What does it mean to know what you want to be, really, and why do we ever have to decide anyway? And, if there is a way to figure out what makes a person gravitate towards one line of inquiry or service than another, could we manipulate those indicators so as to encourage someone to better use their true interests or innate skills so as to be more successful? What if we "helped" someone figure that out, and we were wrong and they ended up miserable, or the world didn't end up with the brilliant astrophysicist that it would've had without our intervention?
Regardless of the answers to any of those hypothetical questions, it seems reasonable that we can look at certain things to see what areas of study someone may succeed in, or what kinds of work might be interesting or satisfying to certain people. So there is some science to career choice and interpreting the path of one's potential. And it seems much easier to look backwards at possibly connected events in order to try to see how certain things impacted the way things turned out.
I look at my own trajectory for an example of this type of thing. By looking at events that had themes similar to my most pervasive area of work, I can see some patterns. I was the oldest of my siblings and all of my cousins, so I was often given the responsibility to watch over the younger kids. Then, when I was about 12, my neighbor had a home daycare and would let me visit and assist her with the children. I liked earning a little cash from the “job,” and I didn’t mind helping with the kids. But I didn’t think of it then as being a profound experience. I put in my time helping and I enjoyed the people I worked there with- mostly the children and the very caring and patient neighbor lady who ran the daycare, who I thought of as a wonderful mother figure during a time period when I was arguing constantly with my own mother over boundary issues.
Now, looking back on those days in her home daycare center, I realize that this was one of those experiences that may have really influenced my own choices in life. That little job, combined with other choices that I made to continue to work with children, may have made a bigger impact than I realized.
At 15, I couldn't wait to get my lifeguarding certificate so I could hang out by the pool with my friends and get paid for it, but one of the side responsibilities at the pool I was soon employed at, was teaching swimming lessons to young children. And those experiences helped me decide later to apply for jobs at daycare centers, because I enjoyed the kids and I had examples of success in similar employment in the past. And soon I was in college pursuing a teaching degree, and even later when I obtained a law degree (because I am a person who doesn’t really like being in one job for very long and that seemed like a good challenge,) I still ended up gravitating back to the classroom and then the field of educational policy.
Was this career track possible for me because I was naturally born as a caretaker of children, or as the first born and acquired the necessary caretaking skills? Or because I had an opportunity as a child to gain the necessary skill set and experience in paid positions that would help me have an edge when applying for other similar types of jobs? And as a strong willed, feminist, I also have to wonder, was I able to better achieve success in a traditionally female-dominated field because I never once was told I could not achieve in that kind of role, due to the stereotypical beliefs in our society?
I think this area of research is very interesting, and I am particularly drawn to it because I want to understand how I can better influence children to find things to do in life that will satisfy and fulfill their passions, as well as help them to be most successful in their future careers. And I also like to think about what I can do, myself, to improve my own career satisfaction and try to choose my next steps wisely. But there are no easy answers. It is not possible to know exactly how things will influence children or adults in terms of “who they will be when they grow up,” and even the research out there does not answer this question without many other questions and indicators as caveats to whatever area of influence that was studied. In other words, we just don’t know what combinations of things will come together in order to set up a person for success in a career. And with the way the world continues to change, we don’t even know what careers are going to be available by the time the kids we are working with or raising are in the world of work.
In my reading, I found that most research about how children make future career choices stem from, and often come back to, the issue of schooling. There is a pervading belief system in our country that in order to be a certain type of person, you must first complete a certain type of schooling. For example, a 2004 research study out of Duke University, (http://today.duke.edu/2004/08/success_0804.html,) was conducted to see what influence parents have on students from seventh through eleventh grade, on their future plans and outcomes. Researcher Nancy E. Hill, associate professor of social psychology at Duke, said, “our research shows that parents do matter, especially in adolescence, when children decide whether or not they want to go to college and begin thinking about what jobs they'd like to have as adults.”
Their research talks about parents who support their children through their educational process can impact whether their children go to college. But that research was done over a decade ago, and things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they?? Now we don’t have to worry as much about what education track a child is on, because that is mattering less and less as students are able to do much more of their own learning online now, and employers are looking for different skill sets than what most public education systems focus on these days. A child who does not complete high school can actually get certifications in multiple fields, and go on to do quite well for him or herself without having to do traditional college at all. This is not always the case, as students from poverty who do not develop the needed skills and do not have access to online learning are definitely at a disadvantage, and this article is not about whether people should attend college or not, but the point is that most research on influences to children regarding their future career choices often revolves around this concept, and there really is more to it than what track we take in our K-12 educational process.
So what else influences us? What makes us decide who to be, when there are so many choices out there?
Speaking of familial influence, some older research studies (for example, page 170 at http://www.krepublishers.com/02-Journals/JSS/JSS-33-0-000-12-Web/JSS-33-2-000-12-Abst-PDF/JSS-33-2-169-12-1397-Shumba-A/JSS-33-2-169-178-12-1397-Shumba-A-Tx%5B4%5D.pdf,) found that the careers of the parents were highly influential on what the child chose to pursue for a career. However, that also may be a changing indicator, as career choices now, decades after those early 1990s studies were conducted, have changed a lot. The entire concept of working has.
We don’t have to choose a career and stay with it forever in order to earn tenure- in fact, most employers don’t even offer pension plans anymore, and there are many other options for retirement planning that do not require someone to stay in a job for a long time. Industry has changed, and manufacturing jobs are often not even available in our country anymore, so where you live may limit your exposure to job opportunities. There are also laws against nepotism that didn’t exist in the past, so it may not benefit a child to work for the parent’s employer anymore. And many of the fields that were so popular in the past have changed as well- for example, teaching used to be a noble profession but now is considered less respected and laws requiring multiple layers of standardization and evaluation, along with low pay and high insurance costs have diminished the numbers of people pursuing that as a career.
And speaking of insurance, being a medical professional like a doctor or a nurse also used to be more prestigious, but with the crackdowns on what healthcare providers can charge for their services (arguably created by the insurance market wanting to spend less for reimbursing for services,) doctors aren’t making as much money as they used to be, and nurses are often overworked and underpaid. It’s a different world than it used to be, and many gifted children can see these issues and choose differently than they saw their parents doing if they think the careers will not work well for them. However, many gifted children will still often choose things in the helping field, even while knowing there are drawbacks, because they tend to be empathetic and want to make a difference, so even negative impacts on careers cannot even be a predictor of choice. So they may or may not be influenced by what they saw their parents doing in their own careers.
And parents have some impact on their children’s success as well. One study out of the University of Texas in 2006, (http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5480/,) found that parental relationships influenced a child’s behaviors towards work and their career choices. Particularly, researchers found that a child’s experience with conflict with their mothers helped them be more successful later, and yet support from their mothers and low amounts of conflict with their fathers were predictive of more maturity in their careers. In other words, a child’s self-esteem and ability to deal with conflicts will help them become more successful. But this did not explain how the children chose what they wanted to actually be- this just measured their success once they were in a career.
So how do they actually choose their careers, and do they have to just choose one? There is more recent research on the issue of gifted people and “multi-potentiality,” meaning those people who end up trying a lot of different things in their life. This can make things more difficult for gifted people to actually decide “who to be,” and may create some episodes of self-doubt and even existential depression as they compare themselves to people who choose one path and stay on it and look more successful than the person who is just starting out at a later time, but it also opens up many different pathways and can allow a gifted person many opportunities to try things out so they find something they really like… if they ever decide that one thing is sufficient and want to stick with it… (often they end up wanting to try something new and novel, even if they do find some satisfaction in one place!) So some people will end up having multiple careers in their lives, which means that obviously there may be more than one developmental time frame in a person’s life that influences what they decide to do for work.
So what other environmental factors could influence us? Was it the toys we played with as children that influence who we want to be when we grow up? There are studies out there that show that the way children’s toys promote gender stereotypes may influence the ways we think about our future possibilities. But there are arguments that refute those studies, saying it is our actual societal beliefs that make the difference and the toys are just one symptom of our societal stereotypes that are far more influential. We don’t want to limit our children by making them believe that they may only become skilled in certain fields, but now that our society is more aware of the gender tracking, we see more and more children who play with many types of toys… who will they become as adults?
One of the subjects who was interviewed in an article on this subject for BBC News, (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25857895,) Neil Sinclair said it best: “One boy I used to look after as a childminder used to like dressing up as a ballerina. He was great at sport, he had good football skills. And he also liked Lego. He could turn out to be a PE teacher, a ballerina or an engineer - who knows?"
Speaking of gender influences, some studies found that teachers and schools themselves were highly influential on what careers students chose to enter and gender stereotypes may be a part of that. A 2008 study by researchers Falaye and Adams in Pakistan, found that even in Pakistan, “teachers’ beliefs influence their learners’ self-perceptions of ability and consequently career choice. In fact, some teachers encourage students to take certain subject options that are congruent with aptitudes and abilities that they identify.” This is pervasive across the globe, apparently. And many school systems even have standards regarding career exploration that require the students to explore different options, therefore helping expose them to different types of careers that they may or may not have thought about before, (for example, here is a lesson plan about career exploration that can be used in STEM classes, http://www.pdesas.org/module/content/resources/26488/view.ashx,) But, again, these examples still tie career choices with schooling. And not all of our gifted children will use schooling that way- many of our gifted youth are homeschooling and unschooling. So what about them?
Research on homeschooled children has shown that these particular children are actually often exposed to more “real-life” situations and experiences than those students who are stuck in classrooms for 180 days each year. One article, (http://www.hslda.org/docs/nche/000000/00000068.asp,) mentions a study of ten homeschool families in Virginia, even back in 1991, where an investigator stated that they were “not prepared for the level of commitment exhibited by the parents in getting the child to various activities … It appeared that these students are involved in more social activities, whether by design or being with the parent in various situations, than the average middle school-aged child."
So does exposure to multiple life experiences impact career choice? An article I read on the topic of the impact of extracurricular activities while in college, (http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1855/College-Extracurricular-Activities.html#ixzz4CJm2wYvs,) claims that taking part in different activities outside of school can provide “opportunities to improve their leadership and interpersonal skills while also increasing their self-confidence. Extracurricular involvement allows students to link academic knowledge with practical experience, thereby leading to a better understanding of their own abilities, talents, and career goals. Future employers seek individuals with these increased skill levels, making these involved students more viable in the job market. Specifically, participation in extracurricular activities and leadership roles in these activities are positively linked to attainment of one's first job and to managerial potential.”
I found an article that summarizes the interplay of many of these influences on a person’s future career choices, and it covers different examples and issues from around the world, (http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=intlvf). One of the main things it discusses is the issue of whether a person feels he or she has an actual choice- meaning does the career actually have openings, do they have the required skills, do they have the beliefs that they could be successful in that field, what traditions in their families say they should do, etc. So add the issues of perceived and actual existence or lack of choice to our list of potential influences as well.
And then there is the issue of whether our innate talents influence what we choose to do. Many bright people may have an advantage in learning, but may have a detriment in social skills if they have struggled to find peers during their formative years, or they may not be able to focus their talents appropriately. So there are still limitations to talent development that the environment can help a person overcome or focus better. And then there is the issue of whether someone born with a natural ability may be guided to something else that they may or may not have otherwise chosen. This is explained in the following article by George Dutch, (http://www.articlesnatch.com/blog/Nature-Or-Nurture---What-Influences-Your-Career-Choice-More-/1394643#gsc.tab=0,) when he says “Rather than nurture and develop their natural inclinations, many parents encourage their gifted children to eschew their natural inclinations in favour of scholarly education that will lead to cerebral and sedentary careers as knowledge workers working with intangible subject matter such as ideas, concepts, theories, thoughts, expressions.”
So what I’ve learned is that yes, we can influence our children, but mostly that means by being strong parents who give appropriate emotional support and safe boundaries (that produce safe outlets for practicing conflict skills,) and we want to provide them with schooling or learning experiences that will help them acquire needed skills for participating in the fields they desire to enter later on. What toys they play with, or what schools they attend, may or may not limit their imaginations and their beliefs about what they can accomplish in their own lives.
The science of career development and how we decide what we want to be when we grow up is a complex thing and even researchers really can’t define it. As author George Dutch states, “Even if all the wiring is present at birth, the key to success in life seems to be finding out what turns it on. Having a certain skill or knowledge often predicts what we CAN do but not what we WILL do.” It’s a little of nature and a little of nurture, and in the end, all we can do for our children is make sure that we give them every opportunity to both believe they can be whatever they want, and provide them with all the support we can give them (emotionally and physically,) so they can obtain the required skills necessary to be successful in the fields they choose to pursue.