What do you want your children to be when they grow up?

We are often so caught up with the challenges of the daily grind, juggling family and work, sandwiched between our children and our own parents that we tend to overlook this question.

We barely have the energy to make it from one semester to the next, let alone wonder about what’s in store five, 10, even 15 years from now.

Oh, we plan for our kids, of course we do. We schedule their enrichment classes and stress over their grades. We scheme to get them into the best schools and stretch them with extra courses (coding, anyone?). But that’s like planning a journey without knowing the destination – we know our next few moves, but we don’t really know where we’re headed.

mother child playing
Image source: Shutterstock / KTOGRAPHY

How odd it is, that it was easy to play “when I grow up, I want to be a…” games with our kids while they were infants, yet the moment they enter primary school, the only questions we ask them are “how much did you get for your…?”

We fuss over their CCAs, stress about their GEP streaming, worry over their PSLE results and angst about their STEM options. Suddenly, our children’s grades are all consuming and we forget to dream with them again.

“Oh don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of time to think about what we want to do after the PSLEs… after the O levels… after the A levels…”

Before we know it, we have a young adult in front of us – thoroughly educated, utterly unprepared.

And we forget that as we were worrying over their education, our little darlings have suddenly grown up and developed hopes and dreams of their own.

Why are some jobs more desirable than others?

Why worry about this, you may ask. After all, we can’t predict the future, let alone our children’s.

Recently, a colleague asked for my opinion about this article. I felt it was a wonderfully sweet story about how a 20-year-old student has been helping her parents run a butcher stall in a wet market since she was a young teen, and I told her so.

Then she hit me with the next question.

“So,” she asked me, “would you let your daughter do this job?”

Image source: Shutterstock / Filipe.Lopes

I was puzzled. “Why not?” was my first thought. There’s a Chinese phase I’ve always hung on to, roughly translated, it means “as long as it’s not thieving or robbery, what job is there to be ashamed of?” ‘

Then she explained why she asked the question. Turns out that she had worked in a wet market in her younger days to help some relatives, against the wishes of her parents. And she never understood why they were so vehement about it.

It’s not just the wet market. For too long, we have looked down on the humbler jobs that keep our country running, and we are the poorer for it. Too often, we equate high-paying with high-value. In many examples, in our capitalistic economy, that rings true, but it isn’t always the case.

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There’s an old joke that goes “Those who say money doesn’t buy happiness don’t know where to shop.” And it’s also tone-deaf to argue that money is secondary with someone who has gone to bed hungry, slept in a room they did not own, or woken up not knowing if they had enough to make it through the day.

Yet there must be more meaning in life than the neverending pursuit of money. Perhaps it’s time to redefine the 5Cs?

Yes, there may be humble jobs but simple doesn’t mean shameful. And, especially so in our year of Covid, surely we have learnt by now how in times of scarcity, an honest living is still a blessing and that so many of our frontline heroes are those who quietly go about their jobs keeping us safe?

It’s not just the humble jobs that Singaporeans seem to disdain, but the harder ones as well. Much has been said about how the median age of hawkers have gone up as fewer young Singaporeans seem to want to take up the mantle. Surely there is value in preserving part of our Singaporean hawker culture?

Conflicting thoughts

But my colleague’s question still niggled, because I realised on further contemplation, that for all my so-called enlightened posturing, I understood where her parents were coming from – I too, would be bothered by my child working in a less-than-ideal job.

Did that make me a hypocrite?

I took my doubts to a close friend and she asked me a simple question that set me straight.

“Do you want your children to suffer?” she asked gently, continuing, “there isn’t any shame in these jobs, but part of the reason why we as parents work so hard is to give our children a life we didn’t have. Sometimes, we don’t want our children to do the same jobs as we do, not because we are ashamed of what we are, but because we know how hard we have worked to give them a better life.”

“And we believe that they can rise higher.”

Where parents and children disagree

Image source: Shutterstock / Twinsterphoto

All parents want their children to be the best versions of themselves. No doubt, that’s what children want of themselves too! Where the conflict arises is in the definition of “best” and ironically, “themselves”.

When our kids are young, they hang on to our words, do what we do, wear what we put them in, eat what we give them (I wish!). They are extensions of ourselves, a blank slate of endless possibilities.

How many of you have looked at your sleeping child and said quietly to yourself: “My life is set on a trajectory now, but yours is still full of potential”?

Perhaps that’s why we put so much pressure on them to succeed. They are the next wave that will crest over us as we fade into the undertow.

Yet there is the flip side of the coin.

Where about what our children want? What if, it is their dream to work a particular job or in a particular industry? Easy, you say, of course you’d encourage them and support them, it’s their life mah. Okay, what about if it’s a career that you don’t think they should be in?

What if, for whatever reason, altruistic or otherwise, you object to what they want to do, and they say it’s none of your business?

Whose dreams are these?

It is the challenge of parenthood, the question that follows parents deep into their journey, even after their children have children of their own: When do you trust your child enough to let go?

We can’t predict the future. But we can certainly prepare for it. We can’t force our children to be what we want them to be, yet how do we find the balance of wanting the best for them and allowing them to choose what’s best for themselves?

student with parents
Image source: Shutterstock / Tom Wang

It is the dialogue between parent and child that is so important. That is only honed through the emotional bond that is nourished between the two parties. As parents, we cannot merely concentrate on the material support and intellectual growth of our children, only to be taken by surprise when we look up and suddenly find that they have grown into young adults, strangers in our home.

Neither should we expect our children to always tell us everything on their own volition. Personally, I believe they want to, but they might fear telling us, for myriad reasons – fear of angering us, fear of disappointing us, fear of being rejected, fear of being shamed.

Nurturing a sense of wonder

girl superhero
Image source: Shutterstock / PR Image Factory

Ask yourself, when was the last time you asked your kid what they wanted to be when they grew up?

We should encourage a childlike wonder in our children. At eight, I knew what I wanted to do (play Super Mario Bros every day). At eighteen, I knew what I wanted to be (a world-famous volcanologist). It was never going to come true – seeing which Singapore has a distinct lack of volcanoes, no matter how proud we are about Bukit Timah Hill – but it was still a wonderful dream to have.

Don’t get me wrong, not knowing what you want to be isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Entering university, I knew what I wanted to be; after I got my degree, I wasn’t so sure any more. Now, after almost 20 years of working, there’s still a part of me that remains restless over the what-could-have-beens. That uncertainty is sobering, yet a little exhilarating at the same time.

Our job as parents is to encourage that sense of wonder in our children, as long as we can.

And have them share their aspirations, their fears, hopes and dreams with us.

We do that by talking and listening. We can do that simply by being present and paying attention.

So what if my daughter wants to be a hawker or work in a wet-market stall? Start a career in F&B (another tough industry), or eschew a safe white-collar office job to pursue a financially risky dream venture?

I would ask her if this were her ambition. Then listen. And encourage her to be the best version of herself in whatever she does. Because that is what parenting is about, not only to prepare our kids for the future, but to trust them enough to eventually let them fly on their own.

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