No, honey, you can’t be anything you want to be. And that’s okay.

Feb 24, 2016

Photo credit: iStock

By Erica Reischer

When my son turned one, friends gifted him with an illustrated Snoopy the Dog book called “You Can Be Anything.” On page after page, this chirpy book shows Snoopy engaged in a variety of impressive professions: Sports Star, Surgeon, Flying Ace, and so on.

Dressed in the garb of his chosen occupation, Snoopy is pictured as a “world-famous lawyer,” a “world-famous literary ace,” and even a “world-famous grocery clerk.” Snoopy is superlative in everything he does.

The book was big and bright and colorful, and probably intended for an older child since the pages–instead of being thick and sturdy like board books–were made of regular paper.

When my son tried to turn these flimsy paper pages with his pudgy little hands, they inevitably ripped. Which delighted him, so he ripped them more. I let him. I even helped him sometimes.

You might think this permissiveness was due to a laid-back nature, or some lofty ideal of allowing my son’s curiosity (paper rips when I pull it!) to range free. You would be wrong.

The real reason I didn’t mind him ripping the pages of this book was because, as a psychologist and parent, I deeply object to its core message, which is succinctly stated on page one: “Just like Snoopy, what you can achieve is limited only by your imagination. You can be anything!”

This message—that our kids can do and achieve anything they put their minds to—can be deeply alluring to parents. What parent wouldn’t want to believe that their children’s achievement is limited only by imagination, and to encourage their kids to pursue ambitious goals, like becoming a surgeon or a tech company founder?

What could possibly be wrong with telling our kids they can be anything? Plenty.


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51 comments on “No, honey, you can’t be anything you want to be. And that’s okay.

  • I think the cult of exceptional people needs pushback. Rather than the reward of fame and money we should be selling (educating for) the reward of all possible rewards but most particularly those of happiness and mutuality. Sports teams with less pay disparity perform better than those with a few stars over-rewarded. (Ultrasociety Turchin). Being a player on a successful team is as rewarding as it can get. Mutual success is a thrill all of its own, with a longevity like no other in fact……In the bar decades later, “Remember when we…?”

    More than anything we should be educating our children how to have a rich interior life (the richness that can’t be reposssessed or that doesn’t need you to be a ruthless bastard) and an integrity of thought and action (an honesty) that maximises mutual success.

    A New Scientist article many years ago described an experiment to see if teams outperformed the sum of the individuals performances. The answer was YES, BUT only when people reported honestly on the quality of their own information (never giving opinion as fact etc.) Misselling personal knowledge (often the way people jockey for position in groups, using false certainty) damages the team advantage.

    Happy, rewarded team playing is our future. The ever rising cult of stellar selfishness has been spectacularly productive, but is rapidly turning toxic and getting out of control in the US as it enters a zero-sum game and then pure decline as inequality and instability chases investment overseas.

    Education to best exploit the talents of all wins. Notice and pity the unhappy stars. Notice what your own talents are…



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  • I think the cult of exceptional people needs pushback

    Absolutely. To be happy you need to do the things you like doing, but our culture asserts to be happy you have to make a living out of doing the things you like doing.

    enjoying something is not the same as being exceptional at it, in many cases I’d argue the opposite. You can be a sportsperson, sure you might have to get a regular job but keep your sundays free and play sport. you can be a musician, might need to get a regular job but save time to practice and maybe do some performances (paid or unpaid).

    The things we dreamed of doing as kids were not dreams of financial security, they were dreams of having fun. Sure you may never get a job as an astronaut but if that’s your dream, earn a shed load of money and be a space tourist, unless earning that much money would involve making yourself unhappy or is just not possible in your economic environment, in which case, add astronaut to the long list of things you’ll never do and get back to enjoying life.

    I should point out I was lucky in my childhood. My parents were convinced I’d never amount to much (in fairness, they weren’t wrong) so I never had to live up to unrealistic expectations



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  • From the article:

    [the author] is a clinical psychologist, parent educator, and mother of two in Oakland, California. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “What Great Parents Do: The small book of BIG Parenting Ideas.”

    Irony. (Perhaps average would be sufficient.)

    In general, I agree with the author.



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  • The whole power of positive thinking/be what you want to be/ the only limit is yourself doctrine, fits closely with American capitalist liberalism. If you fail it’s your fault, if you succeed it’s because of your moral superiority. Aside from providing moral fuel for an immoral, acquisitive, greedy system, it also allows the winners to be complacent in their victory, secure in the knowledge that the losers have only themselves to blame.



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  • 5
    Stardusty Psyche says:

    What could possibly be wrong with telling our kids they can be anything? Plenty.

    Yeah, I mean, what chance does some adopted kid have, just some regular guy who went to a regular public high school, made it to college but then dropped out.

    Forget it kid, just stick to team sports and be another ordinary guy in the crowd. Just get your satisfaction from collaboration with your peers.

    Whatever you do, don’t think you can go on to found the largest corporation on planet Earth.

    Get real kid, it will be damaging to your psychological well being to beat yourself up with those kinds of pipe dreams. I mean, Sears tried to charge $147 per hour in the 1990s and that didn’t work out for them, so get your head out of the clouds.



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  • @OP – What could possibly be wrong with telling our kids they can be anything?
    Plenty.

    Very much so. – As I commented here previously:-

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/02/are-teachers-to-blame/#li-comment-198808

    In the modern world there are huge numbers of physically and mentally demanding competitive jobs, where only the most fit and able will succeed.
    The also-rans will waste their time heading up dead-end blind alleys. – especially if driven by parents or enthusiasts, who have unrealistic expectations.

    This is obvious in sports which require a particular physique, but is also less obvious to naive youngsters or uneducated aspiring families, in such instances as degree courses where the numbers of enrolled students far exceeds the prospective employment places available in that specialism.

    Telling a child they can be anything they may want to be without making aptitude assessments, is the worst and most incompetent form of careers counselling available!



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  • I think telling children they can be whatever they want to be is far less risky than the system of assessment of aptitude. Late developers, circumstance (always changing) and teaching techniques all having an effect. My learning was dependent on which teacher was able to give me a working model of whatever we were learning about. I can’t seem to process information unless I can see it working and animation on film has helped me a lot.



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  • Olgun #7
    Feb 27, 2016 at 9:55 am

    I think telling children they can be whatever they want to be is far less risky than the system of assessment of aptitude.

    A person with slow reflexes and poor eyesight, is never going to be a fighter pilot.

    As I stated in my previous comment, in some careers competition is fierce and training expensive!

    http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/what-kind-of-lawyer-do-you-want-to-be
    The competition to become a barrister is truly fierce. The main difficulty is that there are many more aspiring barristers than can possibly achieve a career at the Bar.

    Unemployed graduates and post graduates with large tuition debts and no career openings, are cases in point.



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  • @ Alan #8

    Aren’t we talking about children here? Maybe I am misunderstanding but training to become a fighter pilot will come much later in life when reality hits. Until then, learn away. Technology might make it possible anyway?

    I posted before (Somewhere?) about parents getting involved and not use school as the continuation of sitting toddlers in front of the television (your involvement noted as exceptional) and we did more than just look at the education of our sons. Work experience was done at my wife work in the city. The boys got to work out if that is what they wanted to do and get themselves known. One wanted to go into banking an the other into IT. After the initial work experience whilst still at school, my wife got them (unpaid) work in school holidays whenever she could. Both did fantastically well and were liked for their work and their personalities and went to university/college, respectively, knowing they had possible jobs at the end of it if they achieved the agreed results. There was an oversubscription but we gave our boys the best possible chance to get their heads above the madding crowd and they both did us proud in their work ethics and behaviour.

    Sorry Alan but I see assessment as a hurdle when we should be finding ways to get up and get under. Degrees seem to be mainly transferable anyway but might benefit from change. Don’t know how I would change it but I don’t like the idea of industry being the driver.



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  • Olgun #10
    Feb 27, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Sorry Alan but I see assessment as a hurdle when we should be finding ways to get up and get under. Degrees seem to be mainly transferable anyway but might benefit from change. Don’t know how I would change it but I don’t like the idea of industry being the driver.

    In the real world, not everyone can be a fighter pilot, while only the very fit and dedicated can be professional athletes, and the then there is the sick joke of, “What do you say to a graduate in philosophy or someone with a third-class law degree?

    A Big Mac and a packet of fries please!



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  • @phil-rimmer et al

    When you wish and hope at the expense of trying then that will result in failure and waste. This is a crucial point.

    In a general sense, however, I don’t see how it can ever be a good thing to discourage children when they express interest in something. Life is about discovery and is an open question; you don’t start out with an answer! What should parents do if a child says she wants to become a surgeon or a writer or a painter? “That’s fine, but remember; it is not likely that you will succeed; most people, sweetheart, are hopelessly ordinary: embrace that: to be average is okay.”

    For some it is, and that may work for them. For some (like me) it is death to the spirit of creativity, which requires openness and freedom. The idea of being hopelessly ordinary, of remaining mediocre, of remaining average – in this one, brief, span of time that has been allotted to me (and I know I speak for others) – fills me with nothing less than horror.

    No. No one should ever discourage a child from shooting for the stars, if I may use a cliché. Most people are beaten down in life. Most of us are living far below our potential. The Snoopy book is great, and its message is vital: no imposition of limits on a child’s imagination of himself or herself should ever be imposed. Let them discover what they can or cannot do. Allowing the child to tearing up the book and even assisting him, disgusted me a bit, I must say.

    Now that being said: it is worthwhile, necessary even, to present reality to children: if they keep trying to, say, master the clarinet, or get good at basketball, and they just can’t make progress – well, then I suppose at that point it might be a good idea to suggest that they choose another sport or another instrument, or try something altogether different. It might be. Not sure.

    First, studies show that pursuing overly-ambitious goals can be harmful. When researchers study organizations that set stretch goals for employees–goals intended to motivate high performance–they find that these lofty goals often have significant negative side effects. In particular, they find that when people are focused on a goal, and failure to achieve that goal has high costs, unethical behavior increases.”

    This is something entirely different, is it not? I thought the article was about children and whether it is wise to encourage their sense of limitless possibility. Perhaps she’s making the point that setting our sights too high is a problem we all face – as children and as adults.

    Since the author did address adults – and she uses words like “lofty” and “unethical” which have a ring of distortion and ambiguity – I would say that children, if their early hopes and dreams are not validated, will be more likely to give up in despair later in life, will be even more susceptible to discouragement.

    The article has some meaning: we do not want delusional children or to engender a sense of omnipotence. But I think it is very destructive to discourage a child whenever and wherever he or she expresses a desire to be something or to do something – whatever that may be. We don’t know what we are capable of.

    Discourage children from being unkind, from being closed-minded, from being cruel, from being prejudiced. But don’t take their dreams away. Any dream if it remains unfulfilled has the potential to create pain and disruption; all dreams involve risk. –But it is an act of (unintentional) psychic violence, in my opinion, to say: “no, honey, you can’t be anything you want to be, and that’s okay.” Now that is a slippery slope if there ever was one.

    We are all living below our potential, as I said before. (That is actually a line from Mr. Henry Miller.) And there will be plenty of people who we will encounter on life’s journey who are quite adept, who are quite willing and able, to do the job of beating us down; we don’t need the parents to beat them to it.



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  • @danielr

    Everything is interesting. Everything is worth knowing about. Go look. Anything may be rewarding so go try. Most interesting is knowing yourself. How can you most find sustainable reward (happiness) in your life.

    Learning to play the clarinet may not make you Benny Goodman or Jack Brymer but you may derive great personal satisfaction from it.

    The problem with becoming fixated, for whatever reason, too early, on a life goal, is to neglect the personal investigation into yourself and finding all those needful buttons you could have had pressed for reward.

    In my early to mid teens I “needed” to be an actor. After a really enjoyable period of some success and quite a lot of failure I stopped, content. I noticed others were genuinely brilliant. I noticed I, despite the social impediment of being poor at facial and aural recognition of others and their feelings, had developed skills of reading in some of this defecit by other means. I discovered a passion for mutual invention, working in small teams. And I gained a rhetorical and narrative ability to sell my ideas better to other people. I found what I needed to exploit a greater talent for invention, which I had dismissed as isolating and unattractive.

    Work opportunity is serendipitous and the skill set needed to best thrive in each work environment needs disovering. Wanting to be Taylor Swift or a future POTUS is fine so long as it doesn’t get in the way of discovering yourself, your actual skills and your biggest shiniest reward buttons. Every child will need a rich internal life to sustain them in adversity. To fixate on being a train driver is to underestimate the sheer breadth of supporting skills needed to be a happy train driver.

    This is in no way a desire to beat children down, but rather, more generally, to build children up before that inevitable narrowing of focus. It is later to have a healthy attitude to endeavours and recognise when you have mined most of the good stuff, but the seam is running out, and it is worth taking what you have got so far and betting it on a newer venture.



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  • It is later to have a healthy attitude to endeavours and recognise when you have mined most of the good stuff, but the seam is running out, and it is worth taking what you have got so far and betting it on a newer venture.

    It is to inculcate a healthy attitude to those later endeavours so you may more readily recognise when you have mined most of the good stuff, the seam is running out, and that it is worth taking what you have got so far and betting it on a newer venture.



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  • My wife is a teacher of 7-8 year olds. Very early in each new class, she introduces the concept of Gold Star Thinking, along with Fairytale and Tornado Thinking. It is a strategy that allows the children to manage their own expectations.

    Fairtale Thinking is believing you are going to get invited to all the birthday parties, win every race, come top of the class and be loved by everyone. Tornado Thinking is thinking the opposite.

    Gold Star thinkers understand that you may not get invited to every birthday party, win all the races or come top of the class in everything, but that is ok. So when she picks a child for a popular task, she prefaces it with a reminder of Gold Star thinking. When any of her children doing something good, she puts their name in the Bright Spark Box and then at the end of the week, she draws a name who gets a jelly snake. Sometimes the whole class is in the Bright Spark box and the whole class get a jelly snake. But if your name isn’t drawn, then Gold Star Thinking handles disappointment. (She makes sure that every child’s name is drawn) She tells me it works particular well with students with behavioural or learning issues. When one of these children does something good, she immediately focuses on the Plus, stops teaching and tells the whole class, “I really like the way John put his reader away.” She also rewards and praises children for having a try, because she knows the Gold Star regime means the child will not be crushed by failure.

    The point of all this is that the children in her class don’t suffer the disappointments because they are Gold Star Thinkers, and take it in their stride. Also, by focusing on the positives, any positives, over the negatives, she has almost zero behaviour problems and is highly regarded by the parents for the last 25 years.

    Her only lament is that she wishes at times that she could get the parents to be Gold Star thinkers. But that’s another story.



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  • Gold Star Thinking.

    Like.

    A teacher friend of mine devised an excellent approach for young teens on developing resilience skills. Not the least part was turning adversity into a learning moment and the recognition that most folk experience much the same but may handle it differently. Handling adversity, needs a store of achievement, of potential and courage, to help perspective and building a habit of perspective taking, seeing in a greater timescale how apparent disasters become increasingly slight.



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  • @danielr

    Perhaps she’s making the point that setting our sights too high is a problem we all face

    The real problem is setting our sights too fixedly, too young. We are all Dunning Kruger victims about our own lives when young. How could we not be?

    Being open to opportunity (and having just enough skill to muddle through the first day) then squeezing all the juice out of it you can is to maximise your ability to succeed and later better choose your path.

    Too often later fixedness (I must be a…) becomes the excuse for our failure.



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  • @ Phil #17

    Too often later fixedness (I must be a…) becomes the excuse for our failure.

    Yes. Setting ones sights too fixedly (and too soon), as you say, can be bad – but it can also be good. The actor Jack Lemmon (one of the all-time greats) said once that he knew he wanted to be an actor for “as long as he could remember.” I personally have not encountered too many five year olds who are fixated upon their future in this way. I have met people in their teens that knew that they wanted to be, say, a doctor. But that is somewhat uncommon, and I think in those cases the father or mother is usually a doctor.

    But that was not what the article was about, or not how I read it – unless the author was employing subtext and the whole thing was allegorical.

    No, she referred to her own child who went ripping up a Snoopy book for Christ’s sake, a book that teaches kids to develop a sense or feeling of “infinite” possibility. She joined in! (Only a person who thinks in very concrete terms would take the notion limitlessness in this context literally, by the way. I will go even further: it’s an out-and-out distortion!) What is really the problem here is the parents (and I see this all the time) who take their neuroses out, and test out their theories, their idées fixes, on their children, use them. I suspect that the child who tore up that book did so in a fit of rage against the parent, and that the rage started with confusion and frustration: why does mommy want to stifle these good feelings I am having?

    One more thing: I read a lot of Charlie Brown when I was a kid. I can’t imagine ever tearing up anything by Schulz; those Peanuts comics are just way too much fun.



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  • @danielr

    There is a difference between an informed and intelligent persistence and steadiness of purpose, and having faith in a singular outcome. These two need to be distinguished for a child.

    Post hoc biographical accounts of lives too often get sweetned and simplified to increase the willfull savvy and power of the narrator. Few with Jack Lemon’s retrospective certainty have or had Jack Lemmon’s talent or opportunities. Only the successful get the opportunity to speak so publicly.

    Would I counsel the eight year old Mozart to not reject a career in wood carving? No, but I would encourage a broad education and the creation of a rich interior life and learn how to be maximally happy. The lone creative genius is too often brought low by the narrowness of their base and prospects.

    There are far richer life narratives than Jack Lemmon’s to offer to a young child.

    My brother, the youngest professor of mathematics his college had produced, was himself something of a prodigy and thought his path-of-least-resistance-life was a meant to be thing that he rushed towards with glee. It ended far too soon in a drink assisted and miserable death. Shortly before that he gave me his second bit of advice (the first was about Truth). “If you get a chance to live before ‘submitting’, take it.”

    All children like many grownups don’t know what makes grownups happy.

    The OP? I’m fully with her.

    Her one year old son, tore pages out in an early physics experiment on the properties of materials. He hadn’t the faintest idea of the contents. The book was just a literary device…er…



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  • Her one year old son, tore pages out in an early physics experiment on
    the properties of materials. He hadn’t the faintest idea of the
    contents.

    Totally agree. She made no comment on the babies thoughts just her thinking. The problem is in that thinking. If I hadn’t bought a couple of chemistry sets and electronic sets at a second hand store, I would never have had them. My dad was of the mind that too much education drives you mad. He told me not to read so much but helping him hang wall paper was important. If this woman already has restrictive thoughts then it will be torture for both of them.

    Jewish people seem to put very little in the way. As long as you get an ‘ology’ in whatever you are doing it does not matter. ‘You wanna be a dustman……then be the best dustman you can be……own the company”………



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  • @phil-rimmer
    @ Olgun

    I read the article again. I don’t think parents should pressure their kids to be special and to be successful. R.D. Laing was right when he came up with his phrase “Nightmare of Success”. Parents do a lot of harm with their expectations.

    But why go from one extreme to another? they should listen to their children and encourage a sense of “anything’s possible”, never discourage a child if he or she expresses an interest in something. And I don’t see anything wrong with sending these messages: let your mind expand without limits. If you want something badly enough you can achieve it. They will learn in time that this is not literally true. And as I said, this is not the same as engendering feelings of omnipotence or delusional thinking or grandiosity…

    The author does not address “fixedness.” That was your point, not the OP’s. There are many, many, many points to be made here. We could go on forever.

    But I was focused on what I read, on the actual text. She jumps from the issue of what to tell or not tell children to the issue of adults and the problems they face when goals are set to high. This seemed manipulative or, at the very least, sloppy. Conflating the two things without showing the connection produced only a vague sense of having been manipulated. This is manipulative prose.

    What I read was unclear and disturbing. I may have missed some of it, although I read it three times. (Yes, the child was a one-year-old; I did miss that – but why tell the story?— It was painful.)

    Plus, this business of Chance is irrelevant, in my opinion. The less time one thinks about Chance and the role it plays in the lives of successful people the better.

    The author has an “angle” and a book to promote, but may also have some good points to make. It certainly is a thought-provoking piece.

    I sent my mother (a psychoanalyst) the article. She has a nice balanced approach (and said that I could include this in my comment):

    “I read it quickly. I think I made an error when I over complimented you on everything you did creatively. It left no room for you to explore without some kind of judgment voice. I feel the best thing parents can do it let a child be curious, ask questions and support curiosity. Too often children are too controlled and repressed.

    “I do not particularly agree with her.”



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  • @danielr

    The point of fixedness is a fall-out from her important points about chance and equipping children with the insight that chance plays a substantial role in life outcomes. We discussed (ok I talked about) resilience also.

    The OP gives a great jumping off point and we can use its initial premises to explore where else this could go.

    Telling children they can become anything they want is utterly wrong.

    Telling children that everything that people do can be interesting and worth their time investigating. Their lives will be an adventure and most especially a rewarding one if they take up opportunities that present themselves. Their experiences are almost never wasted. The failures are more apparent than real and will help them learn what is actually important to them. Ambition, open to experience and learning what is actually making you happy, may even be more readily realised without expecting to simply take the direct path. Almost always you will discover something better along the way though.

    Not only will chance thwart the single minded but ability also. Being Salieri rather than Mozart is the pits. I would never be a great actor because I am sufficiently aspie to not “get” certain expressions. My EQ lags my IQ rather badly. I did need to be an actor to lift that EQ, but the world certainly didn’t need me to be an actor.

    Selling the tired old Hollywood meme of men and women with childhood missions is mythologising. Acquiring missions through experience and insight is how more effective heroes are made.

    I agree with your mother about praise for creativity. I and my children have been overpraised for creative skills (indulgent parents to blame). Far better to praise hard work I now realise, too late. The creativity is an intractable and dubious asset. Hard work could always be made the greater from appropriate praise.



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  • Telling children they can become anything they want is utterly wrong.

    Why turn such a positive into a negative?

    My eldest son wanted to become a footballer but I knew he was no where near good enough. It taught him a lot more than just football though and kept him fit. After a few years, he played in a match with really gifted children and he found out for himself. Tried rugby and found he was much better at that but he was older and did it for himself with no false expectations. His younger brother came home crying one day because he thought he had been bullied by the swimming teacher for not being able to swim a width of the pool. We had a talk and he agreed to join our local swimming club. Within a year, he would have to swim forty lengths just to warm up. Then the session began. To watch children work so hard was a great experience for me. The skinny bag of bone little girls used to amaze me. No way that little body was going to do three hundred lengths this evening but they did and mostly at full tilt. We had three ‘disabled’ children in the team. A brother and a sister with brittle and bent bones where the she had to make such an effort to throw her right arm forward it used to exhaust me watching but, she kept up the whole way. Her brother could only use one arm and his legs but his kicking action was the best by far so he had no problem keeping up either. His sister made it to the last Paralympics. The third person was a girl born with half her right arm missing. She would out swim the whole team. Amazing stuff.

    Hard work could always be made the greater from appropriate praise

    The first deal I made with my sons was, “You want to play hard, you work hard”. Of course there were sometimes disagreements about what hard meant but in general it worked. Their hard work cost us a lot of money but a deals a deal.

    With all the above in mind, I can’t think of any appropriate moment that I would say to my children, ‘no, you can’t be anything you want to be’.



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  • I can’t think of any appropriate moment that I would say to my children, ‘no, you can’t be anything you want to be’.

    Nor can I.

    The proposition is that propagandising for the idea that you can be anything you want is fencing off a big area from useful critical thinking. Don’t so propagandise.

    My proposal is clear that all things are interesting, worth study and may net reward. Its not at all all about getting a job. Circumstance and simple varieties of cognitions may thwart a very specific ambition. learn about yourself and enjoy the adventure that brings. My judgement of what you may achieve,…er…my Child, is not the best informed, but more than anything I want you to have the greatest number of tines to choose from at each fork in the road. The journey’s the thing and with luck we may never arrive.



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  • @ Phil #24

    I’m with you on the tines and got the message in your previous post Phil but can’t understand why the phrase ‘you can be anything you want to be’ would not enhance that rather than constraining it?



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  • ‘you can be anything you want to be’

    Well, its not true, for starters, because

    Circumstance and simple varieties of cognitions may thwart a very specific ambition…

    (I hadn’t the brain wiring to be exceptional at acting…far from it, but I had been equipped with a love of many other things.)

    Road blocks await.

    Moving from road metaphors to surfing

    When you love more things in life you can, far more often, ride the waves of serendipity.

    Being trapped by the idea that only or mostly grit and tenacity get us what we really want is as poisonous a meme as the Libertarian vision of the omni-competent individual, in need only of the right attitude. We are rich in our (differing) internal make-ups, tastes, capabilities and deficits.



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  • @ Phil #26

    Well, its not true, for starters, because….

    Although I agree some people are more gifted at things than others, there is no one, barring a few autistic cases, that has not had to work with grit and tenacity to achieve top level. Overnight successes have a long story of toil to tell but its sexier to call it an overnight success. Its just that if you love what you are doing its seems less of a hard slog. My son with football…..He just didn’t spend as much time on the park as these other ‘talented’ kids did. He might never have reached the dizzy heights but he would have been more capable if he had and not been so outclassed. People who don’t achieve usually, in my experience, have not put in the hours. The one thing I knew I had to do with my eldest son, was to get him to understand not just remember. Why was very important because, and I hoped I got it right, my mind will not take in anything it does not first understand. My wife is the opposite. She understands very little but is able to retain and repeat. Cross referencing does not happen. Luckily my eldest got both traits (with me making sure the cross referencing connections in the brain were made early on in his life) and he understood and can recall in an instant. Having a second child and being the busiest time in our lives work wise, we could not spend the same amount of time with him and I feel I have let him down as he does not have the connections or the interest that his brother has. I only have genetic mutation to fall back on.

    Of course life gets in the way but thats pre-emptive when making a decision about whether to tell your children that can be anything they want to be.

    Hope you don’t mind me commenting on your lack of ability to read faces but I have noticed your aversion to even using ’emoticons’ on posts. I can’t help but wonder what else is behind it? I would have thought it would be of great help to you having people place expressions with their words. It can be help to retrain your mind. I went into serious depression just after my second was born (another reason he was left to his own resources) and a side effect was I could not read peoples faces either. Everyone looked hostile or disinterested in what I had to say. A smile turned to frown right before my eyes, even the doctors. Even in depression I was fascinated by this and did a little self observation, when I could control my feelings that is. As recognition slowly returned I found that most of the time, I was not even looking at the face of the person because it made me feel uncomfortable. I made an effort to look and obviously picked up more information and understood them more. I still go through periods where I think I have not understood and cannot put the words and expressions together but wait until the next phase of input before making up my mind.

    So my thinking is that most hurdles can be cleared if the will exists (or need or…..) ‘You can be anything you want to be’ still rings true because I can offer nothing else as an explanation as to why they should work hard.



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  • So the poor are lazy?

    I rarely use emoticons because I hope I have made my feelings or intention manifest. Besides they are devoid of poetry…finesse. Where is the the shoulder shrug or the chin thrust of the Parisian?

    My emotional engagement in text is significant (I am a very emotional person) and fully functional and as an actor I spent most of my time people watching. (I still do.) What I now realise I am doing is looking for all those other clues about emotional intent. Usually this comes from building mini narratives about people, the little delta they made in the brief period of watching, sherlockian clues. My facial and aural deficits are curiously specific. Sadly “come hither” and “lust filled” get interpretted as disgust or horror, much to my friends amusement, though thankfully the eye-fixed-watching, pupil-dilated, mouth-open smile works everytime….I see this stuff…

    All this seems somewhat similar to your interlude, and thank you for it. There are always workarounds, though knowing workarounds are needed, is immensely helpful.

    I have little confidence at “facile” face-readers getting it right and often rather prefer my own insights. Nicholas Epley “Mindwise” confirms studies showing our confidence in reading minds and emotions in others is way above the rather poor performance even of married couples. My deficit often feels like an evidence based advantage.



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  • You can be anything you want to be.

    “Well, its not true, for starters, because

    Circumstance and simple varieties of cognitions may thwart a very specific ambition…”

    “Propagandising for the idea that you can be anything you want…”

    I think you are over thinking this and taking it much too literally. Propaganda? That implies manipulation and distortion. And of course circumstances and other factors will make it impossible for children to achieve everything in a literal sense. I also said parents shouldn’t encourage megalomania or self-deception.

    But if a child expresses an interest in, say, becoming an astronaut, or an actor or a scientist or a doctor, and also expresses some doubt about his or her own capabilities, what are supposed to do, encourage the doubt? That is presumptuous. Olgun described it as a preemptive measure. Perfect word. The author’s suggestion that we nip a child’s sense of possibility in the bud like that is cruel and senseless; it is child abuse.

    Reality will set in; everyone – the high achievers and the low – encounter failures and obstacles of all kinds along the way. Why discourage them at the outset? There are people who delude themselves their whole lives, have an unrealistic or exaggerated sense of their own abilities. But this has nothing to do with being told as a child that they can do whatever they set their minds to. That is just a way of saying: don’t tell yourself you can’t do this or that you can’t do that . . . That makes no sense at all.

    I have already said that undue expectations and too much emphasis on success (and this has more to do with the parent’s ego than the child’s well-being) is not productive. But generally speaking, a young, vulnerable child needs to be told that he or she need not assume at the outset, before trying, before setting out on life’s journey, that they cannot potentially do whatever they want.

    A literal and overly analytical interpretation of a simple and vital, reassuring message – presented in the Snoopy book, a book that this psychologist/parent tore up (and I am sure her heart is in the right place; I just think she’s wrong), has resulted in missing the point, in my opinion.

    I will say this: the word great is overused. If a child repeatedly asks whether he or she can become a “great” scientist or a “great” pianist, it might be a good idea to suggest that to become a good scientist or a good is by no means an easy feat, Try becoming a good student of science, a good pianist, etc. Try that first.



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  • You don’t nip a child’s sense of possibility in the bud.

    Never, ever.

    But that is entirely not the point.

    You don’t nip a child’s sense of possibility in the bud.

    Her point.

    My point. Discover what makes you happy and can be sustained. Greatness per se is indeed a poisonous chalice and potentially less rewarding than its fetishised regard given in our current society would suggest. Being a hard working team player is how all progress is made these days. Sell that.



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  • Ack, timed out.

    That second quote should be-

    it might be a good idea to suggest that to become a good scientist or a good is by no means an easy feat, Try becoming a good student of science, a good pianist, etc.



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  • @danielr

    Children believe what they are told. The young are deeply impressionable due to mechanisms like “over-imitation” as we are just now starting to understand. Early enculturation and education is closer to indoctrination than anything else. My dad selling to me at the age of seven that boredom was ridiculous as everything was interesting. He then “proved” it for anything I pointed to. I was indoctrinated or rather inoculated against boredom by the expectation that everything is interesting, the trick was to find the interesting part.

    “Propagandising” is exactly right. We need to think and speak carefully to children. It goes in and stays. I refer you to my first post here.



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  • @danielr

    Sorry this is all so bitty. I can’t multi-task for toffee.

    The author’s suggestion that we nip a child’s sense of possibility in the bud like that is cruel and senseless; it is child abuse.

    Strawman. You are consistently confusing a non propagandising stance over the desirability of being a stellar individual with some purported commentary in response to a child spontaneously expressing the wish to be Taylor Swift. There is no discussion of this scenario in the piece. There are plenty of ways of supporting ambition that don’t amount to promoting the need to be Taylor Swift II.



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  • @phil-rimmer 31-35

    I don’t think that I have set up a straw-man argument. Interesting how two people can have an entirely different reading of the same piece of writing.

    If you look at the top of the screen you will see a photo of a young girl, aged seven or eight, matching her head to a drawing of an astronaut’s helmet, and then if you read the OP you will encounter a description of a book written by Charles Schulz called “You can be anything you want” featuring his character Snoopy. The author then presents what I thought was a straw-man argument. She discusses, and not in any detail, how kids should not be told that they can be anything they want, and then goes on to present some facts that we are all familiar with concerning the stress associated with high pressure jobs, etc.

    Nowhere does she mention any of the points you have made. I agree with your points, and you agreed with mine.

    But I objected to the idea of discouraging children from dreaming. This is a normal reaction to reading this piece, I am sure.

    I just read it a fourth time! I shouldn’t doubt my own reality. She tells the Snoopy story, and then jumps ahead and refers to “studies” about adults putting too much pressure on themselves, presents a link. I checked out the link: it is about managers and employees, etc.

    It is simply not that great an article. It does not address any of the points that you made. Not directly. All this stuff you’re telling me is your own super-imposition of ideas, extrapolation – whereas my point is a response directly based on her thesis statement, which did not convince me and was not adequately defended or explained, to wit: “What could possibly be wrong with telling our kids they can be anything? Plenty.”

    There is no discussion of this scenario [nipping a child’s sense of possibility in the bud} in the piece. There are plenty of ways of supporting ambition that don’t amount to promoting the need to be Taylor Swift II.

    No discussion really of very much at all. But the description of her son tearing up the book (a strong image) and her delight in that, and the drawing of the girl, and the title of the article, and the thesis which is not explained or developed, —all suggest or leave room for that scenario.



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  • @ Phil #28

    So the poor are lazy?

    In my forty years of working in council housing estates and these peoples homes, I would say I have seen a lot of laziness…….but……I have also seen the causes of it. These children are the ones that would benefit most from an open invitation to dream away. I have described how I felt trapped by my ‘destiny’ to be a worker, just like the Turkish Cypriot immigrants before me, in a sweat shop factory. Becoming an electrician (skilled labour) was such a step up and more dreaming (encouragement) would have seen me go one step better again I think. Ever since I won a goldfish at the fair and managed to keep it alive in a cut-in-half family sized plastic shampoo bottle and then spending all my pocket money and sometimes, wages, on ever more fantastic fish tank set ups after that, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Just a little vision from my dad and a little bit more encouragement and I believe I would have made it.I believe it made me lazy, in the learning department. Partying seven nights a week is not lazy though, just misguided.

    I rarely use emoticons

    On a couple of occasions phil, I have not answered your post because I could not make out if the joke was on me or we were having a laugh together. The Net is known for the phenomena of messages being misinterpreted so smilies are a great way of expressing and being understood. I hate the snobbery (not necessarily you 😉 ) that I hear, mainly by comedians (getting old), about youngsters using emoticons and abbreviated Net talk. If ‘LOL’ does the trick then use it. It is the only way an internet and its language will evolve but we reach a certain age and damn that telephone thingy and everything else that is new.

    @ Phil #34

    There are plenty of ways of supporting ambition that don’t amount to
    promoting the need to be Taylor Swift II.

    And they should all be used including a little of the reaching for the stars. I understand the logic that not all will succeed but demand, from this mother, the criteria she used on her child and what level she will advise him/her they should be aiming for. It seems an impossible task to me.



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  • @danielr

    But I objected to the idea of discouraging children from dreaming. This is a normal reaction to reading this piece, I am sure.

    She discouraged putting pressure on children to dream and think anything was possible. Pure and simple. The rest is in your head and as yet with no supporting evidence. The use of a stock photo by a sub editor is no evidence at all.



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  • @olli

    the poor are lazy

    is a fall out from the idea that you can become whatever you specifically want if you want it enough. Surely the poor will want more than the rich?

    What flummoxes me is that you can read this piece as being discouraging of ambition. Betterment is most assured by a more general ambition geared to sustained incremental achievement and reward, more open to opportunity.

    I really don’t think I am an old fogey. I’m very happy with txtspk and use it a lot, not least with my kids. Writing here I want to be clear about what I say. (This, I know I have problems with!). Whenever the moment might arise for a smiley I would in preference insert a sentence adding some emotional specific.

    If I appeared to be making a joke at your expense then it is my bad. I don’t think I write (intend to write) that stuff.

    The problem is that some cultures (specifically the US, the UK not far behind) rather fetishise the stellar individual for being stellar with too little insight into what makes them useful/admirable and very little insight into what a rewarding life can consist of.

    The push back is against this cultural propaganda. It will occur to kids quite without further encouragement. A parent’s job is to take specific ambition and generalise it somewhat to make it more sustainable. The Taylor Swift ambition becomes the stepping stone to Taylor Swift, musician, song writer, record producer, sound engineer, talent scout, PA to Music Mogul, Music Mogul, DJ, etc. etc.

    Astronaut? Brain surgeon? Rather than fixate on specifics having the child learn what is attractive (in a non superficial way) can open the door to wider rewarding possibilities and greatly increase the chance of riding the wave of serendipity.



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  • A kid is an unknown quantity with unknown qualities in the most generous sense. But lets get real; they’re more or less assured of being as mediocre as their parents. Should the kid be encouraged with positivism and have their curiosity massaged and empowered, they’ll be better off in the spectrums of self-education and motivation. That will not make them be anything they want to be. It can only help them be better versions of themselves.

    “You can be anything you want to be,” is stupid to the point of vulgarity as it’s a blatant and easily provable lie. By the time a kid is around 8 they’ll realize anyone sane hates having to work ~ why hate a job if it’s exactly what one’s parents wanted to do?

    “You could be or do anything, but we don’t know what yet.” is much more sensible. From crack whore to theoretical physicist, all possibilities are covered and the kid is still motivated toward discovery. But it doesn’t have the same magic promise of Christmas and the sweet love of a mother’s devotion blowing smoke up their asses at nappy-change. Ahh, and there’s the rub. It’s never about kids. It’s about parents and empty promises in the place of reason and careful focus and nurture. If the kid doesn’t have to face their shortcomings, neither does their parent. In short all this is caused by emotional and intellectual failure in parents too lazy and ignorant to deal with reality for their kids’ sake, too proud and conceited to accept that their kid is just as fundamentally normal as themselves. Too socially conscious to admit they made just another human larva of uncertain potential.

    “My Jimmy is going to be a doctor! He told me this morning just before I took him to pre-school! We had talked it over only the day before. I’m so proud!”

    “My Tabitha is going to drop out of university because of pregnancy, work 2 jobs, miscarry, marry, divorce and end up slinging crack. She was going to be a doctor too, but she knew she wasn’t up to the standards required and self destructed her career attempt first year at college with alcohol and a desperate need to socially connect with any guiding figure so will go from aggressive male to aggressive male. I’m proud of her for trying so hard to be all she wasn’t.”

    “My Rodney says he wants to be happy and enjoy life. He said he likes making things, so we’re going to the technology museum tomorrow and then build some home made pizzas at home.”



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  • bonnie #38
    phil rimmer #40
    Mar 16, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Having ambition is not the issue, nor parents specifically encouraging clearly talented kids to exploit their talent.

    I posted this comment and link on female pilots earlier.
    It sets the bar high for some in repressed circumstances.
    Admittedly the training was done in the UK, before returning to backward states!

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/03/the-sexual-misery-of-the-arab-world/#li-comment-199893



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  • @ Phil #38

    is a fall out from the idea that you can become whatever you
    specifically want if you want it enough. Surely the poor will want
    more than the rich?

    “You can be anything you want to be” means just that. If you want to be a carpenter then thats fine, be the best carpenter you can be. Why do we always assume the highest role we can and put it out of reach? Isn’t that the strawman?

    What flummoxes me is that you can read this piece as being
    discouraging of ambition

    There are two things I object to. One is that it starts the negativity of discounting something I see as positive. The second is it is contrived. No objection before the book tearing incident but a reaction (projection) that some sense of the world came from the actions of a one year old. A symbolism taken literally.

    I understand the measures you list Phil and agree with them. I see this phrase as a positive. By the time children realise Father Christmas is not real and the bunny does not bring chocolates in spring, they have had the experience to know they cannot be a dinosaur but have learned everything they can about them.

    The problem is that some cultures [….]

    I agree and have suspected that to be the reason of a mild knee-jerk reaction.



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  • @phil-rimmer 37

    She discouraged putting pressure on children to dream and think anything was possible. Pure and simple. The rest is in your head and as yet with no supporting evidence.

    She does not make it clear at all that imposing too much pressure and unrealistic expectations on young kids is her one and only point. That is your reading. My evidence is the lack of evidence supporting your interpretation. If I thought that that (above) was the message then I wouldn’t have spent all this time responding to this piece – and I had a somewhat strong reaction to it, I must say.

    The article is not clear, highly ambiguous. Period. I’d like you to show your evidence: where is it stated or implied that discouraging parents from applying “pressure” is her central point? And, more importantly, I’d like to know why someone reading this piece should just assume that the author thinks that it is sometimes okay to tell young children to believe in his or her dreams, the way Snoopy does (apart from when she says that we need to overcome socio-cultural stereotypes)? My sense is that it is never appropriate to use this kind of language.

    Not only is it okay and appropriate, it is necessary, essential. You have to tell kids that they can be whatever they want if they express interest and doubt in a “lofty” goal. Anything short of that is cruel and damaging.

    Why is it either-or? We are both right! It’s about context.

    The issue of Chance is a non issue. Hard work is a given! Exorbitant pressure is often counter-productive – obviously. But you won’t want to work hard if your parent tells you (a child of, say, six) that you can’t be whatever you want to be. I read this as a sloppy, ill-conceived, possibly manipulative, exhortation to NEVER tell a kid that he or she can be anything they want. That’s how it comes across.

    (By the way the degree of “hard work” varies. Some people have a knack and can achieve considerably more with less effort. Some with equal ability need to work even harder than a less able person. No rules there either.)

    If parents promote the idea that success is primarily determined by variables within our child’s control, even such noble things as skill and effort, we are ignoring the overriding influence of chance, to the detriment of our children.

    So you don’t tell a child she can be whatever she wants, ever? This is maddening.

    I hope what Snoopy is trying to remind us is that we should not be stopped by pernicious socio-cultural stereotypes of the sort that tell girls that they can’t become mathematicians, or people of color that they can’t be CEOs. With this, I heartily agree.

    No that is not exactly what Snoopy is saying, although Schulz/Snoopy would not disagree with that, so it applies. But the message of that sweet and wonderful book (which she is rendering meaningless) is more basic, more simple.

    That said, it’s a statistical fact that not every child can grow up to be a Supreme Court justice, a sports star, or a best-selling author. Our futures are shaped by many forces beyond our control, including chance, genetics, and other accidents of birth. Then too, statistically speaking, most of us will be average (that’s the definition of average after all).

    Statistical facts! We’re talking about kids! My point, Phil, is that nothing should be assumed at the outset. What this writer is saying is pernicious and absurd: thwart your child’s sense of possibility. Nip it in the bud. Recite facts and figures, and remind them of unpleasant, irrelevant yet implicit rules about effort and working hard, and, above all, remind your young child about the role of chance in their future lives. That’ll inspire them.

    Your point about the photo is well taken. It’s irrelevant.



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  • @danielr

    The article is not clear, highly ambiguous. Period. I’d like you to show your evidence: where is it stated or implied that discouraging parents from applying “pressure” is her central point?

    Pretty near the beginning.

    This message—that our kids can do and achieve anything they put their minds to—can be deeply alluring to parents. What parent wouldn’t want to believe that their children’s achievement is limited only by imagination, and to encourage their kids to pursue ambitious goals, like becoming a surgeon or a tech company founder?

    This, they do.

    And this…

    Not only is it okay and appropriate, it is necessary, essential. You have to tell kids that they can be whatever they want if they express interest and doubt in a “lofty” goal. Anything short of that is cruel and damaging.

    …this, I have never done and would never do with my kids. Yet they are deliciously ambitious and entirely measured in those ambitions, never expecting that a life is fulfilled by a single and specific hope. They are quite voracious in their consumption of facts and experience and more than once I have recounted my own experience of not really having clarity on what I wanted to do until I had found some problems that I really wanted to own (at about the age of 34). Nothing, no experience, no knowledge, was wasted.

    Interestingly, they are quite non-judgmental about what others do. Quality, commitment, satisfaction are the measures to treasure.

    Self discovery comes first. Then my support of any singular goal will be boundless.



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  • @phil-rimmer

    “Hey daddy, I want to be a judge but I don’t think I can do it.”

    “No, you probably can’t do that. You’re right, Sammy.”

    That’s what the writer is saying to tell your kids. That’s different than saying something like: you have to be a judge; your father was a judge and you are going to be one too!

    But if the kid comes to you, approaches you, and asks you if they can do it you should say yes. Right? That’s all I am saying.

    The Snoopy book message is good!

    We have a different interpretation. I read this thing as an admonition to parents to always refrain from telling children that they can do whatever they want, that their horizons are limitless. You read it differently. You think it’s about not drumming this into them or somehow feeding them with false and unrealistic expectations of themselves. So we disagree.

    I still think the article is unclear. So let’s agree to disagree about that too.



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  • I read this thing as an admonition to parents to always refrain from telling children that they can be whatever they want, that their horizons are limitless.

    This is (now corrected) exactly what she is saying, and I completely agree with her.



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  • @danielr

    “Hey daddy, I want to be a judge but I don’t think I can do it.”

    “Why on earth not? Do you know what it takes to be a judge? Why not find out and we can talk it through…”

    But never.

    “Don’t be silly. Of course you can be a judge if you want it enough and work very hard…”

    “Maybe” is just fine. (Opportunities to lead kids to introspection are always worth taking.)



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  • phil rimmer #48
    Mar 17, 2016 at 4:38 am

    Hey daddy, I want to be a judge but I don’t think I can do it.”

    “Why on earth not? Do you know what it takes to be a judge? Why not find out and we can talk it through…”

    I think that is the key point when looking at ambitious aspirations.
    The rosy blinkers need to be off, and a serious look taken at the demands of time and effort, realistic outcomes, and the other aspirations which must be given up, if heavily demanding choices are made!



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  • Jeez, guys,
    You (and the OP) are taking this way too literally, I think – turning something simple into something complicated and controversial. I am not talking about ambitious aspirations; I am saying that we must be careful not to impose any limits on a child’s imagination of himself or herself. Self-limiting is a more common problem and is a greater impediment to development than anything else.
    The sky is the limit. Yes, yes, yes! Good message for kids. Don’t overdo it, but let them know that they are limited only by themselves. Nothing wrong with that.
    Now when they get older you can discuss “ambitious aspirations” in a more grown-up fashion, have a realistic and frank discussion about the pitfalls and obstacles and challenges that certain specific goals may entail.



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  • @danielr

    way too literally…

    As a parent at school extra-curricula activities and talking to other parents I have witnessed this inappropriate pressure and witnessed the misery it can cause.

    We do not notice much of our culture much as fish do not notice the all important water they move through. There are aspects of culture that may seem slight but yet remain powerful not least for when they are introduced to us. A culture that always says “passed” when they mean died. A culture that believes all folk are omni-competent, that folk get what they deserve, that believe in karma, that the outcomes for others have nothing to do with them, that the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are doled out more or less in equal measure….These ideas slip past (more so in some cultures than others) and build to a defining cultural mindset with its differing boons and harms. Infantile heuristics are inadequate for grown up countries.

    The very best of the philosophy you first quoted to me, and that I shall treasure was Schopenhauer-

    “The ordinary method [of education] is to imprint ideas and opinions, in the strict sense of the word, prejudices, on the mind of the child, before it has had any but a very few particular observations. It is thus that he afterwards comes to view the world and gather experience through the medium of those ready-made ideas, rather than to let his ideas be formed for him out of his own experience of life, as they ought to be.”

    It is never OK to be careless of what we tell our children if we wish to help the zeitgeist to mature into one suitable for grown ups.



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