A full-throated defense of instilling drive in our children.
There’s a growing trend in parenting, and it really bugs me. That trend is “Don’t tell your kids they can be anything.” For a little example, take a look at this opinion piece in The Washington Post by clinical psychologist, parent educator, and mother of two, Erica Reischer.
The argument goes that no given kid can be anything they want, so we should stop telling them they can. Ms. Reischer’s piece claims that children who strive toward a dream get hurt in the long run (though none of the so-called “evidence” for this claim is actually relevant), and that chance plays a much larger factor in most success stories than skill or hard work.
Strangely, Ms. Reischer seems to stop short of explaining to us what we should be telling our kids. “Don’t work hard, it’s all up to chance?” Or perhaps, “Don’t aim high, it will be damaging to your psyche?”
Of course no child can be everything. Of course most children won’t grow up to be astronauts or Supreme Court justices. But since when did unvarnished truth become the best way to raise children?
This trend infuriates me, because it always comes from a bunch of adults who think they have to “adult-splain” the world to kids. The world is different for kids. They don’t understand how it works. They are just learning. My six-year-old wanted to be an astronaut. She also wants to be a ninja, a teacher, and a McDonald’s employee. Apparently I am supposed to tell her, “There are no ninjas anymore, you’ll never be an astronaut because most people aren’t, and teachers and McDonald’s employees are underpaid.”
Here are my main issues with this point of view:
1) Where do you draw the line?
News flash: astronauts exist. So do presidents, ambassadors, best-selling authors, world-famous pop stars, and Really Good Sportsers.
Actually, so do senators, and state representatives, and college coaches and not-bestselling-but-still-quite-fulfilled-thank-you-very-much authors, musicians, and game designers.
As do city council members, community organizers, local high school debate coaches, and cover bands.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? Why only cut off the top tier? As long as we’re telling our children precisely what they can’t be, why not try to nail it down a little further?
“Timmy, you can’t be a Supreme Court justice. That’s just not in the cards for most people. Even an appointee to a federal bench is honestly a long shot. State court? Maaaaybe, but probably not. Most people don’t do that either. Instead of hearing cases, you could present them. They always need public defenders, but the budget really isn’t there for them and I hear the job sucks, and obviously being a high-powered corporate attorney is out the window because most people don’t do that either. You know what, maybe you should just forget the entire legal system. It’s just not for you. Now go brush your teeth and get ready for bed.”
Furthermore, what seems unachievable in one home will seem like the only possibility in another. Eliminating the idea that kids can be anything they want to be means incrementally normalizing the idea that kids should be what their parents want them to be. Most parents already put enough pressure on their kids in this direction, but the idea that kids should have no limits on their aspirations currently serves to combat it. Once we as a society decide kids shouldn’t be “lied to” any more about their odds, why not take that conversation to the next step?
“You know, Timmy, Daddy’s always been a project manager. That’s a nice, reasonable job to aim for with a decent salary. Obviously it’s something you can achieve, because it’s something I achieved, and I’m incapable of looking beyond my own personal experience when deciding what you should do when you grow up.”
2) Who the hell are we?
How do we know what our kids are going to be when they grow up, and who gave us the right to tell them what they can and can’t do? We don’t know the future. We only know the odds.
I can tell my daughter, “There are no ninjas,” but do I really know that? The kid has a serious knack for hiding and sneaking into rooms undetected. There are professions where that kind of skill can be handy. (Unless being spec ops is aiming too high. Maybe a cop? Can she be a cop? Maybe that’s aiming too high, too. Is PI okay?)
Did Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s parents believe she would be a Supreme Court justice (and a damned good one, at that)? Doubtful. If she’d mentioned it as a young child (which she probably didn’t) and they’d told her to aim lower, wouldn’t they have looked like small-minded idiots?
3) Kids don’t differentiate
Like I said, my daughter considered McDonald’s worker, astronaut, and ninja all to be completely interchangeable and perfectly valid life goals. If I tell her she won’t be an astronaut and to start aiming lower, she has no context for that. She doesn’t understand what “aiming lower” means. She doesn’t consider McDonald’s employee to be “lower.” She understands it’s different, but not that it pays less or requires less skill and is therefore more achievable, nor should she.
So her takeaway message is simple: “I can’t.”
Daddy said I can’t do the thing I wanted to do. He had reasons, but I’m six, and my main takeaway is that I can’t do what I want to do.
This is a kick in the teeth to the development process. The message is: Stop aspiring. Stop planning. Stop acting like such a child.
4) You must aim high
This is an obvious one, so obvious that it floors me that people don’t think of it and automatically short-circuit this asinine argument on their own. Yes, it’s true: you will rarely hit your goal.
BUT THE HIGHER YOU AIM, THE HIGHER YOU HIT.
This is a simple lesson that a six-year-old can understand. If you aim for the stars, you might hit the stars. But if you don’t, you may hit the moon, or at least the top of the next tree over. Both are better than landing in the dirt, which is what will happen if you start by aiming for the top of the tree. And if you start by aiming at the dirt, or not aiming at all, you’ll most likely fall flat on your face.
My children don’t need to know that I’m trying to set them up to fly as far as they can by letting them aim as high as they want. If they miss their mark (as most people do), at least they’ll have taken the shot, and despite Ms. Reischer’s insistence that goals are bad for us, they will be better human beings for having made the attempt.
If my daughter doesn’t get to be the President of These United States, I bet you her interest therein will result in an adult that’s well-rounded, informed about politics, and an excellent civil citizen. That’s a pretty nice bar to clear, and if she ends up in law or a political career of any kind because of her interest in the path toward the presidency, I’d say she did pretty well for herself.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I wanted to make movies, then I wanted to make video games. I wrote out lots of video games in notebooks. My interest in this passion drove me to learn computer programming, a skill which I used to great effect during my time in corporate America and in my independent pursuits. It also drove me to write pen-and-paper game systems, lots of them, many of which I have played with my friends. It has become a lifelong hobby that has brought me thousands of hours of excitement and enjoyment. I have never sold one of these games, nor even tried. No, I never became a video game designer, but to this day I feel pretty confident that I could’ve (and probably still could, if I wanted to).
If my mother had told me, “You’re aiming too high. Most people don’t get to become video game designers, Adam. Aim lower,” it might have stripped me of one of the most precious hobbies I have.
5) Exploration is part of development
It is normal for kids to lurch around from interest to interest, trying them all, and to fantasize about what they could achieve within the realm of each. It is healthy. It is necessary. There is no need for a parent to gum up the works by inserting their perspective into the process. We keep that crap to ourselves because our kids need to explore—not get shut down.
6) Kids will enter the School of Hard Knocks soon enough
And the horrible, sad truth is, they are so easy to shut down. The world is going to chew them up and spit them out. It is not going to encourage them. It is not going to tell them they can do it. That voice needs to come from within them, or it won’t come at all.
But guess what? That internal voice isn’t theirs. As parents, we are our kids’ internal voices. Ours are the words of support or despair that they hear in their hearts when the world gets rough.
We have those first few, precious years to get them ready for a life of beatings. The message doesn’t need to be deeply nuanced. It’s actually pretty simple: “Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will take a lot of work. But you can do it. I believe in you.”
Those early years with my mom, she was constantly propping me up, constantly telling me I could do anything. It gave me enough self-esteem to weather a lot of crap. She is still a wellspring of that support today. When she tells me she believes in me, it is like gassing up at the station before diving back in to the endless, brutal road trip of the universe.
Of course our kids need to know that hard work matters. Of course they need to know that we’ll be proud of them and love them whether they hit those stars or just skim the treetops. And of course, if they don’t eventually realize it on their own, we can help them understand that chance also plays a role.
But without that core of confidence, they will have no strength to make it through the first round of pummelings that the world sends their way. Infuse them with strength. Start them off powerful, so after the world has worn them down, there is still something there.
Tell them they can be anything. Let them try everything.
They will find something wonderful.