The right time to ask your child what they want to be when they grow up

You can pretty much count on visiting relatives to ask your kids what they want to be when they grow up. The question can be daunting for little ones, who might say they want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, without truly grasping what the job entails. (Heaven forbid, I often joke, that my kids say they want to be a writer or entrepreneur like their mom. I could tell them a thing or two about precarious professions.)

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Still, it’s never too young to get children thinking about their career opportunities in subtle, age-appropriate ways. The sweet spot to capturing a child’s imagination with respect to work seems to occur around Grades 5 and 6, according to research by Career Trek in partnership with the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. Somewhat surprisingly, the study found that students in that group demonstrated greater awareness of the importance of planning for a career than did children in higher grades.

Riz Ibrahim, executive director of the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC), which funded the study, said the research focused on children who went through the “Career Trek” program, a framework to explore different professional interests. If a participating student in Grade 5 or 6 expressed an interest in being a veterinarian, he or she would get information about the type of place a veterinarian works and the education that’s required.

The Career Trek program then reconnects with the students in a later grade, such as 9 or 10, to find out whether they still want to be a veterinarian. If so, the child is asked a series of questions about their likes and dislikes – such as, are they squeamish about blood? If that bit goes well, the program might arrange a visit to a veterinarian.

If the child’s interest has waned, however, the program might suggest another career path that draws on those preferences.

The important part is to emphasize likes and dislikes rather than focus on the specific job, Mr. Ibrahim said. So, rather than force your aspiring veterinarian to clean the kitty litter box daily or shoot down their rock-star goals, the idea is to try to uncover their interests in order to guide them down the right path early on.

“The research was looking at what kinds of interactions were beneficial from Grades 3 to 4, and up to [Grade] 12. It found that for kids in Grades 5 and 6, this information around things you like and dislike were really important,” Mr. Ibrahim said. He also noted that parents of kids in the Grade 5 to 6 window were also a lot more involved in these discussions than they were in later grades. That may be why the study showed the inclination toward planning for a future career peters off in Grade 7.

Unfortunately, as children grow older and enter secondary school, the conversation about careers tends to focus too narrowly on where the jobs are by encouraging children to “follow the money,” observed Joe Henry, dean of students at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario.

While this isn’t necessarily wrong, he added, it shuts down career options before the discussion can even get started. He observed that young people today will likely have a more varied career path than those currently in the work force and it’s important for children to be exposed to a variety of options to allow them to “pivot” when new opportunities arise.

To accomplish that, parents should help their children understand their strengths and encourage them to engage in activities or volunteering experiences to explore career interests rather than burden them with specific career advice.

“Parents don’t always have the best career advice or understanding of job market,” Mr. Henry said.

Ultimately, we want our children to grow up to be not only successful, but also happy with their work. Dr. Michael Cheng, a staff psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, said that the best way to raise happy employees is to start with a happy childhood filled with solid connections to other people.

Up to the age of 6, parents should be instilling in children the idea that work is about connecting to other people and that the important thing in life is to be productive and make a contribution to society. Naturally, disagreements sometimes occur with co-workers in any job, but just like their experience with friends at school, these are issues that can be solved, he said.

“At the end of the day, parents want to send to their kids the message that what’s most important in life is connections to family and making a contribution. As long as what you are saying is consistent with those bigger messages, that’s all that’s important,” Dr. Cheng said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler