Five-year-old Miriam watches the ice skaters twirling on the television screen during an international competition. “I want ice skates for my birthday! I’m going to be an ice skater like that, too!”
Ten-year-old Marcus grumbles about doing his homework and complains that school isn’t teaching him anything useful. “I’m going to be a race car driver when I grow up, so I don’t need to know anything about this dumb American Revolution stuff.”
Fifteen-year-old Soraya lives, breathes and dreams about fashion. Her notebooks are full of dress sketches and her bedroom is awash with clothes she is altering or creating. She wants to skip college and get a job with her favorite fashion designer as soon as she graduates from high school.
Every child has dreams about what they would like to do when they grow up. Sometimes, children’s dreams seem realistic, such as when a strong, athletic child talks about wanting to go into professional sports. Often children have more fanciful ideas, such as wanting to become a famous and successful movie star or singer.
As parents, we wonder how to best respond to our children’s dreams. Should we blindly encourage them to believe “you can be anything you want to be, honey” or should we kindly point out that there are many obstacles on the road to success, and many dreams never come true? How much should we teach children about reality and prepare them to live in the real world?
It’s helpful for adults to realize that children always know at some level that their dreams are wishful thinking. Kids are usually keenly aware of how small they really are, how much they do not know and how limited their real abilities are.
Yet dreaming up ideas about “what I want to do someday” is how children imagine what it would be like to be talented, confident and successful. Dreaming is an act of courage, giving children the imaginary leap of faith they need as they begin thinking about their future. Talking about a dream of growing up and doing something is how a child begins to create a mental scaffold as a bridge between “today” and “someday.” Parents can join in these conversations with children by inviting them to strengthen that scaffold. Questions such as, “I wonder how someone goes about learning how to do that?” or “What do you suppose people need to learn to be able to do that job?” help children begin to take the next steps toward envisioning how they could build a bridge to their imagined future.
Here are some tips for encouraging children to dream, grow and learn:
Focus your attention on the process, not the outcome, of your children’s dreams.
- Encouraging: It sounds like you would like to learn how to ice skate!
- Discouraging: You don’t like sports, so how can you think you’ll become an ice skater?
Encourage learning, research and exploration.
- Encouraging: I wonder what a person needs to learn to race cars? How could you find out more about that?
- Discouraging: You’ll need lots of money to become a race car driver. Are you planning on winning the lottery?
Show you are interested, and your children will continue to talk about their dreams with you.
- Encouraging: You want to be an astronaut and travel to Mars? What an interesting idea – I’d love to hear more about that.
- Discouraging: Let’s talk about something else.
Avoid fact-checking or reality-checking. Allow problems to be viewed as interesting challenges, rather than insurmountable obstacles.
- Encouraging: I wonder how new fashion designers get their start in the business? Do you have any good ideas about that?
- Discouraging: Do you know how hard it is to make it as a fashion designer?
Build resilience, instead of worrying about failure.
- Encouraging: I’ve heard that there are ups and downs when building a new business. Do you have any ideas about how you would deal with that?
- Discouraging: Most new businesses fail, so you had better be prepared for that.
Keep an open mind; sometimes even the biggest dreams can come true.
- Encouraging: I love that you dream big, Miriam! And if anyone can make your dream come true, I believe that you have what it takes to do that.
- Discouraging: What silly ideas you have, Miriam.
Parents can encourage their children’s dreams when they remember that it’s not the specific dream that matters, it’s your children’s experience of creating, imagining, stretching and growing their ideas that is important.