Whenever I have a child patient for the first time, there is one question that I always ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Based on the answer to this question, I am able to tell whether the child understands my question. This tells me something not only about the child's language ability, but it also provides a view of whether the child is able to imagine the future.
Having asked this question for many years, I have come to realize something. Depending on the child's age group, there are certain typical answers that can be expected.
Preschool children will typically answer: "I want to be a baker—someone who makes cakes." "I want to be a fire-fighter." "I want to be a driver." "I want to be a movie star." Or "I want to be a soccer player." Noting that these answers seem to be influenced by their play at daycare centers/kindergartens as well as by picture books and TV, I listen with pleasure. Occasionally, there will be an unexpected answer, for example: "I want to be a robot." "I want to be someone who makes incense." Or "I want to be a big brother."
The child who wanted to make incense had seen a documentary on TV. The boy who wanted to be a big brother was only four years old, but his answer was a good one. Although he was still very young, his answer indicated he could envision a future in which he would develop, and with age, grow to become a big brother one day.Sometimes I am also surprised by some novel answers such as "I want to be a YouTuber" or "I want to be a creator of anime."
Children who are able to give such a specific view of their future will, sometimes upon entering elementary school, suddenly switch to a standard answer. By the third or fourth year of elementary school, nearly all children will answer "I don't know yet." or "I've never thought about it." Does this mean that compared to early childhood, their ability to anticipate the future has diminished?
According to my interpretation, when children enter elementary school, they become able to more concretely link their present self to a future self. In contrast to preschool children who do not consider their present self and circumstances in their answers, students in elementary and junior high school and above are able to project their present self into the future and this is reflected in their answers. Children who come to realize that they are not good at sports will no longer see themselves as a baseball or soccer player in the future. And once they know that becoming a cake baker does not necessarily mean that they will be able to eat delicious cakes every day, it ceases to be a future wish. Children who don't like to study will probably give up the dream of becoming an inventor.
The ability to view oneself objectively is called "metacognition," and it is said to develop around the age of ten. Children who are not yet able to see themselves in relation to others can inflate their dreams in a fantasy world, free from the shackles of reality, but as the meta-consciousness develops, they inevitably begin to realistically see the limits of their own capabilities.
As the COVID-19 infection spreads and the world becomes more unstable, we adults tend to feel gloomy, but I hear that preschool children are surprisingly cheerful and energetic. Surely that is because they live in both the real world and a world of fantasy. It seems to me that even though adults feel miserable, what saves the world is the cheerful spirit of small children.
I have a grandchild who is three and half years old—a cheerful boy who has a comical side. The other day, the principal of his preschool asked him to write what he would like to be when he grows up on a strip of paper for the Tanabata Festival. When I learned what he had written, I felt very cheerful and happy as I thought to myself, "Ah, here's a fantasy that has not been disturbed by the state of society."
On the strip of paper, he had written, "a potato"!