Stop Asking Kids This Question.

From the moment children are taught to communicate, adults begin to marvel at their youth and honesty. They ask pestering questions like “What’s your favorite color?”, “What’s your favorite animal?” or “What books do like best?”; questions seemingly non-harmful at the time. However, adults are quick to shift what are known to be “kiddy questions” to questions most adults don’t even have the answer to. They ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A simple question in its structure and one built to aid the development and progress in our lives has immense power over our futures. But to what extent does the question actually help? When does it suddenly rattle our brains and keep us up at night?

The first time I was asked the question was probably when I was in Kindergarten. I was five years old, I had just moved to Singapore, I had pigtails, and I rocked some stellar pink sunglasses. Thinking about it now, I honestly had no idea what was going on half the time. So when Mrs. Woody, my Kindergarten teacher, posed the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” it was much to my amazement that all my friends immediately spouted out answers. They would reply saying that they wanted to be scientists, firemen, or doctors.

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But I? I was that kid whose parents’ would get an email once or twice a month from a teacher saying I wasn’t “actively participating.” I was so disoriented, my parents sent me to gymnastics class, just to lessen my clumsiness. I had no idea what I wanted to be. So while transitioning from Primary School to Intermediate School and then to Middle School, I picked up on one major continuance. Although I wasn’t lagging behind my friends academically, I noticed that I was missing one key element all my friends had shared. They all, similar to my friends in Kindergarten, knew what they wanted to be. While I, same old me, except this timeless clueless and less clumsy, still had no idea!  

I spent the rest of my Middle School years wallowing in self-doubt and uncertainty. And it was only until I got into High School, that I realized I was whining about nothing. Until then, I had always thought of myself as the only one; I thought I was the only one who remained super stressed out at all times about my pending future. But with college inching closer and closer, I noticed my friends were finally feeling the same pressures. And like dominoes, every one of them began to accept that what they wanted to be when they were younger was not exactly at the peak of their interest anymore.

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After 10 years of  SAS, you start to be accustomed to the yearly ritual.  It starts with the beginning of the year “Welcome Back Sundaes,” follows with the Food Fest and County Fair, then IASAS, and finally graduation! The routine is so adamant in the structure of my life, specifically the grand graduations at the end of each year; that the belief that Graduation is the single testament to success, has been eternally ingrained in my mind. Coinciding with the deafening interrogations of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” all my classes throughout my education have been centered around the fixed ideal that only strived for the finish line described as college. As much as we would learn new content and explore new materials, I never truly felt the feeling that I was, in fact, learning anything. It was cyclical: Math, Science, History, English. Every day, every week, and every year. There was no honest talk about opportunity and no genuine discussion on our individual potential.

Confidently, knowing that I’m not actually alone, I can say that we have all been asked the same immortalizing question.  Whether it was when we were only 5 years old, or as recently as last night—over dinner with our parents. We have all suffered the gripping lectures that are supposed to propel us into figuring out our destinies. Believe it or not, your friends and classmates, as carefree as they may seem at times, are going through the same thing. In fact, kids across the world are going through the same stresses.

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Noelle Leonard (NYU) Photo Credit: New York University

Just to prove it, in a study done at NYU, Noelle Leonard, a research scientist, dove into the stresses of High School students and examined why such stresses occur. In her 2015 four-phase quantitative and qualitative study, she and a team of other researchers concluded that nearly half of the students surveyed reported high levels of stress, while 31% reported moderate levels of stress. The long list of reasons could be categorized into three distinctions:  Academic expectations, parental pressures, and, finally, college admissions. While the three distinctions could be classified as “valid” reasons of stress, the real concern is how universal all these stresses are.

Leonard’s research identified what, unfortunately, we all already know. We are stressed out. But if kids all around the world are experiencing the same stresses, revolving around the same things, what is the mistake being made that creates such a universal catastrophe? Let me go back to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” While the question itself may not be the leading factor that steers all the stress and unhappiness in our lives, it sure plays a major supporting role. If you’ve been following along. You might have been able to crack the core of the question’s enigma. But if not, here’s a step-by-step summary explains how millions of teens across the globe, including us, fall into the pitfalls of stress.

The Bumpy Road to Graduation

  • Starting as carefree and joyous babies, we are essentially clueless of the world’s harms.
  • As toddlers, we begin our education excited to play and make friends.
  • When, eventually, such fun and games are cut short, we find ourselves unconsciously comparing ourselves to each other in Elementary School, catalyzed by interrogating queries known as “guiding questions.”
  • Soon, we begin to dive into mountains of work that just seem to pile up over time as Middle Schoolers.
  • When we are finally High schoolers, we start sleeping at unlawful hours while simultaneously trying to down cups of coffee and cans of red bulls to keep us awake and keep up with the high expectations.
  • Ultimately, we begin curating our “paths to the future,” Where we are forced to take on college applications with red eyes, senseless brains, and weak hearts.

Now we have all experienced this endless cycle. And unfortunately, the cycle continues to persist, with updated statistics every day proving the problem exponentially intensifying into the lives of even younger kids. While we may not see eye to eye with reality just yet; or while we might still argue, complain, rant, or just ultimately cry about the all of the unknowns in the future, we need to stop this infinite cycle, look past the concrete horizons we set in place, and seek beyond the judgements of others to truly terminate this battle against 21st century stress.

The purpose in our lives is not cemented by the construct of society.  Wouldn’t it be a novel approach to confidently answer that constant “What do you want to be when you grow up” with the sage words of the Dalai Lama:  To be happy.


Author: Renee Goh

Renee Goh is a Senior at SAS and a first year reporter of the Eye. She enjoys scrolling through memes and on occasion she likes to run, jump, and hurdle for the SAS Track and Field team. She eats açai bowls by the kilo, spends most of her time with her family, and wishes she was Wonder Woman. She can be reached at

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