“It’s interesting” This is hands down the most common answer I get from young people to the most common question I ask. The second most common answer is “Er…”.
I talk to a lot of teens about their future plans, from GCSE subjects they are considering, to college
subjects and careers ideas. As part of introducing myself and the guidance session, I always say that I
will probably ask a lot of questions, but that it is not a test. Because I do ask a lot of questions and I
don’t want them to just tell me what they think I want to hear.
When we have ideas about our future plans, quite often we get a little stuck at the “surface”. For
example, they tell me they want to become a doctor/ go into law/ study psychology A-level and I will
say “great, why to do you want to do that?”. And then they reply, “It’s interesting”. Now there is
absolutely nothing wrong with this! It’s a great starting point. But when I ask why they feel it is
interesting for them, the most common answer is “er”. Again, nothing wrong with this, and plenty of
teens have an answer here too, but more often than not it is fairly “surface level” and when I ask
another why question we usually get to the “er” pretty quickly.
We always have a little giggle about this and I tell them this happens all the time and is nothing to
worry about, but it is actually a great starting point for exploration. And that the seemingly simple
question “Why?” can make a huge difference.
Have a “why” conversation to help them explore their ideas
“Why?” may seem a very simple question, but it’s often quite hard to answer and it is a great way to
start some reflection on any ideas we have. For many of us, it can be even better to do this through
a conversation, like with a supportive parent. Of course, you can use variations of “why”, like “How
did you decide this?” or “What made you think about this option?” and so on.
Reflection on our “whys” is great to explore underlying motivations and check “realities”. This might
include vague ideas we all have in some way like “It’s a good career.” (What does that actually mean
to them?), and checking assumptions about things like entry requirements or what a job might
The point when the questions become tricky to answer is the sign that there is more scope for
reflection on personal motivations and ideas as well as researching ideas in detail and getting some
work experience or talking to people in the industry.
It’s a process, not a “one-off event”!
These types of conversations are something to have over time, they are usually not a one of
conversation or all done and dusted in one weekend. You know your teen best and when might be a
good time to start asking. Car journeys can be a good opportunity though, or a chilled walk.
Be gentle and ask “why” in variations so they don’t feel interrogated. But you want to basically
behave like a four-year-old, who after every answer keeps asking why (remember those days?). You
could even chat to your teen about this blog and tell them why you are asking so many why
questions and that it is NOT A TEST. Some are really up for the experiment and to see when they
start to get stuck. You might even be amazed by how well researched and reflected your teen’s ideas
It will help now and for future applications
Asking ourselves is actually a great habit to get into and can be used for anything! With regards to
education and careers plans, you might start getting into the habit of having some “why”
conversations really from GCSE choices onwards. Just have the conversations occasionally to help
your teen develop their ideas and more importantly, their self-awareness.
The insights will help them make better decisions for themselves and to avoid some pitfalls because
they made assumptions that they may not even be aware they were making.
And of course, being able to answer these why type questions will help immensely when they start
to apply for things like apprenticeships, degrees, and jobs. They will be better able to choose the
opportunities that really suit them, and they will be much better prepared for the application
process. Because they will always be asked in some way or form why they want to do this or work
for this company etc. And answering this with truly reflected, honest, and detailed answers will
really make them stand out. After all, few people actually do this work on themselves.
Start to think about how you might best approach this with your teen. Are they up for trying the
process as an experiment or is a more “softly, softly” approach better?
Look out for some opportunities to start asking all those “why” questions but don’t feel you have to
have to “get to the bottom of things” by next weekend. Just make sure you make it clear you are
asking because you are really interested and not interrogating or trying to talk them out of anything.
Some teens can get quite defensive, particularly when they realise they are not clear on their
Maybe look back on your own experiences and why you did what you did, or even some of your
plans now and share this with your teen so they have some examples and know it is perfectly normal
to have unfinished ideas and reasons, and that asking themselves those questions actually helps
them move forward.
And you might even find you really benefit from your teen asking you all those “why” questions
about your plans too.