If you asked all the children in your learning centre, or family, what job they think they might do when they grow up, what do you think they would say?
Firefighter, astronaut, footballer, doctor, builder… Maybe something else if it’s what their parents or a particularly cool aunt or friend does.
How many of the boys will say they want to be a teacher or nurse? How many children will pick programmer, caregiver, engineer or scientist?
A fascinating new study asked children from seven to 17 years old, from all over the world, to draw a picture of the job they want to do when they grow up. The survey found that most children choose their dream job based on people they know personally, or on what they see on TV and in other media.
That makes sense. How can a child aspire to a job they’ve never heard of? You can’t dream what you haven’t seen.
Gender stereotyping also seems to play a huge role in children’s ideas about the future. The top two jobs for boys were ‘sportsman’ and ‘social media or gaming’, and girls’ top choice was ‘teacher’. Four times as many boys as girls chose ‘engineer,’ and for ‘vet’ it was the other way around.
There’s also a big mismatch between what children think they’ll do and what society actually needs. Without administrators, accountants, managers, and engineers, we’re not going to get much done, but they didn’t feature much.
So what can we do? If we are helping young children grow into great citizens, how can we give them a broader range of pictures of their future selves?
Check your centre or family bookshelves and dress-up boxes to start with. Do you see a range of people, doing a range of jobs?
See this accompanying article for a round-up of great picture books you might want to invest in, and read on for two more important ways to help your children dream big.
Using the language of gender freedom with children
Young children are doing a lot of work in their brains, figuring out who they are and what their place in the world is. As they make sense of how their culture and society work, they will often apply these ‘rules’ too strictly, and police each other. Be ready to redirect their mistaken ideas.
When you hear a child say ‘but girls can’t be doctors,’ or ‘only boys can be knights,’ or the related ‘pink is a girl colour,’ you can make a difference by gently, and repeatedly, giving them an alternative view:
‘Actually, boys and girls can do all the same jobs. Sophie’s mum is a doctor, remember?’
‘Colours are for everyone.’
‘Girls can do any job they want, just like boys. Isn’t that great?’
Also be careful that you’re not giving them the wrong message yourself – do you tend to use words like ‘fireman,’ ‘policeman,’ or ‘male nurse’? It doesn’t take too long to switch to gender-neutral terms, which helps children know that those jobs are for everyone.
Expand their horizons
Firefighters and police officers will always be popular guests in early childhood centres. If you’re planning more visitors or outings, why not cast the net a bit wider, and think about other jobs that our kids need to know about?
In the recent study, of school children, less than 1% of children picked their job because someone doing that job had visited the school. This is a real opportunity for education centres at all levels, as it’s a key way to provide some balance and give children a chance to discover new kinds of jobs.
There are probably real-life scientists and others in STEM fields who can visit you. Call up your local wildlife centre, zoo or conservation organisation to find a plant or animal biologist. What about engineers planning bridges, roads or recycling facilities your children actually see or use? Your local council might have someone who can come in wearing a hard-hat and carrying some blueprints to show off. Bonus points if it’s a woman since engineering is one of the fields that has the fewest women in it still.
What jobs do your children’s parents do? You probably have small business owners who can talk about their services and products in a way that will engage young children – people who make clothes, cakes or websites for a living, or who have a shop. What about local tradespeople? Would your plumber or electrician be willing to pop in with their toolbox and overalls?
You can also do some internet searching for what careers and industries are currently in need of more people in your area. Do school-leavers around you get snapped up for dairy-farming or website design? Do you have a hospital, care home, or factory nearby?
As an alternative to real-life visitors, you could build a kit of dress-up clothes and accessories themed to different industries. What kinds of tools do people on building sites or in hospitals use in their work? Make sure both boys and girls have easy access to all kinds of job boxes.
What else can we be doing? Please drop a note on our Facebook page or in a comment below if you have ideas to share!