Talking to Kids About What You Do

When I was growing up, my mother was a bookkeeper and my father was a sales representative for Eastern Airlines. To this day, I’d be hard-pressed to explain to you exactly what either of them did on their job to keep a roof over our heads. Despite this, I was still fascinated by the world of work, since I knew I’d be entering it someday. Now, as I have a niece and nephew (13 and 11, respectively) and am getting old enough to be considered a role model or “guest speaker,” I’m trying to make what I do sound interesting to young people.

You’re doing it wrong

I’m not going to lie: sometimes it’s difficult to get adults interested in what I do. A lot of people didn’t enjoy their English composition or literature classes in high school and college, and so the thought of writing for a living is about exciting as root canal.

My first attempt with the niece and nephew didn’t go so well:

“So, do you write books?”
“Um, no, but I’ve written stuff that’s appeared in books, though.”
“Oh. Do you edit books?”
“Occasionally. Really what I do is write training materials, papers, reports, and other stuff that keeps businesses running.”
“Oh.” Enter the random topic change.

Okay, so I was explaining what I did, and probably like my parents, I tried to use words I thought my niece and nephew would understand. However, that wasn’t the same as making it interesting. Like most kids, they probably consider “work” to be something that keeps grownups from having fun, and the idea that they would do such work voluntarily–nay, happily–grinds their brain cells a bit.

Not just the what, but the why

Many of you probably know that I love what I do. Truly. While some topics are obviously more interesting to me than others (I much prefer aerospace engineering to medicine and pharmacology, for example), I enjoy exercising the part of my brain that understands words and seeks out the best arrangement of them so they read clearly on the page.

Again, that’s not necessarily something kids might get. Okay, fine.

But the things I write about on a regular basis are often interesting, and not just to 40-somethings with English degrees. I write articles about space exploration. I create a lot of content to keep the Science Cheerleaders in the public eye. I help people who want to be professional writers understand the business side of the job so they can do a better job and, you know, eat. In the past, I’ve written for NASA and for Walt Disney World (I can always get the niece and nephew’s attention if I mention those magic words).

Okay, great. But why should I get so excited about writing about Disney World when it’s more fun (in a kid’s mind) to go there? You’re not launching the rockets, so why should you care that you’re writing about someone else launching them?

At heart, I think I’m a teacher. And a storyteller. I like to get people enthused about the stuff that gets me enthused. Walt Disney World is easy to explain–it’s a place where families of all sizes go to have magical vacation experiences. Space exploration is about seeking out the far corners of the universe–by machine or by people clambering about in spacesuits–and seeing or learning something we hadn’t seen or didn’t know before. I love writing for a living because I love how words can make us think, feel, and learn, and I want others to succeed with writing as I have.

With any luck, I’ll be able to convey some of these ideas the next time the niece or nephew asks what I really do for a living (I know, as a kid, I asked my own parents this question more than once, as if expecting a different answer or “the real answer” at some point). I did start Ellie and Connor out in a better direction before they left town by giving them my business card and website addresses so they can see the stuff I actually create. They might get or like it, they might not, but at least they’ll see what I’m up to, and maybe one of them might get the urge to try it for her- or himself one day. The trick, I think (and I’m not a parent, so I’m winging it here) is to show that you’re honestly interested in and excited by what you do, and to explain the what and the why so young people don’t dread the day when they have to go out and get a job. It can be a real joy.


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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