Why We Need to Stop Telling Kids They Can Achieve Whatever They Dream

Pop culture bombards children with the message that if they work hard enough and believe in themselves, they can achieve whatever they dream. Reinforced in schools and sports leagues, many parents have also adopted the belief that children have the right to unfettered self-fulfillment. It’s become ubiquitous and is a mostly unchallenged dogma in contemporary society—and I’m afraid that many children are going to be ill-prepared to enter adulthood because of it. Telling kids that with enough hard work and confidence they can be whatever they want is a parenting trend that needs to disappear.

At the onset, allow me to clarify that I am not advocating that teachers and parents should discourage children from pursuing their dreams and goals. Setting goals is profitable in childhood and adulthood. Likewise, dreaming big and taking risks should be encouraged. However, dreams and goals should be gently directed by parents, because dreaming doesn’t entitle anyone to achievement. You see, if my daughter wanted to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, it wouldn’t matter how hard she worked nor how much she believed in herself. She wouldn’t make it.

Therein lies the rub; all humans have limitations. For example, nothing that I could’ve done as a kid would have changed the fact that I don’t have the intellectual acumen to be a quantum physicist. Putting that into print doesn’t mean that I think I’m stupid, nor does it mean that I’m ashamed of myself. Likewise, just because I fell far short of my childhood dream of playing in the NBA doesn’t mean that I feel unfulfilled as an adult. Thankfully, I had parents who recognized that I didn’t have the requisite athletic skills required of NBA shooting guards.

Instead of allowing me to waste time and resources on basketball, my parents encouraged me to have fun playing the game. For them, having fun also meant that I should work hard and to the best of my ability. The lessons and skill sets (things like teamwork and how to be gracious in victory and defeat) that I learned from playing basketball have proven useful as an adult. Even though I technically failed to reach my dream of playing in the NBA, for all practical purpose, I didn’t fail. A large part of that is owing to the fact that my parents didn’t encourage me to waste resources in pursuing a pointless passion, yet encouraged me to get all that I could out of my time playing basketball.

My six-year-old son loves sports and excels at them as much as a six-year-old can. Depending on the day, if you ask him what he’s going to be when he grows up, he’ll either answer a baseball or a basketball player. To be honest, I would love for my son to be a professional athlete. In fact, if I’m not careful, I could very easily become the type of dad that provides good bad material for documentaries like Trophy Kids. Instead, because I understand that dreaming something doesn’t equal being owed that something, I work with my son on his sports skills and pray for the grace to be humble enough to recognize that he most likely is not pro athlete material, no matter his dreams.

Moving forward, instead of propping up a doomed-to-fail dream, I will pay attention to my son’s skill sets and desires, and encourage the majority of his investment (time and material) be directed toward pursuing success in those areas. That’s part of my job as his parent.

When she was younger, much younger, my daughter dreamed of being a princess. If I had based my parenting philosophy on the nonsensical claim that dreaming big combined with confidence and hard work will result in the fulfillment of that dream, my daughter would’ve faced a disappointing adulthood.

Obviously, that’s somewhat of a nonsensical example, but that’s my point. Parents are parents for a reason. Instead of bowing to and encouraging every whim of my children, I gently steer them into directions in which they do have the requisite skills and temperament needed for success. My family has only so many resources, including time. Putting those resources to use where they’ll produce the most benefit is wise, I believe.

Upon entering adulthood, how is an individual that’s been told his whole life that he can be whatever he wants to be going to respond to the reality that life just doesn’t work that way? Not only will he not be able to achieve his dreams, but he’ll also be ill-prepared to succeed at anything else. Children should be encouraged to dream and take risks, but they shouldn’t be fed the lie that hard work and desire is enough. Often, minus the needed talent and skill sets, hard work and desire will lead to failure. When directed in legitimate directions, hard work and desire do pay off. However, most children are not mature enough to differentiate between legitimate goals and impossible dreams. Parenting via memes doesn’t help.