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I Want to be a Zookeeper!

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (May 10, 2014)

“I want to be a zookeeper!”

In class one day, I was talking to my 6-year-old students and asked them what they’d like to be when they grow up. One said she’d like to be a fashion designer, another a football player and another a novelist – all professions that I’ve heard children say they’d like to be when they grow up. Then one boy, shot his hand up and said ‘I want to be a zookeeper when I grow up because I love animals”. I was taken aback because I had never met anyone, no less a child, who says he wants to be a zookeeper.

Now if he had said ‘banker’, ‘lawyer’ or ‘accountant’, I would have exclaimed it to the parent, knowing that those are popular and encouraged professions in Hong Kong. But he said ‘zookeeper’ and zookeepers aren’t highly regarded by most in Hong Kong. So as I dismissed the class, I walked on over to the parents and the mother of the aspiring zookeeper was there. We talked about how class went and then I shared the interesting comment her son made, that he wants to be a zookeeper when he grows up.

I had expected her to brush it off as a ‘child’s fantasy’ or for her to say how silly he is to have such an aspiration. After all, being a zookeeper means not making a lot of money (which by Asian standards equals failure). I expected this mother to disapprove of her child’s dream. But I was pleasantly surprised. She beamed and said “I’m so happy he’s thought about what he wants to be when he grows up”. She went on to talk about how she would help him explore more about animals and the responsibilities of being a zookeeper.

I was so inspired by this mother. And I was so pleased to have met someone like-minded in their views of how to empower and inspire children. Telling children they can have the dreams they have actually empowers them with confidence. It’s indirectly telling a child that she can do anything she puts her mind to. It’s telling her that her desires are valued and that you believe she is able to achieve those desires. So, I’ve learnt a couple thing about teaching kids how to ‘dare to dream’:

1) Think out of the box

It seems like in HK, many popular professions lie in the financial sector but the world is much bigger and wider than we see it. Encourage children to think out of the box when it comes to their goals and dreams. By exploring different professions and occupations, it helps children understand more of the world and the people living in it. When children come up with their own ideas and they are encouraged, it gives them confidence. Keep in mind, what your child says he wants to be when he’s 5 doesn’t usually translate to his lifelong career so don’t get too worried about how your straight-A child wants to be a bus driver – it may just be a phase!

2) Set goals

One benefit of having children share their dreams is that it gives them motivation and teaches them how to set goals. For example, if a child wants to be a lawyer, there are certain milestones that have to be reached and accomplished, such as getting a degree and passing exams. It would be the same for being an actor; where it would be to get auditions and pass. Or a ballet dancer to achieve certain grade levels. Having concrete dreams helps people set short and long-term goals.

3) Build skills

In exploring what children want to be when they grow up, it’s focusing on the skills that are more important than focusing on the profession at the end of the day. And skills can be developed from a young age. For example, a lawyer would need to have the speaking skills to articulate her thoughts. A zookeeper would need the knowledge about different animals and the trait of being responsible in taking care of animals. A doctor needs memory skills to remember all the names of different medical conditions. Every profession requires a certain skill set and those skills can be developed from a young age. So we can encourage children to grow in those skills as they work towards their aspiration.

4) Helping others

And last but not least, challenge children to ask how their skills and future profession can help others. I once had a 10-year-old student who told me she’d like to be a chef when she grows up. When I asked her how she would help people, she said she could cook meals for people who don’t have food to eat and also teach people how to cook for themselves. Give children the bigger perspective of looking beyond themselves when exploring their dreams.

So, what would you say if your child says “I want to be a zookeeper?”. I hope you’ll think again before answering.


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