Encouraging Kids’ Dreams with a Healthy Dose of Reality
Updated: Feb 11
“We must teach our children to dream with their eyes open.” – Harry Edwards
As parents, we have an opportunity to help encourage big dreams and possibility in our children.
But without also sharing what it truly takes to achieve success, we may be setting kids up to join the ranks of the more than half of American adults today that are dissatisfied in their careers.
We were all young and had dreams once
When we were seven, we had giant dreams, with thoughts we could be anything. Nothing but possibility. Maybe we were encouraged or discouraged one way or another by people in our lives to pick this track or that. Or maybe we didn’t pick at all.
Then we grew up and the real-world set in with bills to pay, families to care for, more or less lucrative career paths that then meandered for decades. Looking back, weren’t you going to be a rock star? Or a botanist? Or an astronaut?
Now we see that same wide-eyed, free spirit in our children.
As parents we want the best for our kids. We might encourage our children’s ambitions this way or that, evaluating their dreams based on income potential or stature, or even encouraging them into the life that we once dreamt up for ourselves.
Whose dreams are they?
You’ve seen them. On the field. In the ballroom. Even with their own reality TV show: sports dads and stage moms and parents of the like.
They had their own dreams of winning a beauty pageant, being a professional football player or attaining stardom. For some parents, their own unfulfilled dreams can be transferred to their children as a sort of second chance.
A study by Brummelman et al. (2013) looked at how parents seek to free themselves from the disappointment of their own unachieved dreams by living vicariously through their kids. They found that the more parents looked back and mourned being unable to achieve their own goals, the more likely they were to use their kids to try to reclaim their old ambitions to enhance their feelings of self-worth.
Researchers found this especially true the more a parent viewed their child as an extension of themselves, as opposed to as a separate individual with their own unique interests.
The new American dream
A 2019 survey by Harris Poll/Lego found that kids age 8 to 12 surveyed in the US and the UK are three times as likely to want to be a YouTuber than an astronaut.
Dreams of stardom and riches are fun. Unfortunately, there’s also the reality.
According to research by Mathias Bartl of Offenburg University of Applied Sciences, even the most popular channels at the bottom of the top 3% tier, attracted 1.4 million views a month and averaged less than $17,000 in annual income.
That means that 97% of YouTubers fall below even that level. Also of note is that with 300 hours of video content being uploaded to the site each minute, competition for new eyeballs becomes even more difficult.
Growing disappointment gap
Since the mid-70’s, the dreams of young people have grown bigger and expectations for our lives have expanded. In many cases unrealistically. What didn’t expand however, was the success itself.
As this ambition gap – the difference between what we expected to achieve and of what we actually achieved – has expanded over the last 50 years, career disappointment and dissatisfaction have grown along with it.
“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?" the boy asked … "Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Not what, but who do they want to be?
Whether by parents or kids themselves, there’s a narrowing of idea of what success means – mostly being equated with money, stature and fame.
Author and clergyman, Richard Bolles’ bestseller, What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), suggests a deeper understanding into why kids are interested in their career goals. What is it about being a professional athlete, video-gamer designer or ballerina that is interesting to them?
What specific skills and talents do they see in themselves that matches their particular choice of profession?
Self-reflection is how they know not only what they want to become, but also who they to be and how they want to feel and why. Early exploration along these lines is preferable to waiting until the midlife crisis.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundation under them.” – Henry Davis Thoreau
Let’s get real
It helps to give kids a realistic roadmap to accomplishing dreams, including the expectations of challenges they will have to overcome along the way. They should be clear that their dreams will take a lot of their focus and hard work.
Being prepared for that can help boost the confidence and courage necessary for action, and then action again, and again, if need be. In this way, dreams can develop resilience in kids. When a child means their dreams, they’re more motivated to keep at it, to work for it. It’s the thing that gets them to get back up under their own power. That’s why it it’s important the dreams are their own.
According to psychologist and professor Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, being realistic with kids about what establishing a successful career really takes is far more beneficial to them in the long-run than emphasizing how great and special they are.
Yes, we want them to dream big. Yes, we want them to believe that they can do anything. But that’s not true (and you and I both know it). We’re all not capable of anything. It may not be a good idea to tether yourself to anything.
But the not-so-secrets of real success: self-control, hard work and perseverance can take us pretty damned far.
“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.” ~ Albert Einstein
Learning, growing mindset and environment
Parents play an important role in helping kids see themselves as empowered, active learners.
Free, unscheduled, unplugged time provides the space to explore interests and try things out. It’s where passion emerges and self-discovery happens.
When kids can see the connection between their own experimentation, determination and effort and progress on their goal, they can know they have the tools to can help them accomplish most anything. Those are the keys to the kingdom.
Should they ever find themselves among the growing majority of unhappy, unfulfilled adults, give them the gift of knowing that they are perfectly empowered and within their rights as the owner of their life, of their health and of their happiness, to make the critical, necessary adjustments.