Career guidance 101

2010-04-29 00:00

“MUM,” four-year-old Joah began, when we were alone in the car one day, “what am I going to be when I grow up?”

“I don’t know Jo,” I replied, “what do you think you’ll be when you grow up?”

“I don’t know.” His voice started shaking. “That’s why I asked you.” His bottom lip began to quiver. “You must know what I will be.” His eyes filled with tears. “Do you really not know?”

Joah had discovered a fatal flaw in my parenting and he was devastated. None of the children’s books I had read, had prepared me for this. I hadn’t realised that knowing what your children will be when they grew up is an integral part of parenting. In fact, I’d never come across this problem before: all the children I’d met knew exactly what they would be when they grew up.

And so had I. When I was old enough to watch MacGyver, I knew I would be a detective one day. When I was old enough to watch Fame, I knew I would be a stage dancer one day. And when my mum finally allowed me to watch Dallas, I knew that whatever happened, one day I would run a farm. Then I finished matric and dove off the deep end into the abyss of unknowing. I travelled a bit here, studied a bit there and generally floated around until I had my own family. And then I realised that what I really wanted to be was a mum.

The speech sounded good in my head, but when I turned to deliver it, Joah’s face explained that he was looking for solutions to this parenting mess and not excuses.

So I changed tack: “Okay Jo, well what people usually do, when they don’t know what to be, is they figure out what they are interested in. Then they usually focus on that interest. Then they usually study that interest. And then they usually work in that interest. So, what are you interested in?”

“Well,” Joah mused slowly, “what I am interested in, what I would like to know is whether hamsters get older, how lion cubs run, and,” he looked intensely out the window, “how Dad threw that rope up into the tree to make our swing.”

Hmmm, Joah was right, those questions weren’t falling into an obvious career choice. I had to agree.

“And,” he continued, “I’m very interested in dinosaurs. What I really want to know is if dinosaurs can eat people. Maybe that’s what I can study.”

“That’s a great idea Jo, you can study all about dinosaurs,” I beamed back at him reassuringly.

But he was not comforted. “Judah knows what he would like to be when he grows up,” his face grew confused again and I had a vague sense that I was about to be outshone by Judah’s mum. “He wants to be a pet or a policeman helicopter pilot.” That didn’t sound like something Judah’s mum would have said, so maybe Judah knew what he wanted to be and his mum didn’t. Either way, it was clear that I had to up my parenting game.

“Look Jo,” I reassured him, “the main thing is not to panic. Follow your interests and you’ll soon figure out what you want to do with your life. But don’t be in such a hurry to decide.”

In case you decide today and you change your mind tomorrow, and then you feel confused. Or your parents put pressure on you to become something that they always wanted to be but couldn’t. Or your friends push you into doing something that they think is an opportunity not to be missed. Or your family guides your career choices because they don’t want you to fail, like they think they did. “But you don’t have to decide now. Just relax, follow your interest and let’s figure it out as you go along. We’ll help you.”

Joah was quiet for a while and then he said: “When I get home I’ll ask Dad. Maybe he’ll know what I’ll be one day.”

• Sarah Groves is a freelance writer living in Pietermaritzburg.

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