What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a typical question young children are asked. Ask many 12-year-olds from neighborhoods like the Austin community, and the answers wouldn’t be too varied. Most of my former fifth-graders wanted to be athletes and entertainers. Initially, I blamed their glamorous career choices on their age. However, in recently speaking with an activist who works with older children on Chicago’s West Side, he admitted that the youth he serves want to be the next Lebron James or Beyonc. Although I don’t advocate killing the dreams of potential ballplayers and entertainers, I do wonder why very few of our children desire to be pediatricians, marine biologists and aeronautical engineers.

Despite the career choices available to them, they continue to aim for the ones they believe they can attain, a belief based on the jobs already held by those who look like them. Prominent figures in the African-American community are often ballplayers and performers, those glamorized on TV. The media plays a huge role in your child’s career picks. To understand television’s influence on our children, think back to the years 1987-1993 when the popular sitcom A Different World aired each week on NBC. The television show about college life at a historically black university helped college enrollment for African-American students in the United States reach an all-time high during its run, letting us know that children take their education and career cues from African Americans who are popularized in the media.

Today, African-American roles on popular television have been usurped by reality television figureheads. Although an African-American president currently sits in the White House, if you are not making your child tune in to President Obama’s weekly addresses, his influence on your child’s career choice is probably not too powerful. So let’s combat popular media and expose our children to black professionals who are experts in fields of all types. Check out the suggestions below to find out how.

Seek a mentor

If black professionals are lacking in your child’s current surroundings, match your child up with a professional through a mentoring program. Many programs cater to children in underserved areas, children of incarcerated parents and/or African-American males. Contact your child’s school or a community service agency, or use Google to identify the mentoring program that is right for your child.


Use books as tools to expose your child to positions held by African Americans. Shoot for biographies. For example, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, by Gregg Lewis and Deborah Shaw Lewis, tells the story of a young boy from a broken home who grew up to be a surgeon. Check out the young-adult, nonfiction section of your local library or simply ask a librarian to direct you to books about famous African Americans. Then read and discover new occupations that blacks have held or currently hold.

Shadow a professional

Job shadowing is popular in higher education, where students visit with professionals of their major and observe what they do all day. If your child really enjoys cooking, have them shadow a chef. If your child loves to work with numbers, have them shadow a statistician. Can’t think of anyone your child can shadow? Use your supervisors, church members, friends and relatives for contacts.

Be a professional for a day

Use the student Career Information page for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at and have your child study a different occupation each week. During dinner, your future food scientist may give advice to other family members about the foods they eat and recommend better choices. Having your children act as a professional is a great way to help them understand a job’s responsibilities, and they will also have fun learning.

Flood your kids with images of individuals who look like them, succeeding not only in entertainment, but areas of every interest.

China Hill is a curriculum writer for KIPP Ascend Charter School on the West Side.