Doctor, Lawyer, Camel Rancher: Helping Your Kids Discover Careers They Love

03/05/2015 12:05 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

Alyssa Frank & Katrina Waidelich

When you became a parent, you were entrusted with a squishy little bundle of brains, possibilities, and aspirations--and you committed to giving your offspring everything at your disposal and more. Years went by and that tiny mass of wrinkles and drool grew into a functioning adult capable of doing things independently (except laundry!). But now that it's time for the inevitable "what do you want to do with life?" conversation, things aren't as simple as when your little one wanted to be ballerina or lion.

You want to support your child's budding dreams (even if it doesn't involve becoming President like you'd hoped!), but it's hard to resist the urge to herd them in the direction you think is best. What's more, society tends to reduce the breadth of career options to mass-produced molds like 'lawyer' and 'electrician,' making it hard to show your student options that are achievable with invention, like 'adventure tourism consultant' or 'scientist who creates jelly bean flavors.'

So, how can young people see more possibilities and find meaningful work? (Work that's meaningful to them--not just something you'd be proud to boast about at Thanksgiving!) After interviewing thousands of professionals, we here at Roadtrip Nation have found one commonality among people who are happiest with their work: They didn't follow an occupation. They followed their interests. They took what excited them--be it reality TV or genetics--and fashioned a fulfilling way to pay the bills. Here's how you can help your student do the same:

Urge students to let go of expectations and preconceived notions (while you do the same!)

The surroundings we grew up in often act as blinders, showing us what's within sight and masking what's beyond. Some students might believe they can only become doctors, while others might believe they could never become doctors. The key is showing them that there are career possibilities beyond their immediate scope--and beyond the present day--from sports journalism and chocolate-making, to sci-fi-like space exploration.

Before helping your student shed preconceived notions, take a long look in the mirror at your own. You likely nurse ideas about what you think your student "should" do. But just because you've happily carried on the legacy of your family business doesn't mean your child wants to. Refrain from imposing your own ideals and foster exploration of interests (not specific careers). Finally, be prepared for surprise--your child might have declared a desire to be a Supreme Court Justice at 5, but things change.

Help students define what they actually want--not what others want for them.

Many people go through their entire educational and career journeys without ever asking themselves tough questions about whether they're headed in a direction they really want to go, or whether they're just going through the motions. These conversations can feel daunting, but you can minimize the weight by packaging them into casual conversations about students' interests and hopes.

Whether you're in the car or passing the potatoes, pose neutral questions, like:

"If you could take any class, what would you take?"

"If you could do anything you wanted for a day, what would you do?"

"What's your favorite thing about school?"

Conversations are a two-way street, so reciprocate with your own reflections about your interests, how you incorporate them into your everyday life and work, and what you would have done differently in your own career now that you've got hindsight.

Give students actionable steps to move toward their goals.

Moving forward is impossible without action, so students need tangible activities that let them delve in, test out their assumptions, and determine whether the aspirations they've identified actually feel right. Kids' enthusiasm for something is often fleeting, so these activities don't have to be time (and money) sucking. Start out with something simple, like having them watch a TED Talk on the subject they're interested in, or follow someone on social media who works in their desired field. If they continue to show abiding interest, ramp it up to taking a class (whether at school or for free online) or reaching out to interview someone who has their dream job.

Everyone needs a wingman, so make the process collaborative. Take your student to a museum or expo that embodies what they want to do, sit down and complete a project together, or just showcase their work on the fridge. Whatever it is, let them know they've got your support as they continue to investigate and find their way.

To help facilitate your child's transition from angsty teenager to job-having, mom-calling adult, we wrote a career guide for young adults: Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide For Figuring Out What To Do With Your Life. It's full of self-discovery activities and real-world advice to help your student start building a career they love.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject "Smart Parents." For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Alyssa Frank is the managing editor at Roadtrip Nation, where she creates self-discovery content that helps young people explore potential careers. To contact her, you can find her wandering the cheese aisle of supermarkets or you can email her at

K​atrina Waidelich is the curriculum writer for Roadtrip Education and dabbles in social media. Follow her @mrskmw for her thoughts on education and the occasional pug photo.