What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? Helping Your Child Choose a Career Path

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is one of the most common questions we ask our children. When they’re young the answers our kids give us can range from the pragmatic to the fantastical.

“A princess!”

“A speed boat driver!”

“A firefighter!”


Being the parent to both a preschooler and a soon-to-be high school senior, I’m getting both ends of the spectrum regarding how this question is answered. Before you know it, your child is ready to graduate from high school and the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up” shifts from fantasy to reality.

Some kids are very certain about what they want to do after they graduate high school. Knowing right away can be fantastic, especially if your child has chosen a field that has a lot of prerequisite course work or training.

For some kids, choosing a major course of study and/or career path can be a daunting task. Even though your teen may possess some adult characteristics, the reality is that they are still growing and maturing. The process of selecting a career path can feel especially overwhelming given the number of big life transitions facing them.

Having said that, helping your child choose their career path can also be exciting. This is a time for your child to explore their passions and fulfill their goals. The key is to balance the desire and/or need to make a decision with what’s best for your child.

Here are some simple tips for helping your child choose a career path:

1. Take Your Time

Although you or your child may feel a sense of urgency in deciding a career path, it’s okay to take it slow. If your child decides to go to college, many institutions don’t require a declaration of a major right away. The first few semesters might be a good time for your child to take required courses, try some classes that aren’t available at the high school level, and discover what interests them.

If your child wishes to pursue another career path such as a trade or other vocational training/work, there are numerous options for apprenticeships, classes, and on-the-job training programs that are low-cost or no cost options. Even if your child decides against a career path in the specific program, they will gain marketable skills they can use until they make their final decision.

Finally, taking a “gap” year is an option that is growing in popularity. Gap years are a period of time (not necessarily a full year) between graduating from high school and beginning a career path/course of study. Some students use the time to travel or volunteer, while others work full time. This can be a great opportunity for your child to reflect and gain clarity around their goals. (I actually did this between transferring from the two-year program I attended to my final two years of college at Iowa. I worked full time and it was a valuable experience that helped me focus and improve my academic performance.)

2. Balance passion with pragmatism

What if your child has dreamt of being a dancer since they were young, but you’re worried about how they will make a living? Or what if your child has talent and passion for visual arts, or any other field that may seem impractical? This can present a tricky dilemma for parents. While you want to support your child’s talents, it’s natural to also worry about how they will repay their student loans or get a job after graduation.

Speaking as someone who has a BA in Theatre, I have a lot of experience in this situation. My parents of course wanted me to follow my passion but also worried about my ability to pay my bills. So in addition to my theatre classes, they suggested I take some practical skills classes. This hybrid approach is a great way to allow your child to follow their passion while developing marketable skills that will serve them no matter how their career takes shape.

A dance student who also takes business classes will have the skills necessary to open their own studio someday. A student of visual arts who learns how to use graphic design software could have a great career as a social media design professional. And a theatre student who is comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people can be successful as a college professor and a paid public speaker.

3. Think about strengths, weaknesses, and interests

If your child’s career/course of study may not seem crystal clear, answering some simple questions can help identify common themes that may point them in the right direction. While there are specific career matching tools you could use for this exercise, you can start with a basic series of questions such as:

  • What are your favorite subjects in school?
  • Which subjects are you the best at? 
  • What classes or subjects do you dread/dislike?
  • Do you work well alone or prefer working in groups?
  • Do you prefer indoor or outdoor activities?
  • What is your favorite extra-curricular activity or hobby?

As we’re working through this process with our son, he’s figured out his primary strengths and interests lie in reading and writing. He’s weak in math and has a strong dislike for it. He does well working independently, hates being outside, and loves his volunteer work at the Coralville Public Library. While he doesn’t have his field of study set in stone, answering these questions allowed him to narrow his options to areas similar to English or journalism.

4. Be flexible with expectations

If your child chooses to go to college, this is easier said than done given the staggering cost of higher education. You may also dream of your child following in your career footsteps or joining a family business. But remember, just because your child has chosen a course of study or career path doesn’t mean they will stay in that field forever. 

Their college major/career path won’t be the only factor that determines your child’s professional trajectory. Workforce opportunities are constantly evolving. Interests may change and new opportunities may present themselves. College coursework, career training, and on-the-job experience can provide your child with a variety of skills and experiences that can be useful throughout their adult lives. At the end of the day, your child should pursue a college major or career path that inspires and challenges them. Your child’s passion, curiosity, and resiliency are among the things that will determine their professional success and satisfaction.

Even if they still want to be a superhero when they grow up. 


Meghann is the mom of 5 kids. She is a Lecturer at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Owner/Partner at Brand Driven Digital. Meghann was elected to the Coralville City Council in 2017 and is currently serving her first term. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Coralville Community Food Pantry (Vice-Chair) and on the DVIP Board of Directors. She is also a member of Johnson County's Juvenile Justice and Youth Development Policy Board. Meghann is passionate about her family, her community, and is a proud pop culture nerd.


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