Psychologists and child development experts keep pulling the rug out from under parents, advising them that common phrases they use all the time actually do more harm than good. Maybe you read, for instance, that you should stop telling your kids they're smart. Or perhaps you were shocked to learn "Let me help you" should never pass your lips.

But the latest advice from Wharton school professor Adam Grant in a recent New York Times op-ed might take the cake as the most unexpected reversal in basic parenting advice. Stop asking your kids, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he advises.

Why "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is a bad idea.

Why is this staple of kid conversation harmful? First, Grant says it nudges kids to be too focused on work when instead they should be taught to look to other aspects of their lives, like family and community, for identity and meaning as well. Second, he believes the form of the question suggests to children they can only be one thing. That's both limiting and unrealistic.

At which point you might be saying, OK sure, professor Grant, but am I supposed to completely ignore my kid's astronaut or veterinarian obsession? How should I open discussions with my children about work, which will, after all, occupy a third of their lives and play an outsized role in their life satisfaction, success, and happiness?

These are all excellent questions and thankfully Quartz's Sarah Todd has a good answer, via a personal connection with an elementary school teacher who offered a practical and thoughtful alternative. It's an idea that's been circulated by Google education evangelist Jaime Casap for several years.

Try this instead.

The replacement question is dead simple: "What problems do you want to solve?"

Why is it superior? "This question sets kids up to have a far more open-ended--and ultimately more exciting--discussion about what their values are, and the many ways in which they might someday try to bring positive change to the world, whether through a traditional job, volunteer work, art, homemaking, and beyond," says Todd, who offers an example from the household of a fellow Quartz staffer.

When this editor asked her 9-year-old daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up, she "shrugged and said she didn't know. But asked by her aunt what problem she wanted to solve someday, an answer came immediately: climate change," Todd writes.

"Then, we talked about all the ways she could do that, as a scientist, a lawyer, or a journalist," the mom in question remembers. Which does sound like a great outcome. And in fact, the question appeals to Todd so much she even suggests it's "a helpful question for adults who are pondering a career change, too."

Are you buying that "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is problematic, and do you think Todd's alternative is better?

Editor's note: This column has been updated to acknowledge Google education evangelist Jaime Casap's contribution to the concepts discussed.

Published on: Apr 15, 2019