Don't Tell Kids to Follow Their Dreams, Expert Says

Waratahs' Israel Folau, right, runs on his way to score a try against the Sunwolves during their Super Rugby match in Tokyo, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. Waratahs won the match 31-30. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Ask most parents what they want for their children and the answer will inevitably be “a happy life.” But our definition of happiness and how we go about achieving it varies greatly. Writing for Today, Kim Brown Reiner recently concluded:

Instead of telling my kids to follow their dreams, I think I’ll tell them this:

Work harder than anyone else, even if that’s not always enough. That way, if you don’t succeed, you can live the rest of your life knowing you gave it your all.

Her reasoning, she argues, is based in expert research:

“For those born into families without social and financial advantages, hard work probably is necessary. But it isn’t sufficient,” suggests Joan Maya Mazelis, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, who teaches and researches about inequality in the United States. “Luck is an uncomfortably big piece of the puzzle.”

This perspective is rooted in the belief that your economic class defines your ability to achieve happiness. Brown Reiner advises her children to find their happiness in work itself without expecting rewards because rewards are dictated to them based on their socioeconomic status at birth. Follow this train of thought and you’ll soon realize you’re educating your children to believe that their life goals, their deepest desires, don’t matter because they can’t possibly be achieved. Which leads any reasoning child to begin not to see the point in anything. No one works really hard for the sheer joy of working. If they did, moms and dads wouldn’t spend so much time complaining about bosses and paychecks, right?

Enter in the pursuit of happiness for the sheer sake of feeling good. Cue the screen addictions for instant gratification and expect nothing more or less than a series of selfies to be the result of any perceived academic field experience. After all, what is the point in paying attention to the exhibits in the museum if what you’re learning will never really matter anyway? If I’m going to have to enjoy doing for doing’s sake, I might as well do something fun, and what is more fun to a kid in this day and age than playing on a phone?

Contrast this secular approach to childrearing with the one recently proffered in First Things, a publication of The Institute on Religion and Public Life:

It is no use letting kids do whatever they desire unless you have first educated their desire. The first job of the parent is to educate the child’s desire: to instill a longing for something higher and better than video games or pornography or social media, whether that something be found in science, in music, in the arts, in nature, or in religion.

Turn off the screens. Don’t let your daughter or son worry about missing out on the latest Tweet or Snap. Instead, take your child for a walk in the woods, or go to a concert together, or visit a museum. Don’t pursue happiness as an end in itself.

Americans are reared on the notion of pursuing happiness, yet their purpose for the pursuit has increasingly become vague. Would we rather teach our children to pursue happiness as a lifelong goal in itself? Or would we prefer to teach them to happily pursue goals while discovering joy along the way? If we are determined to operate under the notion that their social and financial status will inhibit their ability to achieve in the long-term, we are forced to pursue happiness in and of itself. However, if we put faith in the idea that a child’s financial and social rank upon birth is only a starting, not an end point, we are giving them the freedom to find joy throughout a lifetime of ambitious pursuits.

When it comes to ensuring the long-term happiness of their child, parents must ultimately ask the question: What will be more helpful to my child, to “educate their desire” or to quench it? What some parents like Brown Reiner see as a reality check may wind up being no less than a curse.