First published in Melbourne’s Child in 2005

“What do you have to do to become a tooth fairy?” queried my 6-year-old son from the back seat of the car one day.

Not having much experience with tooth fairy training, I was struggling to come up with the requirements when he added, “because that’s what I want to be when I grow up.”

Ambitions. We all have them. And soon after becoming parents we begin to develop them for our children. Until our conversation in the car my son had always wanted to be an astronaut. Knowing he was only six at the time allowed me the freedom to laugh – and not panic – about his surprising change of life goals. But how will I feel if he comes out with an equally unexpected choice at the age of 18? Will I applaud his independence if he appears to head in an unusual direction?

That depends. As we all know far too well, parenting is a costly investment. Opinions vary as to the best way of measuring the cost of child-rearing, but some Australian statistics suggest we spend between $52-$280 per week1 on each child (varying according to age of the child and income level of the parents). Others estimate that 18% of our family budget is devoted to our first child alone.2 No matter how you cut it, it adds up to a wad of cash.

Once you toss in thousands of hours spent raising your brood, foregone job opportunities, countless non-existent Saturday morning sleep-ins, emotional and pyschological challenges – not to mention years spent driving practical Holdens rather than sassy MX5s – it begins to sound like the kind of investment that most of us want to guard with our lives.

Guard, protect, guide, control. For nearly 20 years parents are able to do just this: we choose the meals, the clothes, the haircuts, the holidays, the schools. We teach values, faith, traditions and manners. But, in time, our influence wanes until we’re left with the cold reality that decisions about belly-button piercings and ratio of hours studying versus “texting” are no longer ours. When this time comes, will we let our investment chart its own course?

One of the first major decisions our kids will make on their own may be one of the hardest for us to release: what they do after secondary school. Many parents hold strong views about the importance of education. For example, a recent U.S. poll found that the majority of American parents expect their children to attain a higher level of education than they did themselves. The higher the parents’ level of education, the more they will expect their child to accomplish academically. And, possibly, the harder it will be to have those expectations go unfulfilled.3

Of course, the ambitions we hold for our children are not only associated with the level of education; the primary issue is often career choice. Maybe our little girl will choose to be a lawyer rather than continuing in the family tradition of GPs. Possibly our budding writer will want to act instead. And the mother-of-four-to-be might choose a life in advertising over parenting.

Wanting our child to follow in our footsteps is not unusual; however, the likelihood of it actually happening is. In 2003, 76% of American teens aged 13 to 18 said they did not want to march down the career path of either one of their parents. Of the 24% who would continue in the family tradition, there was a strong gender bias; boys followed dads while girls wanted the same occupation as their mothers.4

The majority of parents who assume their child will make the same life decisions as they did will be disappointed. The film, Billy Elliot, provides a stark example of this parental let-down. Young Billy’s passion to become a ballet dancer isn’t in-line with the narrow expectations of his masculine father, a miner by trade. When Billy’s dad eventually accepts his son’s deep need to dance we watch, in a Hollywood moment, as Billy pirouettes into ballet fame. Corny, maybe, but isn’t it a parent’s dream — to stand on the sidelines and watch as our kids sail off successfully into a fulfilled life?

Thankfully, for most of us, our children’s life choices aren’t likely to come as unexpectedly as Billy’s did. From a fairly early age our kids are revealing their preferences, shaping their interests, expressing their opinions. If we’re prepared to hear them. They may not yet be ready to choose their schools or careers, but they are starting to know what excites them, what makes them dance inside. Their current choices may relate mostly to what sports they pick (or don’t), which instrument they learn (if any), and what subjects they love. For some parents, relinquishing even these decisions may be a stretch. But it may also be good preparation for the change of management that will come at some point in the not-so-distant future.

Our six-year-old is now a sophisticated nine-year-old boy, with very clear ideas about the ways of the world. He devours books and relishes the opportunity to learn and develop his mind at school. His academically-oriented parents smile with pride, imagining him in a variety of dazzlingly smart careers. He no longer wants to be a tooth fairy when he grows up. No, his future is decided, he tells us. He’s not going to follow either of his parents: he’s following Michael Voss. Our son is going to be a Brisbane Lion.