WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?''
That classic question, posed to generations of children, has been eliciting new answers in recent years as career options expand. A week from today, April 27, it will also be the question at the heart of two nationwide activities, designed to help girls in particular consider their future.
The biggest and most visible celebration, the Ms. Foundation's third annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day, aims to show girls ages 9 to 15 ''what they need to know about how to succeed and fulfill their aspirations.'' By shadowing a mentor, the foundation reasons, girls will ''expand their horizons.''
The other, far more modest event, the fourth annual Worthy Wage Day, calls attention to the urgent need for better salaries for child-care teachers. In addition to improving the quality of care and reducing turnover, higher salaries would make child care a career that girls -- and boys -- could choose without sacrificing their economic well-being.
This year marks the first time both observances have fallen on the same day. It is a useful juxtaposition, pointing up the gap between dreams and reality that exists for young women.
Marcy Whitebook, senior research policy adviser for the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force, which sponsors Worthy Wage Day, defends the ''upper middle-class dream of taking your daughter to the law firm.'' But, she adds, ''We have to take daughters to child-care centers too, because probably a lot of daughters will end up being child-care workers.''
Her organization estimates that 3 million child-care providers -- 97 percent of them women, a third of them minorities -- care for 10 million children. The need for group care will likely increase as family economics require multiple paychecks.
At the same time, Ms. Whitebook understands why families might be reluctant to encourage such a career. Putting herself in a parent's shoes, she says, ''Even though I'd think they were doing important work, I'd be scared about the economics.''
Child-care workers earn an average of $6.70 an hour, or $11,725 per year, based on a 35-hour week and 50-week year. In 1993, women in the civilian labor force earned on average twice that much, $21,747, and men almost three times as much -- $30,407.
To highlight these perilous economics, Worthy Wage Day, like Take Our Daughters to Work Day, will include job shadowing. But instead of focusing only on girls, leaders of the Worthy Wage Campaign are inviting community leaders, corporate leaders, and parents to visit child-care centers and family day-care homes to observe the skills involved in being a child-care teacher. At the end of the day participants will receive a mock check, reflecting the meager wages they would be paid for their work.
These low-key events can't compete with the Ms. Foundation's high-visibility celebration. Take Our Daughters to Work supporters can even buy special mugs ($10), trading cards ($2 a pack), T-shirts ($10), and baseball caps ($12).
If media coverage of this year's daughters event repeats last year's pattern, TV crews across the country will follow girls as they tour sleek boardrooms, law firms, and newsrooms. And why not? The story offers a pleasant reprieve from murders and wars.
But the question remains: Will Worthy Wage Day also make the evening news next Thursday, even though it features no souvenir T-shirts and caps? Cribs and toys offer less glamorous footage, but they are equally deserving of public attention.
If reporters ignore this event, their absence will say everything -- again -- about the nation's low regard for child-care teachers, who are often viewed as glorified baby sitters.
Even with media attention, it will take more than one day in April to make child care a viable option for girls and boys deciding what they want to be when they grow up.
But if wages improve, perhaps respect -- and career seekers -- will follow.