Parenting Blog

Dear Kids, You Cannot Be Anything You Want

Kids, you may want to sit down for this.

You too, mom and dad, although I trust, deep down, you already know what you’re about to read is true.

Despite what everyone from your doting elementary school teachers to the encouraging dude at the barber shop has been telling you since the day you were born a perfect, flawless angel with unlimited potential,

You cannot be anything you want.

I’ll give you a minute to process this new information.

It’s true, kids, and I sure as hell never thought I’d be the one to have to level with you but, despite the cool plastic light-up airplane with boy AND girl pilot figurines, the marine biology playset complete with dolphins and penguins, the annual subscription to the progressive nature magazine, that spiffy boxed science experiment kit, and all those after-school soccer, ballet, baseball, gymnastics and swim lessons you were shuttled back and forth between for years, you are not going to end up being any of those things.

Instead, you’ll probably spend at least some portion of your young life delivering pizzas, waiting tables, pushing buttons on a cash register, stocking shelves, working in a call center, and eventually sitting in a cubicle and enduring countless meetings about topics so mind-numbingly boring that your thoughts will drift away before the first deck of the Powerpoint presentation has even been projected onto the screen. But you know what? It’s okay.

It’s okay.

The main thing you need to know right now, to combat the weight of expectation and endless talk of the limitless potential trapped inside each of you, is that it is okay to never play for your favorite hockey team, never present your scientific findings to congress, never be paid to write a book, never have a video go viral, never be the amazing person you could* have been. It’s okay. It’s okay because you’re still amazing, and the people who love you still love you. It’s okay.

I bet that if you chart the rise of the ‘you can be anything’ messaging delivered to children, a message all but absent from the lexicon of previous generations, and the increase in depression, anxiety and suicide in young people, those two lines on the graph would jump up and continue there steady ascent in roughly the same manner over roughly the same period of time in our recent history (I’m thinking late 80’s / early 90’s, but maybe a bit earlier). I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Depression, anxiety and teen suicide may someday be linked, if only tangentially, to this relatively new obsession we have of instilling in our children the insane belief that with hard work and passion (and the false notion that passion induces action, not the other way around), they can be anything they want. No, no they cannot and they will not, and it might be better for all of us if we have those honest conversations with our kids at some point, and soon, not to dampen their ambition mind you but to be on record as saying with love, and to reiterate emphatically, that it’s okay for them to try and fail, that it’s okay for them to fall short of a lofty goal (or to never discover a lofty goal for themsleves) and for them to land somewhere in the middle. Only the tiniest percentage, a figure too small to even bother expressing as a figure, of the population will play professional sports or publish their scientific findings or become CEO of a multi-national corporation.

It’s okay.

Unfortunately, the other recent trend in modern child-rearing is avoiding honest, difficult conversations. That’s why youth sports scores are made to end in ties. It’s hard to explain losing to a little kid, so we lie to them instead and say they did great and that they can do anything they want and be anything they want in life. Too many children allow themselves to believe these lies and so when they end up somewhere in the expansive middle, where most all people will ultimately settle, they may beat themselves up (dangerously, this may be done quietly or even subconsciously, so that to the casual observer or loved one, they look happy and ‘on top of things’) about not being good enough, not succeeding to the levels they were repeatedly told were possible, and not living up to the lofty promise of their youth. That’s a damn tough realization, made harder if realism wasn’t an ingredient in their upbringing.

you-cannot-be-anything-you-want

You can’t fly like a bird but you can jump off rocks, and that’s pretty cool.

Despite the title and tenor of this post to this point, the opposite of “you can do and be anything” isn’t actually “you cannot do or be anything”. Dreaming big, striving and trying are not bad things, not at all, but striking a balance of idealism and realism in our language and actions is damn tough — can one be optimistic and pessimistic simultaneously, encourage and also be honest about the genuine chance for big time success? — and so we adults all but stopped trying. It’s far easier to dial up the excitable¬† “you can be anything you want, sweetie!” trope as a parent but these empty words may be contributing to the damage and the baggage our young people are suffering and carrying with them into adulthood.

The truth is that a strong work ethic, that classic nose to the grindstone approach to achieving a goal, may not lead to a goal being achieved but it’s a start, a part of the puzzle, something to increase the odds, and if nothing else, a damn good personal building block. I try to instill in my girls a work ethic that may help them achieve whatever goals they eventually set for themselves but I stop short of saying that that work ethic will bring them success. And instead of saying “you can be anything, sweetie,” I tell them and more importantly I demonstrate for them that life isn’t necessarily about the big prize or series of big prizes at some later date but rather, that it’s okay for life to be about taking comfort and finding joy in being good, helping others when you can, making a nice home for your family, and making choices that benefit more than only yourself.

While I’ve argued here that you cannot be what you want I will say that, kid, if you’re still with me all the way down here, if you want to be a good human being and work hard to provide for yourself and your family and, when you are able, for your community too, well that is indeed something kids, every kid, can grow up to be and do, and that would be a more-than-okay way to spend a life.

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8 Comments

  1. I have a thought that intersects with this discussion: “What you want to be” will probably change over time, with experience, with getting to know your strengths and the kinds of skills you’re actually getting paid for, if you’re in tune with that. A person who can adjust their expectations to their niche abilities will be happiest with where he/she is. And if there’s something you’re burning to be that isn’t paying your full-time living, then make it your “side-hustle,” which is a step up from a “hobby.” This definitely doesn’t have to be a black-and-white issue.

    As most kids-and-family musicians would tell you, (Trevor from the Zing Zangs excluded), we never imagined as kids that this was a thing or that we’d want to do it for a living. But once the bug bit, it bit hard. The only way to bring this profession into existence into my life was to make it a “side hustle.” Three years in, I love it, I’m getting better at it and don’t see any reason to give it up.

    So my alternative title for your article might be: “You Cannot Be Anything You Want All the Time.”

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  3. You just crushed my childhood.

  4. I don’t usually disagree with you, but I totally do here. Maybe this is sadly true for the majority, but definitely not for the way we raise our kids. Around here when explaining a shitty solution to a stupid problem on, let’s say a Disney Channel show, I simply say, “…well dear, they are preparing your generation to be part of the work force to keep the machine moving.” When she asks why kids go to public school and can’t have water when they want to, use the bathroom when they please, get up and get the wiggles out at will, I simply answer, “…well dear, they are preparing your generation to be part of the work force to keep the machine moving.” I want my kids to be dreamers. I want them to know that they were not put on this earth to be a cog in a wheel not of their choosing, but to lead, to dream, to be makers and changers. Nothing is unrealistic. Every dream has a path. My job is to help keep their feet firmly on the ground while their heads are high in the clouds. My job is to give them many opportunities, not sitting in a classroom under antiquated, authoritative rule, but in a multitude of situations that encourage them to find their passion and then together, find the path. I have high expectations for them. I expect them to be thoughtful, present, well-mannered, well-versed in current events where they could have an intelligent conversation with all ages. I want them to ask questions, question authority and work for change when needed. I would never want their voice quieted or their dreams squashed. Not for one minute of one day.

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  7. I hear you, Gina, on all counts. Your kids are not the kids and you and Todd are not the parents I’m writing this to and about. Like you acknowledge at the top of your comment: the majority don’t hear about and see the dreaming mix with the reality. That balance is tricky and requires a delicate touch and a lot of thought, but is essential, I clearly believe, in raising kids who both have big ambitions but the sense to understand the odds and therefore the foundation to cope with the stumbles and, quite likely, failures along the way.

  8. Thanks Jeff, right back at you. I guess that’s why I was in a hissy with this piece because you’ve done such a great job grounding your kids in reality and giving them amazing experiences to open their worlds to endless dreams and possibilities. I really believe that success is tied into big dreams and an incredible work ethic. Realistic paths and hard work can make so many dreams come true. Cooper, as you know, wants to be in government. We don’t look at senators or state reps and see them in some god-like form. We see them as the fallible creatures they are. Some of them strong, eloquent, but most…well, not so much. So when my kids look at them and think, I could do better. I want a voice. I want an opportunity to make policy, to make change, I would never say…”Well the chance of running a successful campaign for senate is really out of reach, but I hear Target is hiring.”

joc