Mama Bear: Dream Killer

I realized just last night that I have come to a point in my motherhood journey where I no longer have funny little anecdotes about lack of sleep, getting peed and pooped on, or spending innumerable hours trying to decipher baby babel. “What comes next for me?” I’ve begun to wonder.Serendipitously, my wonderful friend, writer/expert mom/expert on life itself Julia N. gave me a glimpse into what the next phase of this mandate I’ve willingly taken on will look like and how I should begin to mentally prepare for it when she posted this note on Facebook. It’s just too good NOT to share! And so MOM Squad, from the woman who introduced me to Baby Wise, I give you Mama Bear: Destroyer of Lofty Dreams


So Dean and I have begun having the what-do-you-want-to-do-when-you-grow-up talk with our kids in earnest. For efficiency’s sake, we are combining it with the make-sure-it-doesn’t-involve-living-off-us-forever talk and the don’t-confuse-a-hobby-with-a-career talk. As a start, I presented for their consideration a list of fifty decent jobs that require only a bachelor’s degree. We told them they are not limited to this list by any means. But they must begin to work on a life plan, and that plan must contain credible data to support it. Want to try for a long shot? No problem; just remember to present a backup plan as well.

I honestly have no idea if this is going to work, so check back with me in a few years and I’ll let you know. But I do know that at some point, when children are between the ages of 10 and 18, parents have the obligation to help them move from the dream of being Ironman (or a unicorn-riding fairy princess) to something a little more achievable. This might seem obvious, but if everyone approached parenting this way, there would be no American Idol auditions.

In fact, I have concluded that a growing number of parents are failing to help their teenagers make this transition. I’m not talking about the blatantly abusive parents who tell their children they’ll never amount to anything. I mean the nice, well-meaning parents who have embraced some fashionable lies which seem harmless enough until you field test them on an actual human:


Lie #1: Your child must pursue a career he “loves”

Much of popular culture (and many a parent) currently promotes the idea that you must exclusively pursue a career that you are deeply passionate about. Some even go so far as to imply that you are being inauthentic or untrue to yourself if you don’t spring out of bed each day just dying to go to work. This is why so many young people want to pursue careers music, sports or entertainment: they like listening to music, playing sports or watching television and movies. Well, I like eating pie, but no one is paying me to do it.

I am by no means suggesting that our kids should intentionally pursue careers that they will hate, nor am I saying it’s unrealistic that they could really enjoy their work in the future. But here’s the problem. Virtually every occupation imaginable comes with at least one annoying component. Policemen don’t just get to catch bad guys; they get shot at, spit on and spend hours filling out boring paperwork. Doctors have to see eighty patients an hour and worry about getting sued. And I am pretty sure that even Brad Pitt isn’t particularly passionate about filming a scene by the 17th take.

A big part of being able to enjoy a job is being mature enough to do what the job requires with a good attitude. Sure, we all want to work hard as long as we get paid a ton and our boss praises us on an hourly basis. And we all want to be our own bosses as long as we never have to worry about where the business is going to come from next month. But life doesn’t work that way for 99% of the human population. And as I tell my son almost every day, a crucial part of being an adult is making yourself do things you don’t always feel like doing. (For him, this is still includes showering and brushing his teeth.)

I have told my children that they must find a useful way to support themselves doing something they don’t hate. If that coincides with something they happen to love, wonderful! I will be the first one doing (figurative) back flips in celebration. But otherwise, they should be content to love their families, friends and hobbies and like (or even just tolerate) the way they make a living.


Lie #2: Your child is destined to be “great”

Okay. If what you mean by “great” is kind, polite, loving, hardworking and generous, then yes, everyone’s child can be great. But what a lot of people mean by “great” is famous, wealthy and universally recognized as the lord high master of something. And for many parents such grandeur kind of feels like fate. After all, they already “feel” just as proud of their child as if he had already cured cancer or won the presidency, so it’s only a matter of time before he achieves something that merits that emotion from anyone other than a parent.

I have a daughter who has been in gymnastics since the age of three, so I am well-acquainted with the culture of parental delusion. After all, 95% of parents whose daughters have been in gymnastics since the age of three believe that their daughter is going to be one of the five girls who will represent the United States in the Olympics in a given quad. (It is also true that 95% of the parents whose daughters are NOT in gymnastics cannot understand why in the world your daughter would put so much time and effort into it if she is NOT going to the Olympics. But that is a separate issue.)

Now a handful of gym parents have good reason to believe their kids are going to the Olympics: as of this writing, they have last names like Biles, Key and Ohashi. (Google if you’re curious.) But the larger problem remains: belief and desire alone DO NOT make dreams come true. And if emotions were an accurate gauge of destiny, there would be thousands more gymnasts in the Olympics, and everyone would win gold.


Lie #3: You must “believe” in your child’s dream, no matter how ridiculous or narcissistic it is

Parents who are willing and able to support their children financially for the foreseeable future a la Buster Bluth are free to encourage them to pursue careers in Cartography or Native American Dance. But the rest of us have a moral obligation to help our children be a little more realistic. If they want to aim high, great! But we have to help them count the cost and come up with an alternative course of action in case the Big Dream doesn’t work out. Because at some point in one’s life aiming for a career as a successful, well-paid sculptor is not too different from wanting to be Ironman.

Without divulging any details that would hurt anyone’s feelings, I am personally acquainted with parents who have:

1.     Encouraged their teenager who was unable to make her high school swim team to pursue a dream of winning a gold medal in the Olympics (yes, for swimming)

2.     Encouraged their teenager who was getting C’s and D’s in on-level high school classes to pursue a dream of a career as a nuclear physicist

3.     Encouraged their sporadically homeschooled teenager who was several years behind in his work (due to parental negligence) to pursue a dream of attending Harvard University

4.     Encouraged an adult son who had no savings, no college degree, and significant debt to pursue a career in music (which the parents were unable to support)

I realize the world is full of inspiring people who successfully pursued such dreams against pretty heavy odds. But none of them were using “pursue your dream” as a euphemism for “develop a fantasy version of yourself and then imagine becoming that person in a short period of time with little to moderate effort.” The problem with these situations is not the dreams per se; it is the fact that the parents are encouraging the teens to fantasize about the outcome while failing to help them think through the step by step process of achieving it.

But in a larger sense, the teens who are overreaching so drastically are clearly not setting goals for the sake of challenging themselves, “being the best that they can be,” or using their future fame and money to “help others.” They probably just want an easy life and the envy of their peers. Any responsible parent must discern those motivations and explain that they are really stupid reasons to waste your parents’ money.


Lie #4: Laid back parents are less cruel than strict parents

I am not talking about temperament here; I am talking about what we require from our children on a daily basis. Amy Chua was almost universally excoriated for her Tiger Mom confessions, as if our country is overrun with dangerously well-behaved, high-achieving children. But here’s the thing: at least Tiger Parents put their money where their mouths are. They don’t just set high expectations; they do the work every day to ensure their children have the knowledge, habits, work ethic and attitude necessary to meet those expectations. Too many laid back parents just tell their kids to “go for it,” and call it a day.

Look, I am way too lazy qualify as a Tiger Mom. And I know (not from personal experience, but from the experiences of many of my friends) that endless hours of study and piano practicing take an emotional toll on a kid. But you know what else takes an emotional toll? Getting to age 30 and realizing that you have nothing to show for your life except a bed in your parents’ basement and eight leather-bound volumes of handwritten self-reflection. And at the end of the day, at least the Tiger-parented kid learned how to play the piano.

Once our kids reach a certain age, encouraging them to pursue their dreams but failing to help them count the cost is negligent and cruel. Of course some parents fail to be encouraging in the first place, and that sucks. But for emotionally normal people, “encouraging” is the fun part. Anyone can say, “Sure, son! That sounds like a great idea!” It takes significantly more effort to say, “Alrighty then. Come over here, and let’s look at the number of job openings for an entry-level journalist and see how much they pay.”


Lie #5: Your job as a parent is to make your teenager happy, not help him grow up

Some kids seem eager to take care of themselves from birth; others will reach their thirties still content to let Mom make dinner, do laundry, and tell everyone that they would have totally made it to the Olympics if it hadn’t been for that injury. It’s easy to help the first kind of kid grow up because she wants to. It’s harder to help the second kind, because it feels like you are forcing him (because you are).

But the fact remains that until our (non-special needs) kids are responsible, independent adults, we haven’t finished our jobs. And just like the baby who gets picked up every time she cries will cry a whole lot, the teenager whose parents are more concerned with his temporary happiness than his long term ability to take care of himself probably has that basement apartment in his future.

The real world can be a cruel and unforgiving place. If we send our children into it with an inflated sense of their own importance and skill, we are ultimately asking society do the dirty work of parenting for us. But is it really such a good idea to let the bad cop beat the snot out of our kids just so we can stay the good cop?

I don’t know what the future holds for my kids, and like any parent, that fills me with a combination of excitement and terror. And some days it doesn’t feel any easier to prepare a teenager to think realistically than it feels to get a squirmy toddler into a car seat for her own protection. But it’s possible. And it’s necessary. And at the end of the day, maybe that’s all we need to know.