Unlikely Fields of Dreams

Yet children set their sights high, global survey finds.

One of the comforting prerogatives of childhood is the permission to dream. When we are young, our aspirations soar as high as we let them, unbound by the restrictions and limitations that come with passage into the adult world. And so when we are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" we respond with an unbridled authenticity. It's innocence meets matter-of-factness. One part idealism, two parts optimism.

Then we grow up, and our dreams become more elusive. The often cruel realities of life conspire to alter our ambition, if not obliterate it altogether. Occasionally that's a good thing. Sometimes it is heartbreaking.

Such were my initial emotions when I first read the results of the just-released Small Voices, Big Dreams global survey. For the second straight year, the ChildFund Alliance (of which U.S.-based ChildFund International is a member) conducted a poll of 10-12-year-old children all over the world -- 5,100 children from 44 different nations throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas. The survey is perhaps the most comprehensive research into children's attitudes, particularly the world's poorest children whose voices are often muted by the hardship of their days and their place in society. The survey amplifies those voices, giving us important insights into their hopes, fears and, yes, dreams.

And so what did these children tell us they want to be when they grow up?

Teachers and doctors mostly. About one in five (22.5%) children in developing countries says they want to teach, and almost as many (20.2%) aspire to be doctors. They were by far the most popular answers, at least three times higher than policeman, soldier or other also-ran choices. The results no doubt reflect the respect these professions engender among young children and just as likely their innate sense of altruism to help others.

As a comparison, ChildFund International commissioned a parallel survey of children in the United States. We thought it would be interesting to see how and where the attitudes of American youth diverged or aligned with their counterparts from throughout the world. One area of striking contrast was over this question of aspirations. The survey found that only half as many American kids want to be teachers (13%) or doctors (10.8%). Instead, the most popular choice among U.S. children: professional athlete (16.6% overall, and 28.0% among boys). Another 11.8 percent want to be singers, actors or fashion designers.

The fact that one out of four young boys in the United States aspires to be LeBron James or Tom Brady or Albert Pujols underscores the heights of their dreams. The reality, of course, is that very few will make it that far. According to research conducted at the United States Sports Academy, the odds of a young boy becoming a professional basketball player is .03%, only slightly higher for a career in the NFL (.08%) or Major League baseball (1.0%). And yet, such statistics do not diminish the dreams of those tossing balls around neighborhood playgrounds.

Unfortunately, the same kind of long odds exists for the children in developing countries who aspire to be teachers and doctors. These children recognize that education is their single best hope for disrupting the generational cycle of poverty that exists in their worlds. In fact, when asked what they would do as president of their country to improve the lives of their nation's children, almost half (49.3%) said they would improve their nation's schools. What's striking is that the answer was four times higher than "make food more available," which you would assume would be the top priority among hungry children.

While these children are keenly aware that education can provide a foothold to help them climb out of poverty, what they do not yet appreciate is how improbable it is that they will achieve their dreams. Like the starry-eyed American boys who picture themselves someday swinging for the fences in cathedral-like arenas, children in the developing world are just as unlikely to become teachers or doctors, professions that require much more education than even the brightest students will ever have access to.

There has been considerable progress toward the goal of achieving universal primary education, but there are today 75 million children around the world who should be in school and are not. They are 75 million who have no chance of reaching their dreams.

Educating the world's poorest children should be of the highest priority for us. It is, after all, for them.