doctor.” Or for people with less prestigious careers, it’s a source of shame: “Oh, I’m just a barista.” People are more than their job titles. They are complicated, dynamic human beings.

Maybe you want to be an architect when you grow up, but you also want to travel, play guitar, climb mountains, volunteer, and raise a family. We ask the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question expecting one answer, but it’s ridiculous to have just one answer. How unimaginative is it to envision a future dominated by a single activity or a single identity?

7. You won’t be satisfied with just one thing.

To understand what it takes to live a satisfying life, I like to use this diagram:

But it’s a mistake to think that you’ll find a singular activity or career that fulfills the four requirements. More likely, you’ll need to approach this pursuit via multiple avenues – jobs, hobbies, volunteering, etc. And, if you work your way toward the center, you can cultivate multiple Ikigais. Click here to learn more about how to use the Ikigai concept to live a more satisfying life.

Better Questions

In an effort to be more than just a critic, here are some better questions you can ask to replace “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

What are some of the things you’d like to do, experience, or accomplish in your life?

What jobs do you think are common now that won’t exist in the future? What jobs that don’t exist now might come into being?

What kinds of things do you enjoy learning? What are you curious about?

What types of projects and puzzles interest you?

Is there anything you’d like to try or experience before you go to college? How can I support that?

What are some of the problems facing our world that you might like to help solve? How can you get involved right now?

And really, the right move probably isn’t a formulaic question. The right move is a broad, open-ended conversation. A conversation that acknowledges the uncertainty of the future. A conversation that doesn’t need to arrive at definite conclusions. A conversation that is truly and imaginatively aspirational.

How to Get Students to Care About Their Grades

Four teenage boys having fun

Here’s a question we sometimes get in our parenting classes or that Greg often gets in parent coaching sessions:

“Bobby just doesn’t seem to care about his grades. How do I get him to care?”

This exasperated parent is hoping that we’ll tell them the magic set of words they can say that will inspire their son to be motivated to do well at school. And they are always disappointed to hear that no such set of words exists.

“A teenager is like a Chinese finger trap, we patiently explain. “Actively trying to get them to care will have the opposite of your intended effect.”

And how do you get out of a Chinese finger trap? By relaxing a bit. The solution here is the same. The parent actually cares too much about their child’s grades. They need to care less.

The Student Should Own Their Grades

The core message for such parents is that the student needs to own their grades. Teachers, tutors, and parents should not be the ones emotionally invested in the child’s grades. The student needs to be the one who cares. If we do all the caring for them, they’ll reason that they don’t need to care.

a mom checking grades while the student lies upside down

We want students to be in charge of their own academic life. We want them to become active agents, responsible for their own learning. This means they get to choose whether or not to use resources, take notes, and ask for help. They get to choose whether or not to do more than what is asked or use effective study techniques. And they get to deal with whatever outcomes result from their choices – good or bad. They get to feel whatever emotions accompany those outcomes – pleasant or unpleasant.

Parents Should Do Less Grade Management

When parents are constantly checking their children’s online grades and getting on their case about every low test score and each missing assignment, it sends the wrong message.

By micromanaging your child’s grades, you’re telling your child two things: 1) They can’t manage their school life on their own, and 2) They don’t need to practice managing it because you’re going to do it for them. I have never once seen this behavior result in greater effort or buy-in from a student. Every time, this sort of overparenting breeds either passivity or active resistance.

a mother and daughter arguing about school

This is similar to a common issue around executive function. Parents often feel a need to step in and micromanage their children’s schoolwork, keeping track of due dates, upcoming tests, and project milestones. But if you do all the executive function work for your child, their brain will never be forced to develop the skills to manage their own schoolwork. You don’t get strong if someone else lifts the weights for you.

In fact, these two issues often go hand-in-hand because when a parent takes ownership of the executive function tasks related to school, they’re sending a strong signal to the child that they’re the ones who care most about the grades. The child, seeing that their parent is doing enough caring for the both of them, becomes a passive passenger.

Now, you can’t just flip a switch and turn your emotions off. You’re still going to care about your child’s grades. But you need to practice hiding those emotions or at least dialing them down. And you need to demonstrate through your actions – or lack of actions – that you’re not in charge of their grades. If your child sees that you’re no longer in charge of their grades, they’ll figure out that it must be their job to take the driver’s seat.

I’m also not suggesting that you ignore their grades completely, or that you become a totally laissez-faire parent. As always, the middle ground of parenting styles is best. There are ways to be engaged with your child’s academic life without micromanaging it. There are ways to hold your child accountable for their schoolwork without taking ownership of their grades.

Family Values and Natural Consequences

One way to do this is to clearly establish what your family’s values are around schoolwork and to define what the consequences are when you don’t live up to those standards.

For example, you could establish a rule that simply says, “When a well-meaning adult asks you to do something reasonable, you do it because that’s the polite thing to do.” Teachers are well-meaning adults, and homework is a reasonable request. If you choose not to do your homework, you’re effectively being rude to the teacher. In such a case, you can tell your child that they need to complete their homework, but the conversation doesn’t have to involve grades at all – it’s about manners.

a mom pointing out her daughter's bad manners

And your child gets to live with whatever natural consequences result from their choices. This could mean having to stay home and complete their missing homework instead of going out with friends. This could mean having to retake a class over the summer because they failed it. This could mean having fewer options after high school. In all such cases, it’s important that the child feels the unpleasant emotional consequences of their choices because that’s what will motivate them to make better choices in the future.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sometimes, however, students take too much ownership of their grades, meaning they become single-mindedly obsessed with them. There’s more to life than school, and there’s more to school than grades. It’s good to be proactively in charge of your own learning and your own academic future, but this should never come at the detriment of your physical and mental health.

Some kids may feel a very strong need to earn high marks in school, but they also need balance. They need a social life. They need exercise. They need sleep. They need play. They need to remember that they are more than their grades.

However, very few kids get to be so hyper-focused on grades without a parent accidentally setting a similar example in their personal or professional life. So if your child is in this category, take a look at how you’re spending your time. Are you making time for rest and recovery from stress? Are you giving yourself permission to be human? Modeling these things is a powerful way to help your child learn to find balance between their academic and personal lives.

Not Caring Might Be a Defense

Lastly, it’s important to point out that many kids put on a façade of apathy as a defense mechanism. The reality is, they do care. They want to do well in school. They want to build a bright future for themselves. But they’re struggling, and it’s safer to say “I don’t care,” than to say “I don’t know how” or “I can’t.”

a teenager quietly struggling

They see other students being productive and getting their schoolwork done on time, and they see grown-ups working hard every day, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that getting things done and overcoming procrastination are all about mustering brute-force willpower. They don’t know about smart willpower strategies that make it easier to do what you need to do. They don’t know how to generate their own motivation in order to beat procrastination. They need to see parents model these strategies.

They see other students scoring well on tests, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that test grades are just about how smart you are. They imagine that studying effectively just means putting in tons of time. They don’t know about the power of spaced repetition or self-testing. They might need a tutor to guide them toward these techniques.

When students know how to do well, they are much more likely to admit that they care about their grades or, more importantly, demonstrate that they care through their choices.

The Connection Between Anxiety and ADHD

A frustrated student snapping their pencil over a pile of books. Having both anxiety and ADHD is hard.

Your big research paper is due on Friday. It was assigned weeks ago, but you haven’t started yet. You didn’t mean to procrastinate, but each time you try to sit down and work on it, you can’t focus. Plus, whenever you so much as think about tackling this project, it overwhelms you. Too big. Too many steps. And none of your ideas seem good enough anyway. Now, with the deadline looming, you’re starting to panic. This, of course, only makes things worse. As your anxiety ramps up, your ability to focus diminishes even further, and knowing that you can’t focus enough to get the work done makes your anxiety even worse.

This can be what it’s like to have anxiety and ADHD: Your ADHD makes your anxiety stronger, and your anxiety makes your ADHD symptoms worse.1

They feed off of each other in a vicious cycle:

A feedback loop showing that worsening ADHD leads to increased anxiety, which leads to worsening ADHD

Another common experience for students with ADHD and anxiety is to struggle taking tests, and here they feed off of each other too. If you have trouble staying focused during exams, then you know that you’re not going to do as well as you otherwise could. And thinking that you’re not going to do well is likely to trigger anxiety, which makes it even harder to focus because rather than thinking about what the questions are asking, you’re thinking about how poorly you’re doing. Whereas most test anxiety is simply about being unprepared, this is a case where clinical issues are relevant. (Though studying effectively in order to be well prepared would still help.)

A Common Comorbidity

An anxious student working on a laptop and in a notebook

Having both of these conditions is very common. About 30 percent of children with ADHD also experience anxiety, according to The National Resource Center on ADHD, and around half of adults with ADHD have an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.1

Thus, any parent of a child with ADHD should be aware of the increased likelihood that their child will also struggle with anxiety.

What is Anxiety?

“A person with an anxiety disorder is likely to experience long-lasting feelings of nervousness, fear, and worry. … They may have difficulty identifying and controlling their specific fears and worries. These feelings tend to be out of proportion to the situation, and can interfere with people’s daily lives and relationships with others.”1

This is distinct from the normal fears, worries, and nervousness that most people experience from time to time. If you feel butterflies in your stomach before giving a presentation, it doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder.

This is also distinct from ADHD, which is characterized by difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity, and poor impulse control.1 However, anxiety can lead to increased mind wandering, which may look similar to difficulty focusing.2 And both anxiety and ADHD can lead to apparent difficulties with executive function, such as not getting things done on time, failing to keep appointments, and otherwise struggling to play the game of school.

Treating ADHD When You Have Anxiety

It’s important to know whether or not you have anxiety when you determine an ADHD treatment plan.  Children with both ADHD and anxiety sometimes respond differently to ADHD medication than those without anxiety.3 And the stimulant medications that are often used to treat ADHD sometimes exacerbate anxiety symptoms.1

Treatment for Anxiety

As with ADHD, anxiety can be treated with medication, which is sometimes appropriate. However, there are also non-medication treatment options that can be very effective on their own or in addition to a medication plan. And since these are all good things to do even if you don’t have anxiety, they’re a great place to start while you’re sorting out diagnoses and professional treatment options.

Here are some helpful, non-medication interventions for anxiety:

However, starting and sticking with these kinds of healthy habits is challenging, especially if you have ADHD. But you don’t have to use brute-force willpower, and you don’t have to go it alone. I offer strategic habit coaching for adults and older students, and I would love to help you install some of these behaviors to run on autopilot. (For parents of younger students, the best place to start might be adopting these habits yourself and modeling them for your children.)

Treating Both

All of the anxiety-reducing strategies listed above also help reduce ADHD symptoms, so if you’re struggling with both anxiety and ADHD, you stand to benefit greatly from using these techniques.

Just as worsening anxiety leads to worsening ADHD in a downward spiral, treating one often improves the other, leading to a virtuous cycle of improvement on both fronts.

A feedback loop showing that reduced ADHD leads to reduced anxiety, which leads to reduced ADHD

So if you or your child has both of these conditions, there is a good reason to be optimistic. True, ADHD with comorbid anxiety can spiral out of control if left untreated. But if you address them both using a combination of professional help and at-home treatments, you can turn things around and create a great deal of positive momentum.

1 Written by Jayne Leonard. Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP. What is the link between anxiety and ADHD? Medical News Today. May 15, 2017

2 Tiago Figueiredo, Gabriel Lima, Pilar Erthal, Rafael Martins, Priscila Corção, Marcelo Leonel, Vanessa Ayrão, Dídia Fortes, Paulo Mattos. Mind-wandering, depression, anxiety and ADHD: Disentangling the relationship. Psychiatry Research. Volume 285, 2020, 112798, ISSN 0165-1781,

3 Pliszka, Steven R., M.D. Effect of Anxiety on Cognition, Behavior, and Stimulant Response in ADHD. From the Department of Psychiatry, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Accepted 31 May 1989, Available online 4 January 2010.

4 John J. Ratey, MD. Can exercise help treat anxiety? Harvard Health Publishing. October 24, 2019

5 Uma Naidoo, MD, Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Harvard Health Publishing. August 28, 2019

6 Tips for beating anxiety to get a better night’s sleep. Harvard Health Publishing. October 13, 2020

7 Kaczkurkin, Antonia N, and Edna B Foa. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 17,3 (2015): 337-46.

8 Julie Corliss. Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress. Harvard Health Publishing. January 08, 2014