I came across a children’s book recently which depicted a character in a variety of impressive professions ranging from a sports star and a surgeon to an astronaut and a rock star. The core message of the book was that "You can be anything. What you achieve is only limited by your imagination".
As I flipped through the book this message that our kids can do and achieve anything they put their minds to became more and more alluring. What parent wouldn’t want to believe that their children’s achievement is limited only by imagination?
What parent wouldn’t want to encourage their kids to pursue ambitious goals, like becoming a surgeon or an astronaut? Sign me up.
This is great I thought. Be gone with the damaging socio-cultural stereotypes of the sort that tell girls that they can’t become race car drivers, or disabled people that they can’t become athletes or people of a certain race that they can’t become world leaders.
But as I thought a bit more about it I wondered what could possibly be wrong with telling our kids that they can be anything? Surely it’s the right message to tell these influential young minds. They’re sponges after all; they’ll soak it all up, right?
The Downside of Goals
Well, kinda but there’s a flipside to everything. Goals intended to motivate can often have significant negative side effects on young minds.
Focusing on a goal is one thing but the failure to achieve these goals has the potential to damage a child’s self-worth and their ability to value others.
Intelligence, skill, ability, and personality are key factors to achieving ‘success’ but luck and chance also pay a huge part of what people have achieved and can achieve in their lives. Telling our kids that they can do anything ignores the huge role that chance can often play in success.
Not every child who wants to be a sports star, an actor or a surgeon can become one, even if they work hard at it. In every success story, there is often the grace of good fortune – a person being spotted in a restaurant who goes on to be an international model, a singer being spotted in a karaoke bar, an actor being spotted in a school play and so on.
Chance & Luck
Yes, skill is a key part of success, as is hard work but chance also plays a predominant role. Hollywood success stories are littered with chance and luck. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence was spotted in Union Square by a talent scout and before she knew it she was thrust into the spotlight with a future Oscar under her belt.
Lawrence is undoubtedly a very talented actor but her talent would still exist without her great success. It, therefore, begs the question what kind of life she would be living if she had hadn’t been walking through Union Square at the exact same time as the talent scout?
If we as parents promote the idea that success is primarily determined by factors such as skill, effort, determination and hard work then we’re ignoring the overriding influence of chance/luck and this is to the detriment of our children.
All children, like adults, will fail at things and it’s the children who don’t recognise the significant role that chance plays in determining outcomes that may blame themselves or give up trying.
My kids are still very young - six, four & 18 mths - so their goals and ambitions change on an hourly basis (one of them still can’t wipe his own butt which is a goal I hope - and pray - he achieves soon. Well two of them can't but I'm giving him a little more leeway.) If I see them fretting or getting stressed about something I tell them to relax, take a deep breath and not to worry about what hasn’t happened yet.
A mind that is constantly focusing on the future whether it be getting good grades, making the football team or applying to colleges can often be more be prone to greater anxiety and fear.
Don’t get me wrong, stress can also serve as a fantastic motivator but continued stress can often impair a person’s health and mental state.
Yes, it’s good to have goals to work towards (my kids are currently saving their pocket money to buy more Lego) but rather than continually encouraging them to focus on what’s next on their to-do list, I prefer to help them stay focused on the task or conversation at hand.
Again, my kids are very young to these tasks which are usually to complete their homework or to clean up their toys.
My wife often refers to me as ‘The Slug’ mainly because I know how and when to chill out. While it’s an unfortunate name to be called, I’m kind of proud of it because it means that I’m able to relax and switch off.
These days, particularly with the high usage of social media, more and more children are feeling anxious at a younger age. They are worried about grades, worried about being liked, worried about the future and feeling the pressure of growing up too fast.
In Ireland, we have a distressingly high rate of stress-induced suicides among children and young adults.
I’m in my 30’s and I already know five people who have passed away from suicide over the past 20 years. Not enough is being done to address this.
For this reason, but not this reason alone, I’m particularly conscious about not over-scheduling my kids. I make a concerted effort to allocate time for them to be left to their own devices. We have to remember that children are excellent at turning almost any situation into an opportunity to play.
They might read a book, climb a tree, play with their toys, draw ‘a slug’, lie on the couch or complete a jigsaw. I personally like to see them enjoying chill-out time which I hope will allow them to approach life from a more centred and relaxed place.
I hope I’m not coming across as ‘preachy’, that really isn’t my intention but from experience, I notice that giving my kids downtime helps them to learn and be more creative and innovative (I’ll exclude my 4yo’s wiping issues from this).
Like many parents I’m sure, I tend to identify my kids by their strengths and the activities that come most naturally to them.
There’s nothing wrong with this but I recently came across an interesting talk by Carol Dweck – Professor of Psychology at Stanford University – whose research showed that by doing this, we unintentionally box our children into a persona which makes them less likely to want to try out new things that they may not be good at.
So for instance, when a kid receives praise primarily for being athletic, they’re probably less likely to want to leave their comfort zone and try out for the music club or the drama club.
Again, my kids are probably still a bit young to put this to the test BUT in saying that, I introduced the Wii gaming console to them on Saturday and once Thing 1 (six) realised that he was good at a certain game – Mario Kart - he didn’t want to play any of the other games because, well, he wasn’t as good at them.
So what did I do? I caved and just let him go back to playing Mario Kart. Perhaps I should have persevered with the other games so that he could learn and improve.
Again going back to research by Dweck, our brains are wired to learn new things so instead of identifying our children’s strengths, we should teach them that they actually can learn anything, as long as they try.
By doing this, children will hopefully be more optimistic and even enthusiastic in the face of challenges, knowing that they just need to give it another go to improve.
And they will be less likely to feel down about themselves and their talents.
By the time this is published I’m in no doubt that my 4yo won’t have mastered his wipe but I’m confident that he’ll get there eventually and I’m happy enough with that. I could tell him that he can become the best ‘wiper in the world’ if he tries hard enough but I’m not going to because I’m sure there’s a 2yo out there who’s far better!
I joke of course but I asked people on my Facebook Page whether they tell their kids that ‘they can be anything that they want to be if they put their minds to it’ and the majority said that they do.
This isn’t surprising but I’d be very interested to know what you do and whether chance and luck are factors that are raised with your kids when they discuss their plans, goals and professional ambitions.