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'I want to be a doctor' may not mean what you think

By Joanna Tzenis

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Police officer!"
"Basketball player!"
"Elsa!" (That was what my 3.5 year old told her preschool teacher when asked.)

It's a common question to ask youth. But what does the answer really mean?

Educators might ask this question to learn about a young person’s interests, to understand how to support them in reaching their goal. Adults might ask the question to prompt future-oriented thinking, and perhaps motivate the young person to work hard in school to achieve their desires.

I encourage caring adults to look below the surface of the answer to this question. Sure, they might be showing interest in the subject matter, but my guess is that there is more to it.

Aspirations--like most aspects of youth development—don’t happen in a vacuum. They are rarely inherent or individually held, but rather formed when youth interact with the world around them. (See for example, Dr. Joan DeJaeghere’s research). Educators and caring adults must see youth in context and understand how cultural, familial and other social conditions shape how youth see themselves now and how they look into the future. (I recommend reading Understanding Youth for more about this).

Last year, I interviewed nine youth ages 12-15 at three different times during the year about how they imagine their futures. Each of them is a child of Somali refugees living Minnesota and Muslim. Each of them said at least once that they wanted to become a doctor. The more I met with these youth, the more I realized how embedded their desired futures are to their ethnic and religious identities -- not their interest in the subject of medicine.

Take a look at the data and you’ll see what I mean. Many (not all) youth did not like science in school.
“I do not like science.  I hate science.” -14 year-old girl who wants to be a doctor.

Youth told me that Islam instructs them to help others. Each expressed wanting to be a doctor in order to help.
“Helping people, I guess that’s what that world is about.” -14 year-old girl saying why she wants to be a doctor

Youth want to earn enough money help their parents who were denied opportunities by the civil war.
“Because if I get money, I can really give some to my mom.” -14 year-old boy who want to be a doctor to get rich)

Youth told me that their parents encouraged them to help people in Somalia.
“Because my parents are from there [Somalia] and I’m going to get older when I become a doctor and I want to go help the less fortunate people that are there and they can’t afford to get a doctor seen like the younger kids.” -13 year-old girl talking about her Somali identity

The construction of youth aspirations at this tender age and how they might change as they grow older is complex. When young people express what they want to do or be in the future, they are likely telling you more than their academic or career interests. Their aspirations say more than what they hope to become. They express, in perhaps covert ways, who they are now.

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Hi Joanna. I love this post. One of my favorite bloggers shared a story that when her son was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered: kind. That story made me think of yours. What if we peeled back the future career talk and instead talked about what kind of people we wanted to be, what did we value, and what do we enjoy? The answers to those questions can help someone pick a career path too. Thanks for enlightening us!


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