The Inquisitive Mind:
How to Inspire Kids to Explore Their Passions
BY DR. NERMEEN DASHOUSH
Many parents told me that we came to the United States so that I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up— or at least one of the four careers they said existed. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity my parents provided me, but I learned they were way off about the number of possibilities. Ironically, I did select one of those four careers and became a teacher. (My three siblings claimed other careers!)
Now, I’m a professor of early childhood and a mother of two young children. By encouraging kids to explore, and by exposing them to new experiences and ideas, I help children develop a bigger vision of what they can be when they grow up. My goal isn’t to push kids to decide on a career, but rather to guide them to form a better understanding of their skills, choices, strengths, interests, joys, and dreams. As an educator, I’m helping children expand on the possibilities. Parents can do this, too! Here are some ways us grown-ups can guide the kids in our lives by nurturing their interests and skills:
The people they see
I recently went to the pediatrician with my three-year-old daughter. she kept talking about “the lady who told me how tall I was.” That “lady” was a pediatric nurse, but my child didn’t know that because I never told her.
What better way to introduce children to different future paths than in the natural context in which they see them daily in their community? We might fail to do this because these careers have become common knowledge to us as adults, and we forget that children might not know.
As you go about your day, point out the different careers around your child. As you do so, tell your child the specific names of those jobs. Help children begin to understand diversity within professions, giving them opportunities to see their interests reflected within that line of work. For example, children might know about doctors but might not realize there are so lots of types of doctors — they can be delighted to learn about podiatrists, who specialize in feet!
Our daily surroundings can be limited, so draw on other resources (think books, podcasts, and online media) for exposure. The video series “What Will You Become?” on PBS KIDS is devoted to just that. Each episode takes children inside the world of a different professional being interviewed by a young child while highlighting their skills and interests l in ways that are relatable to children. The series does an excellent job of showing professionals from diverse races and genders, giving children a chance to see themselves represented.
I recently watched the series with my daughter, and she loved learning about dog trainers—and I learned a few new professions myself (shout out to fabricators!)
The things they do
To help kids understand future career options, we can show them how their current strengths, skills, and talents align with those careers. When watching “What Will You Become?” my daughter not only learned about dog trainers but also discovered that it’s a career for people who love animals and helping others, something she already likes to do.
It’s important for kids to understand their own unique strengths before beginning to connect to a profession. We can communicate this by the words we use to pump up their many strengths. Provide children with information about their skills and talents by saying more than simple encouragement like “Good job!” and “That’s great!” Instead, use language that reinforces what they’re doing, and you can even point out that professionals utilize those same skills to do their job. This might sound like:
“You’re great at solving problems, just like an engineer.” or “I noticed how well you explained that new game to your brother. That’s a very important part of what teachers do.”
The things they use
I recently put out some goggles, empty water bottles, and food dye and let my children play in the sink (for easy cleanup). As they poured and mixed their concoctions, I heard my little one whisper to herself, “I am a scientist.”
Play is important to every child’s development, including their career identity development.
Children engage in imaginative play to try different roles. Providing various materials can nurture imaginative play and help them expand on the pretend roles they select. There is no need to purchase a fancy 100-piece chemistry kit — it is imaginative play, after all.
Let their imagination do most of the work. Bring hand lenses to a nearby park and let your budding entomologist find those insects. Add some spoons to their sandbox so that they can dig like paleontologists. Pull out some old pillowcases and markers and watch them become fashion designers.
The goal isn’t to expose your child to every career there is or will ever be. If you start fretting about your three-year-old’s resume, remember that career development for young children is not about having them pick their future job (that’s a long way off!). Instead, showing them possibilities while recognizing their strengths and interests will go a long way.