When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be everything from an astronaut to a police officer to a chemist. Other kids my age wanted to be firefighters, baseball players, or teachers. But I don’t think any of us were seriously thinking about our future career plans.
At what age should children seriously consider what their future career path will be? Should they just wait until they start college so they can explore their options then?
In our family, we have the philosophy that it’s never to early for our kids to start thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Starting at about the age of 12, we start having real discussions with our kids about their future career options.
Why do we start the career conversation so early instead of letting them wait until they’re done with high school?
Starting the discussion early allows us as parents to be involved in their process of choosing a career path.
We definitely don’t select the careers for our children, but we do offer our kids more experience and wisdom than they have available by themselves. Starting the career conversation early means we can help guide them in the process, offering feedback as needed, and suggesting alternatives our children may not have thought of.
If the career discussion doesn’t happen while our kids are at home with us, they may be left to making the decision on their own without our counsel and support. And that may mean they may miss out on an ideal career option because they simply didn’t think of it on their own.
I'm definitely not saying that our kids aren’t capable of choosing a career on their own. But I am saying that it can only benefit them if we offer them our counsel while they are young.
Starting the discussion early can save both time and money.
If our kids wait until college to decide on a career path, they may end up changing majors time and time again before settling on a path. This usually means they spend longer in college and pay more in tuition and room and board.
Of course, choosing a career path early doesn’t mean they won’t change their mind once they start college, but it certainly makes it less likely, especially if they follow the process of career discovery as I describe below.
How to Help Your Child Choose a Career Path
The basic process we’ve followed for all three of our kids developed naturally over the course of the last 5 years. Here are the basic steps, which I'll explain in detail in a moment.
- Immersion & Evaluation
Step 1: Observation
From an early age we pay close attention to our kids’ strengths, interests, abilities. Here are some of the things we look for:
- Are they athletically, artistically, or musically gifted?
- Do they like particular subjects in school?
- Are the exceptionally good at a certain subject?
- Do they have certain positive personality traits like generosity, hospitality, empathy, etc.?
- Do they have leadership skills?
- Do they like spending time with certain age groups?
- Do they spend their free time doing a particular activity?
- Do they enjoy serving others?
- Do they prefer working in groups or individually?
- Are they self-starters?
- Are they detail-oriented?
- Is there something they are particularly passionate about?
Step 2: Selection
Based on what we’ve observed about each child, we start having discussions with them about possible career paths that incorporate those skills, interests, and abilities.
Sometimes they bring up career options themselves, but usually we start the discussion by saying, “What do think about being a…(computer programmer, nurse, professional musician, photographer, journalist, child therapist, audio engineer, teacher, etc.)?”
If they don’t understand what a certain career involves, we may do some research on it, or even take them to meet someone in that field so they can ask questions.
This step in the process can go on for years, but since we start the conversation so young, we have lots of time. And once we’ve started the discussion with our kids, they continue to think about it, sometimes coming up with different career ideas on their own.
Step 3: Immersion & Evaluation
Once our kids express interest in a certain career path, we start immersing them in the subject. I’ll add pertinent courses to their school curriculum so that they’ll be exposed to that career field as much as possible.
The goal of this step is three-fold:
- If they lose interest in the process of studying the career-related subject matter, we know that this career choice is probably not the right one. We will simply shift gears, even if it means they don’t finish the complete curriculum we’ve laid out for them to study in that subject, and move back to Step 2 (Selection) where we brainstorm more career path options.
- If after being immersed in the subject matter they retain their interest—and especially if their interest grows into a passion—we can be fairly certain that we’re at least on the right path. We'll continue the Immersion step and move on to Step 4 (Planning).
- Regardless of whether or not they discover their ultimate career path, they will have learned something new which makes them more well-rounded educationally.
Step 4: Planning
Once we have a good idea that this career path may be viable, we start researching and planning how they'll get their education after high school. Depending on their career path, that might include anything from community college or vocational school, to a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
We'll use this research to help refine our high school plan to minimize tuition costs through dual credit, advanced placement, and credit by exam. We can also make sure that our kids are introduced ahead of time to any new concepts they'll be encountering in college.
Any part of this planning is completely tentative, but our kids love having a goal to shoot for!
How Our Kids Have Worked Through These Steps (So Far!)
So how has this career exploration process worked for our own kids? I'm happy to say that as of right now, all three of our kids (ages 12, 16, and 17) have chosen careers paths that seem very viable for each of them.
Jaden, age 17, Audio Engineer
When Jaden was 13, he was interested in computers (and still is), so we explored computer programming as a career path. Not long into the Immersion Step Jaden realized this was not the right choice for him. So we started back over at the Selection Step.
And we ended up staying at the Selection Step for the next two years, during which time Jaden continued to play guitar in the youth band and compose electronic music, two of his favorite pastimes. At one point we toyed with the idea of him being a professional musician, but while he is an excellent musician, that career choice just didn’t seem to be the right fit. And so we waited.
Finally at age 15, when Jaden started getting really involved running sound in the tech ministry at our church, we brought up the possibility of being an audio engineer. Jaden immediately got excited about the idea; audio engineering seemed to be the perfect combination of his interests: computers, music, and composition.
Over the next two years Jaden continued to run sound at church, took a number of courses on audio engineering through Lynda.com, and did a lot of self-study online about mastering to help him with his music composition.
We also researched the best education options for him, visited two of our local community colleges, and spoke with the professors about their audio engineering programs.
Jaden is now 17 years old, attending community college studying audio engineering, and serving as the tech intern at our church. He is very passionate about his chosen career path. But as you can see, it took us three times through the steps to arrive there!
Jerah, age 16, Future Child Therapist
Jerah is a writer at heart. She loves to write fiction and she’s quite good at it, but she also knows that being a fiction writer is not necessarily a realistic first choice as a career.
Jerah's first career choice at age 13 actually had nothing to with writing. She wanted to be a photographer which was a hobby she already enjoyed. I couldn't really see her as a professional photographer, but we went ahead with the next step, Immersion, and she took several photography courses at Lynda.com. She zoomed through it with enthusiasm, but by the end she concluded that although she liked photography as a hobby, she wasn't passionate enough about it to do it as a career. I totally agreed with her conclusion.
So we went back to the Selection Step and the following school year, at age 14, Jerah decided to explore journalism, specifically investigative journalism. For the Immersion Step, I put together a journalism curriculum and she made it through almost the entire year with good interest. But just like with photography, that zeal waned by the end of the school year and she concluded that journalism was probably not a good fit for her either. She explained that although she loved writing, she didn't like the idea of being told what she was supposed to write about, so she couldn't see herself enjoying a career as a journalist.
So again we went back to the Selection Step and stayed there for about a year. Then this last spring, at the age of 16, (and just following our 3-month experience with fostering two boys where she had first-hand experience with psychologists and play therapists), Jerah told me that she was interested in child therapy as a career.
This choice seemed like a much better fit for her than journalism or photography ever did. Jerah has worked with children for many years through volunteering at the library, teaching Sunday School and Children’s Church, and babysitting, and she simply thrives around kids (and they love her too). She also has very good rapport with troubled and challenging kids, so the idea of her being a child therapist seems like a very viable option.
Since her Selection Step for child therapy was only a few months ago, we’re still in the early process of the Immersion Step. I’ve planned her next (and final) year of school to include courses in psychology and child development.
Jerah is extremely excited about this career choice, so we've already moved on to a bit of the Planning Step even though the Immersion Step hasn't really even begun. At this point (and of course this can change!), Jerah plans to get her associates degree in Psychology at our local community college, finish her BS in Psychology at a 4-year university, then move on to get her Master’s Degree in either Counseling or Biblical Counseling to become a Licensed Professional Counselor.
At least with this much advanced notice, we can start saving up even more for her college education!
Only time will tell if this career choice is a keeper, but it looks promising so far.
Joely, age 12, Future Registered Nurse (Specializing in Gerontology)
Joely is only 12 years old, but she has fast-tracked her career exploration steps, probably because she's observed her older siblings go through the process for so many years. Even so, it has taken her 2 times through the steps to arrive at a career choice that feels like a perfect fit.
Joely has always been interested in mission work, science, and working with older people (she feels completely at home around senior citizens and always has).
Her first career choice was to become a missionary. While this was a very respectable choice, we discussed with Joely that often it’s best to have a secular career so that going on the mission field is easier to do. (For example, closed countries don’t allow missionaries, so entering a country as a teacher or medical profession is often one of the only ways to enter these countries).
Even so, we entered the Immersion Step for her missionary career choice this last school year and she took a Missions, Bible & Worldview course that I put together. Her interest in missions remained strong throughout the year, but she was still thinking about another career option that might fit well with being a missionary.
Since she enjoys science, at one point we tossed around the idea of her being a teacher, but that never seemed like the right choice.
Then one Saturday earlier this school year I was sitting with Joely at a nursing home where she was volunteering and I asked her out of the blue, “What do you think about being a nurse?” I explained that nursing was a career that combined all of her interests: science, missions, and working with older people. She could become a nurse and work in a nursing home, and then as an RN she could easily work as a medical missionary.
I could see the light in her eyes as she pondered the idea. That was it! She’d found her passion!
We then proceeded to the Immersion Step. I’m a nursing school dropout, so I felt pretty comfortable putting together a plan for this upcoming school year that includes a nursing assistant curriculum and an introduction to anatomy and physiology.
We also met with a good friend of mine who works as an LVN at a nursing home and she talked to Joely how she makes nursing care plans, what it’s like to work in a nursing home, etc. She also loaned Joely some of her books from nursing school to look over.
Joely is so excited about becoming a nurse someday that she's already about halfway through the nursing assistant curriculum.
We’re not totally ready for the Evaluation step yet, but we’ve gone ahead and done some of the Planning step by researching about post-high school education. I contacted our local community college and asked about their health sciences program and got some excellent advice about how to prepare in high school.
With that information in hand, the plan right now (and yes, it is likely to change!) is that after she graduates from high school, Joely will attend community college and become a Patient Care Technician. Then she can work in a nursing home while she finishes her associates degree, and that will give her more exposure to the heath care field and make sure that nursing is the path she truly wants to pursue. If everything is still a go, she’ll move on to a 4-year college to finish her Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
Our children understand that their chosen career path is not set in stone, and they may change their minds in sometime in the future. But in the meantime, they have focus and they have a goal. They’re learning about something they’re passionate about, and they are motivated to finish school and move on to a career that they are excited about.
For more tips on helping your child choose a career, check out this three-part series:
Are your children exploring their future careers yet? How is it going?