Realistic expectations for children

January 23, 2009|By BETSY HART / Scripps Howard News Service

My children's school will soon host the annual "variety show." An infinitely better name for the program than the more common "talent show," since most of the kids participating are not displaying any real "talent," and so what? They are having fun putting on various acts and that's as it should be.

I thought of this a few weeks ago when my youngest daughter, aged 7, asked me if I thought she should sing a song for the show. She demonstrated for me. I soon let her know I didn't think she was ready for "prime time," whatever the show was called. She told me I was a "dream crusher" and stalked out. But, she seemed fully recovered a few minutes later and was looking for something else to do for the show.

If only the parents and friends of so many of those poor folks tragically trying out for "American Idol" in this season's inaugural shows had had someone to tell them, "you shouldn't be doing this!" how much better off they would be. But in an effort to build a child's self-esteem, how often do we tell kids how fabulously they do everything? We do this even when they have put in no planning or practice into it or demonstrated no raw talent or passion.


We've often heard "you can be anything you want to be" and we feel compelled to share that sentiment with our kids. But that's just silly. We're designed with certain gifts, talents, inclinations and passions, and not with others. Our task as parents, it seems to me, is to help our kids find what they are built for.

And so in looking at my kids - and I suppose in recently being honest with one about her singing ability - I've been drawn again to the wisdom in a book from the late 1990s, "Why You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be" by Arthur Miller (Zondervan).

We've all seen in friends, or heard from our loved ones, how gifts and abilities displayed at the earliest ages became a passion and if the person is fortunate, even a profession as an adult. (Me? My mother never stopped being amazed that I was actually able to get people to pay me to tell them what I think about things.)

Miller says this isn't about fatalism, but about design, and he goes to great lengths in his book to help us uncover what our design is, largely based on discovering what our passions are, with "passion" meaning a lot more than just "wanting" something. But his point, which I appreciate most, and which I try to remind myself of as a parent, is that we must resist the idea that "success" means "greatness" in this world. Most particularly, Miller argues that to believe that we or our children can be successful just by asserting we are successful "is as misguided as the alchemists' ancient promise to transmute lead into gold."

He writes, "If we really want the fullness, the richness, and the joy of life, if we want genuine significance and true success, if we want to find our meaning and purpose ... then we have to ask, 'What has been given to me? What endowments do I possess?'"

Or, as a parent, "How are my children wired? What passions and abilities do they have?" By the way, some of the things that annoy us most now - for example, willfulness or stubbornness - might in other contexts serve them well.

And conversely, "What passions and abilities do my children not possess?" (We can cross singing off several of my children's lists.) So, they can't be anything they want to be.

I don't think that view is to "crush" a dream. Viewed rightly, I think it's wise to direct our children toward finding and living their dreams.

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