“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A fashion designer and an artist.” “You better rethink that artist part, unless you wanna be broke.” She ran out of the room and was a puddle of tears. It took years to get her to even think about drawing again. Every time I think of that moment, my chest tightens.
Realists think they are doing people favors with their “shoot from the hip” honesty. But when you take shots at a child’s dreams, you assassinate their passion, their optimism, and sometimes their purpose.
Children are new here and they look to us who’ve been around a while as experts on what is true about this place. They are like foreigners in a new country. They observe us for clues of how things work. They pay attention to everything we do, say, and what we don’t do or say. They notice what our body language and facial expressions, and how those communicate to others. They watch how we, and others, react to all of it. We are their guides to the human experience.
They also pay attention to our energy and how and why we express our emotions. They pick up on our triggers, our fears, and our beliefs. They adopt them even if they don’t know why we behave, or believe, as we do. They gain their perspective of what is safe, pleasant, and acceptable by watching how we respond. Everything we do impacts them. Everyone they encounter impacts their perception, and alters it.
We need to take that responsibility more seriously. When you are fumbling for conversation with a child, don’t ask them what they want to be for a living. Your response to their answer can impact them for the rest of their lives. How many adults do you know who are actually doing the thing they really wanted to do as a kid, or even what they originally majored in their freshman year of college? Why do so few continue on the path that lit them up from childhood? No. It’s not because it was an impossible dream. No. It’s not even because they were lazy or unfocused. More often than not, someone taught them that what they really wanted to do was pointless, a bad idea, too hard for them, etc. Some parent, teacher, sibling, advisor, or even a character on a TV show, expressed that the goal was unattainable, so they retreated.
If you do not have a belief that all things are possible, you should not ask a child what they want to be, do, or have in their future. I don’t care if they say they want to be a pineapple, or want to have a spaceship in their backyard, it is not our place to destroy a child’s ability to dream. Between the ages of 0 to 7 years old, children gather most of the beliefs that they will hold for the rest of their lives! If you happen to be the pessimistic jerk, or realist, who crosses their path and teaches them not to believe in what very well could be the one thing they came here to do, you have essentially taken their life from them.
Not every child is meant to be a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse, or policeman. Every profession is needed to keep our world going. Just because something isn’t your dream, or because you don’t know anyone succeeding at a particular career, does not mean that you have to forewarn them of impending doom. Not every artist is starving. Not every athlete doesn’t make it big. Some succeed. We have no idea the potential in a child. Just as we can’t look at an acorn and know which will become an oak. It’s not our place to crush every acorn saying, “Only one in 10,000 becomes a tree.” What if the one you crush was meant to be the most majestic of all?
I get it. The holidays come and you’re stuck at the kids table and you don’t know what to say. All I’m saying is, whatever you do, do not default to that dream destroying question. Even if you don’t respond with, “That’s stupid,” your facial expressions, your body language, etc. communicates so loudly. They take it all in.
As you gather with your loved ones, or get together on Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime choose to communicate love. Ask better questions. And before you ask, ask yourself why you are asking. If it’s just to fill the space, just sit with the awkward silence until you have something empowering to say….
That… individual… who asked my child that question, probably doesn’t even remember the conversation. My child does, though. Every time she speaks about wanting to be an artist, she brings up that moment. Every time she feels pulled toward the two things that bring her so much joy, she experiences doubt—doubt that was not there that person put it in her mind. What was a possible dream career, has now been downgraded to a hobby, because they convinced her in a moment that her dream was pointless, and a bad idea.
Leave children’s dreams alone and use better conversation starters. You can ask questions like:
- What’s your favorite animal?
- What do you love about preschool?
- Who’s your favorite teacher, and why?
- What do you love most about Mommy/Daddy?
- What’s your favorite thing that happened today?
- What do you love most about yourself?
- What’s your favorite book/toy/app/tv show?
Or, you can talk about yourself. You can tell them cool things you did when you were their age, or things you like about your job, or reasons why you love their parents. You can teach them how to do a magic trick or some fun facts. You can compliment them on their intelligence, cool hair, or awesome tee they’re wearing. There are so many things to talk about other than their dreams….
This is something I’m passion about because someone did it to me as a child (which is why I am just now embracing myself as an artist), and I witnessed the day it happened to my own child. I know so many people who had similar experiences and I want to preserve children’s dreams and sense of hope.
Children believe us. They think we are experts. Whether we are a random stranger, or the cousin that married into the family, they hold on to our words. And our words change who they become. Let’s take our impact seriously, and choose our words wisely. If you don’t intend to speak life into a child’s dreams, never ask them what they are. Don’t be a dream thief, when you have the opportunity to speak life.