Actual exchange between my daughter and me:
She: "I want to be an artist when I grow up."
Me: "That’s great! You’ll need to take lots of art classes, and work really hard at learning to draw, and paint, and sculpt and study art history, too. Then you’ll probably have to have another job, like teaching art, because it’s really hard to make a living as an artist—very few people do it."
She: "Mom, you’re crushing my dreams!"
Me: "I’m your mother. That’s my job."
And I meant it. It really is my job to crush her dreams. Perhaps I could put it more gently: How about “keep her expectations realistic?" Yeah, that sounds better.
I’m not really a nasty, negative dream-crusher. What I am is a parent who feels it necessary to keep my kids’ dreams grounded in reality. By doing so, I may avoid the consequences of inflated self-esteem and unrealistic future plans.
You have probably seen “American Idol” at some point. The early audition shows are where you see the products of the “You Can Be Anything You Want to Be!” movement that has emerged in American society since the 1970s. (If you doubt the influence of this idea, check out the “Saturday Night Live” episode from earlier this season featuring Daniel Radcliffe. He participated in a very funny sketch about young people who have been told they can do or be anything.)
This belief is wonderful, in theory. In practice, it leads to the terminally tone-deaf showing up to humiliate themselves before a national television audience, and to students who profess to hate reading but who aspire to attend law school.
Sadly, a professional singing career requires some awareness of pitch and rhythm, and the study of law necessitates at least a tiny bit of reading along the way. Thus, if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you will probably not win that recording contract, and if you can’t tolerate reading, a J.D. degree is probably not in your future. Call me crazy, but I want to hire an attorney with at least a tenuous grasp on reality as well as on the Annotated Code of Maryland.
By “crushing dreams” early on, I’m saving my daughter the heartbreak of a rejection by the Dawg, J-Lo, and the guy who wears the hats on “Idol.” And since that heartbreak almost certainly leads to tearful orders to “get that camera out of my face” and bleep-filled tirades often culminating in a middle finger raised at the cameraman, I’m also saving our family the embarrassment of having to admit that, yes, that weeping, profane harridan is indeed our little girl.
I’m not saying that children’s aspirations should be limited. I’m saying that before they set goals for their futures, they should be aware of what they will actually need to do to achieve them, and of their own strengths and weaknesses that will help and hinder them along the way.
Parents should try to look at their children objectively; know what their strong points are, so kids can build confidence by taking part in activities they enjoy and are competent at; and know their needs and weak points, too, so kids know what aspects of themselves they can work to develop.
It’s hard to look at your child and say “Sweetie, I know you really like bowling, but I don’t know if a spot on the Pro Tour is in the cards” or “Honey, I know you like basketball, but your whole family is full of small people, so playing center for the Lakers might be a stretch, so to speak” or “Baby, given your utter inability to play well with others, being elected President is probably a long shot.” (Boy, if I had a buck for every time I heard that one when I was a kid…)
Of course, if your child loves soccer, if art makes your kid’s heart sing, if s/he can’t live without singing…by all means, encourage that. Spring for drawing lessons, the travel team, the private music lessons, if it’s in your budget.
Just be sure to balance that with attention to schoolwork, time spent with family, and trying new things (because you never know where the next interest may come from), because what you want is a whole, well-rounded, emotionally grounded person.
What I hope for is that one of my kids’ passions will grow into a lifelong love, that they will emerge from adolescence with an accurate sense of strengths and weaknesses, and end up with a career that will enable them to take care of me in my old age. I’m thinking either professional singer or lawyer…