Should We Encourage Our Kids to Reach for the Stars?
On February 18th, in the Washington Post, Erica Reischer published an article entitled “No, Honey, You Can’t Be Anything You Want to Be. And That’s OK.” I read this article first in my edition of the Post that gets delivered every day and then I saw it popping up repeatedly in my Facebook feed. Some people wholeheartedly agreed with it; others stated: “Whatever could be wrong with telling our children they can be anything they want to be?” I fell into the “wholeheartedly agree” camp.
The basic premise of the article is that there is more than hard work and determination involved in success. There are things like chance and bad (or good) luck. Ms. Reischer explains that in teaching our children that their success is simply dependent on working hard enough, wanting it enough, or believing we can do it enough that we are in fact potentially causing harm. She states, “When they fail at something (as inevitably we all will) children who don’t recognize the significant role of random chance in determining life’s outcomes may blame themselves or stop trying…Conversely, those who do achieve prominent success may overestimate their role in it, and see those who have more average resumes as inferior or less deserving.” In other words, we are potentially creating self-loathing children, or possibly worse: arrogant, condescending children. Reischer goes on to say, “When we create a mindset that high achievement is better than being average–that high achievers are more special or deserving–we diminish kids’ ability to value both themselves and others.”
I think there is a balance to be found between encouraging children to “reach for the stars” and giving them a realistic view of what is likely based on the way the world works. There is a way to support our children’s dreams while also teaching them that yes, sometimes the stars do not align and we don’t always achieve what we want.
I am reminded of my college application process. I had my hopes set on attending the same University my older brothers had. In many ways, it was all I knew, and being so in awe of my older brothers as I was, in my head (from the time I was 12 years old and first set foot on the campus) I was convinced it was the ONLY place to go. When it came time to apply I thought for certain, I would get in. Both of my brothers had been exceptionally successful at this University (thus, they’d proven the good pedigree of our family!) and I had higher SATs than one brother and a higher GPA than the other. I had a wider variety of extracurricular activities than both of them. I’d worked hard my entire high school career, and it seemed obvious, inevitable really, that I would get in. You can see where this is going. I didn’t get in. There was no logical reason for me not to be accepted, but luck was not on my side. I was devastated.
At the same time, my parents (equally devastated, perhaps) had prepared me for this possibility. Encouraging me to think of “my path” and to look at other “fabulous universities, just in case.” They knew my “resume” as well as I did. But they also knew the world doesn’t always work out the way we hope it will, and they tried as much as they could to prepare me for such possibilities. So, my devastation turned to defiance, and I headed off to Boston College, an equally exceptional University, with the confidence and swagger of a newly minted college Freshman, who was going to show “that other school” just how wrong they were. I excelled and was often rewarded for my hard work, long hours in the library, and dedication with awards from the University, two prestigious fellowship offers, and letters of recommendation from professors that still make me blush when I read them.
But what did I do with all that success? Did I become a CEO of a leading company? Did I become a doctor? Or an astronaut? Or a world-renowned feminist who educates humanity on how to best serve the girls and women of the world? No, I became a social worker. And now, I am a social worker who is a mostly stay at home mom to three beautiful boys. And I could not be prouder of what I have accomplished and what I have done with my life.
I grew up in a home with two “very successful” parents. My dad, among other things, was an executive at a small, Catholic hospital. My mom was a teacher who had spent 12 years as a stay at home mom in the middle of her career. I learned very young that these were noble, and indeed, very successful ways to live life. Early on, it was clear that success was not measured by wealth or by title, but by how you treat the people closest to you. It was always clear to us how lucky we were to be able to consider the Universities my brothers and I each considered as we applied to college. Yes, we came out with significant loans. However, life had already dealt us a lucky hand in so very many ways.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. But when I was in high school I realized that more than anything, I wanted to be a mom. And I knew that the rigors of medicine would likely not allow me to stay home with my children in their early years. And so, I began to explore other careers, and in doing so, discovered social work. There was no part of me that felt I had to be a doctor to view myself – or be viewed by others – as successful. I knew that it was most important to do what defined success for me, and that was being able to stay home and raise my children while also pursuing a career that would allow me to bare witness and support others.
Social work allowed me to work in medicine, a field I loved and still do, as a pediatric medical social worker, and gave me the privilege of supporting families and children during their darkest hours. Other than raising my children, there is nothing I am prouder of than having been able to make the worst thing a family will ever experience: the illness and sometimes death of a child, just a little less painful.
You see, too often our children receive the message that to be “great,” they have to be a Supreme Court Justice, or President of a company, a sports star, or the leader of the free world. But this is not the case. We need excellent people to do average jobs: We need exceptional plumbers, honest reporters, eager teachers, construction workers with a keen attention to detail, talented landscapers, kind daycare providers, creative web designers, and sensitive, caring social workers, mothers, fathers, and grandparents.
The vast majority of people in the world are indeed “average” in the ways that society most often defines success: intelligence, income, influence. But it is possible to be exceptional in so many other ways: kindness, generosity, creativity, compassion, and empathy, just to name a few. So, perhaps the greatest lesson that we can teach our children is not that they can be anything they want to be, but rather, that there are so very many ways to be exceptional. We will create kinder, more confident children, and a better human race if as parents we instead focus on finding and embracing the unique characteristics of our children that will allow them to be most successful in their little corner of the world. And then perhaps, as a society we will learn to value the honest plumber, dedicated teacher, selfless stay at home parent, and caring social worker just as much as the sports stars, astronauts, and CEOs.
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This post was syndicated with permission to BonBon Break Media LLC.