My truck-driving husband called me this morning, as he usually does, to say good morning. I heard the slightest sadness in his voice and asked what was going on. I expected the usual: morning traffic jams, getting cut off, witnessing far too many try to drive while putting on makeup or reviewing piles of papers for work (yep… that sadly happens). What I didn’t expect was to fall into an hour-long philosophical discussion.

“What if I wasn’t a truck driver? What other versions of me could be out there? What if I’d been a teacher? I could’ve taught for eight years by now and be working on a Master’s degree. What if?”

Honestly, who hasn’t wondered about other versions of themselves?

I responded, “It honestly doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do eight years ago, because you can’t change any of that. The only thing to focus on is the now. What are you going to do right now?”

This is a topic I wish someone had had with the 18-year-old me. I felt completely unprepared for college and life, and it’s a conversation that should be taken seriously with all kids. Not just the high schoolers who are applying to schools and taking SATS but even little kids. Kids need to imagine and even act out the different versions of who they could be. It’s not enough to pick a college major simply because that was your best subject in high school, which is what I did. Although it has worked out for me now, it was a rough start.

Here are four conversation pointers to ask your kids now to help them decide future careers.

1 | What do you want to be when you grow up?

I know, I know, kids get asked this question all the time, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Ask it. Ask follow-up questions. Ask the question again, because the answer may shift just a bit or do a complete and total 180.

Once you know this answer, it helps for two reasons. One, you can help foster this passion and help him prepare for what needs to be done to meet that goal. Two, it gives you the opportunity to test out this passion. If your child says he wants to be a chef, sign him up for a kids’ cooking class and let him feel what it’s like to act out that dream. Maybe he’ll realizes it’s not for him and will cross it off the list before he commits too far, or maybe he realizes he loves it as much as he thought he would.

2 | Why?

When most adults ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, the conversation ends once the child replies, but it absolutely should not end there.

Play the why game. My son, who could probably build Lego cars in his sleep, has the brain of an engineer. I’ve always pictured him building or designing buildings, or inventing machines. I thought I knew what his answer would be to the first question, so I didn’t ask him for the longest time. When I finally asked him, he said he wanted to own a bakery. I was surprised, so I decided to dive deeper. “Why?” I asked. He shared how he likes to bake and thought it would be really fun to “design” new breads and desserts. Since then he consistently says he wants to own a bakery.

3 | Dreaming big versus unrealistic goals

I like to think that I dream big. I grew up hearing that the sky was the limit, that the world was my oyster, and that I could be whatever I wanted to be. Of course, one of the things that I really wanted to be was a mother. It’s what I wrote on my first grade “all about me” poster. Most kids wrote doctor or astronaut, but I drew a stick figure mom with stick figure babies all around her. It was not a “big” dream in the sense that I had ambitions to become the queen of the universe or anything, but it was a big dream because it also happened to be an odd goal. Not to get into a feminist debate, but I executed my rights as a woman to choose my life path, and I chose motherhood. I’ve since added “author” to the list of dreaming big, but the point is that my parents didn’t have to talk me down from dreaming something unrealistic.

What do you do if your child does have unrealistic goals? Is it possible to address the “unlikely” aspects of her goals without crushing her spirit? She wants to be the first woman president? Great! Since that job opening is hard to snag, discuss the steps that lead to a presidential campaign. Talk about career choices that would foster a solid political career such as attending law school or majoring in political sciences. Get her involved in politics in your town if you can. Help her create a realistic (yet still dreaming big) goal. Perhaps she will get involved in local politics, attend law school, run for local offices, and do her best to move up in the political world. The question of presidency isn’t out of the question, but it’s not the end-all, be-all goal either.

This also works if your son professes the desire to be a pro football player. What could help him get a foot in the sports world? Focus on sports journalism? Focus on sports medicine?

Unrealistic goals can also pop up when money (rather than personal satisfaction) is made too important. If your easily-disgusted-faints-at-the-sight-of-blood daughter declares her decision to be a doctor, don’t let it slide. A happy life can’t be obtained with a job you hate, and following a true passion can help lead to personal satisfaction in life. Obviously, money is important: we all need it. Just help your child realize it should not be the driving factor in deciding his career fate. Help him find the balance between passion and practicality.

4 | “I don’t know”

As your kids get older, their quick replies might fade and you might start to hear, “I don’t know” more and more. This is totally normal, but don’t let the conversation end there. Thinking back to my conversation with my husband, this is where I truly believe he needed the most help as a teen – someone to guide his hand and tell him that not knowing was okay. He needed someone to help him find the answers.

Of course, you can’t make these decisions for your kids, but you can help them try new experiences. Look into various camps (cooking camp, medical camps, etc.) that allow kids and teens to try out new experiences.

Your child has a bit of time before she gets into the real world. Perhaps the most important take-away from all of this is that she will learn that she can talk to you about life decisions and the hard stuff in life. Deciding a life path is never easy, but at least your child knows you are in her corner cheering for her.