Teaching Kids About Dreams, Jobs and Dignity

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Adults love to ask this question of children and relish the answers we’re given.

We love to hear the originality and confidence children possess when saying they’re going to be an astronaut or doctor. Out of love for them, but also pride in the way it reflects upon us, we actively nurture our kids’ highest aspirations.  We want to believe our children can achieve anything. The bigger the goal, the more incredible the feat, the more our hearts yearn for its fulfillment.


Encouraging our children to dream is one of parenting’s most beautiful endeavors.

But there’s another component to consider when talking with children about their career ambitions, and it warrants just as much cultivation as dream-building. This component may not be as romantic, but it’s intrinsic to many of the disparities facing our society and thus deserves to be equally emphasized.

We simply need to do a better job of teaching kids that all work, done with dignity, has value. All work, not just the coveted positions, is necessary to the world we live in. All people, no matter their occupations, are deserving of respect and appreciation.

The Messages We Give Our Children

When I was in high school, steeped in honors coursework, I was asked by a teacher during class to share what “I wanted to be.”

I told him I wanted to be a school bus driver.

His response was not a favorable one. I was lectured in front of my peers on how each one of us is called to “dream big” and use every ounce of our talent to pursue these  dreams. Otherwise, we were wasting our potential.

I wanted to be a school bus driver because I enjoyed driving. I liked the idea of taking children to and from school safely. I loved country roads and the idea of having a route in a rural county appealed. I was also from a low-income household and somewhat uncomfortable with the culture and assumptions that surround an “honors” education.

The teacher’s perspective seemed especially nonsensical to me later that afternoon as I stepped off the bus and said goodbye to the woman who had once again ensured I’d made it safely home from school.

Alas, I went off to college and never became a school bus driver.

Americans love a strong work ethic, but we also have a blatant hierarchy of “worthy” and “unworthy” jobs which consumes much of our discussion surrounding employment. This has caused a tragic cycle of injustice and heartache over what makes a person a worthy contributor to society.

There’s currently a great deal of frustration surrounding the disparity of work, the ability to make a living and the giving and receiving of respect. I’m not an economist or a sociologist, but the lack of dignity given to huge segments of our workforce seems central to our woes. How can we make changes and ensure our children grow up with genuine appreciation and respect for all those who make our society function?

Lessons in Work and Dignity

Millennials in particular are criticized for not wanting to take jobs considered menial or unglamorous. I have not found this to be the case. But even if were true, the irony that Millennials are faulted for having the very attitude perpetuated by so much of society cannot be lost.

Most of us heard at some point in our education that we’d be condemned to “flipping burgers for a living” if we didn’t apply ourselves – having a job flipping burgers being portrayed as a negative thing.

With the economic difficulties, I think we are at a crossroads. There’s a great deal of learning to be done, but we can use our experiences to be more intentional about fueling dreams and teaching our children the dignity of all work.

job 3

As parents we can be intentional about stepping outside our niches and ensuring we have friendships and meaningful relationships with people from a diversity of occupational backgrounds. Exposing our children to this diversity will open their minds to new possibilities and drive home the point that no job is above or beneath them.

We can ensure that the quality of our interactions with others is not dependent on their job statuses. There are few things as painful to experience as a human treated as less important because of the type of service they are providing to society. Our kids need to see that their parents acknowledge the personhood of all. The person cleaning the doctor’s office is just as worthy of respect as the doctor doing the examination. The person serving our food is just as deserving of a sincere “hello” as the CEO dining at that establishment.

We need to debunk the myth of the “lazy poor.” It’s served as a convenient excuse to justify disparities in our society, but we all know deep down that the families working the hardest are often the ones getting paid the least. There is nothing “lazy” about a person holding down multiple part time jobs to put food on the table, or someone who is rolling up their sleeves and doing the job most are unwilling to perform. If a service is necessary for our society to function, but the person performing that service is not receiving a living wage, how can we teach our children that this is a just or sustainable situation?  

Fundamental to all of this is our openness to our children’s dreams, even if they diverge from our own. Perhaps we imagine our kids as Nobel Prize winning scientists. But they may not want to follow the course we have laid out for them. If we give children unconditional love and support, they will grow up reflecting these same virtues to all those who labor alongside them.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have dreams for my children. But the only one I’m really comfortable sharing with my children at this time is a hope that they will live their lives and do their work in a way that treats fairly of all those whose paths they cross.

Between you and me though, the kid who becomes a school bus driver may end up being my favorite.

How do you emphasize to your kiddos the respect due to all who work in our society?



4 thoughts on “Teaching Kids About Dreams, Jobs and Dignity

  1. This is great! I have a construction and truck obsessed 4 year old boy and his favorite thing is to just watch those guys at work. We’re always very careful to stay out of their way (we have a family rule that “we don’t get in the way of other people’s work”) and the attention and awe he has for what they can do seems to fill the worker’s sails. There’s nothing like a little kid who genuinely thinks you are doing something amazing to make you proud of your work!


    • Educate your children about the dignity of labour. We all want our children to grow into successful, confident and happy individuals — we want them to have the best of everything. But we need to remember that teaching them good values and fostering gratitude in them for what they have, is also a big part of parenting.
      read more.


  2. This is an interesting tension! I always want to support Henry in his dreams, but to be honest, there was a point at which I no longer wanted to support his dream of being a train engineer… With a brother with physical issues that prevent him from working (and who derives tremendous meaning from work) I have actually had interactions where I’ve had to field this sort of discussion in front of him with a degree of discomfort.

    However, I’ve personally arrived at a place where I will not stifle my desire for my sons success. I grew up with a lot of “just try your best” and “be anything you want to be/love what you do.” I was taught/believed there was a freedom in throwing off the expectations of others and “society” vis a vis employment. What i think i’ve arrived at now is that economic success provides freedom. It provides choice. It provides health care and school and vacations and gifts for those you love and flowers for your garden and meals for your family and resources for you family members that are not successful economically.

    I want freedom for Henry. But not at any cost. And not with an attitude that choosing and striving for success (and hopefully achieving it) in any way related to the value of others. I frequently try to communicate that we don’t know other people’s stories- why they are behaving or making the decisions that they are. And for some, a full time job as a bus driver IS a massive success/achievement. But there seems to me to actually be a relatively short amount of time in which we have the chance to poise our children to achieve at their highest potential. I want to set the bar high and be okay with not hitting it. Does that make sense? I don’t want to set it low so that he stops when he gets there and doesn’t keep trying. Which seems like a real possibility with Henry! LOL #kiddingnotkidding

    On Tue, May 16, 2017 at 8:04 PM, Things I Teach My Children wrote:

    > Lauren Cunningham posted: ” “What do you want to be when you grow up?” > Adults love to ask this question of children and relish the answers we’re > given. We love to hear the originality and confidence children possess when > saying they’re going to be an astronaut or doctor. Out of l” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Peanut Butter & Grace : Catholic family life, sweet & simple

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