To grow up with the privilege of career options is to inherit the emotional labor of choosing what to pursue. And while this is obviously a form of luck, it’s also a burden for young people raised in cultures that don’t allow them to know themselves well before seeing themselves as workers-in-training – a conditioning that has only become increasingly aggressive at increasingly early grades of school.
Between academic requirements, parental projections, monetary realities, and social pressures, kids have lots of voices in their heads that can confuse the instinct that informs what type of contribution they might make, or where that path may start.
Most parents would say it’s important to alleviate any stress our kids take on while feeling around for a vocation, and that’s easy enough to do. But what about the child who has no doubt what she wants to do – and it’s, well, not looking so likely?
They need our support, and oh, how we need them to know they have it. No parent wants to be the naysayer, the saboteur, the one who stole the wind from their sails. But when someone in your care sets their sights on a narrow success, it’s natural to want to buffer them from disappointment, or at least keep other options in their periphery.
So let’s say Junior is dead set on being an NBA star, but has clearly stopped growing at 5’7″. You do not need to be the person who tells him it ain’t gonna happen. The world is full of people who will do that, including, probably, everyone he plays basketball with and/or against.
Meanwhile, you can enjoy and encourage his passion. You can tell him how proud it makes you, how inspirational it is to feed your own dreams and push beyond others’ expectations.
And there are a few other things you should probably do as well.
Get your kids used to having a Plan B. Start telling them young. It’s a parent’s job to prepare for the unforeseen and to teach them how to handle it. Make it clear that this is not about second-guessing anyone’s intuition, ambition, or talent. Instead, it’s working with, rather than against, the intermittent chaos of the Universe.
By the time they grow into the intensity of a fantastical goal, it should feel natural to factor in the trickster forces of the Fates. They’ll be in the habit of asking themselves, what vine might I like to swing to should life bring an unplanned injury, interest, or obligation? These questions don’t have to undermine any enthusiasm for the first choice.
Demonstrate the value of being a fan. It’s a bit of a capitalist myth that everyone’s full time, bill-paying job should be a source of personal pleasure. Sometimes we neglect to convey that it’s perfectly fine to work whatever job fits into your life best, while reserving your true joy for the rest of your time – be that with an active hobby, or in simply being a fan.
Being a fan often catches a bad rap as a passive or delusional activity, or one that compensates for some “failure” to marry career with personal interests (a fairly classist ideal). But engaging in fantasy has distinct cognitive benefits. By projecting ourselves into heroic or extraordinary circumstances, we rehearse imagination, empathy, and self-confidence. Also important, we find a sustainable way to relieve ourselves of stress without excessive effort.
Of course it’s possible to take that tact, like any, too far. Daydreamers can be rightfully criticized for falling out-of-touch. But they’re also in touch with something very real: an emotional refuge, a private world, a renewable pleasure. And yes, there is room for this in a healthy adult consciousness, so support your kid in keeping that option on the table.
Allow kids lots of room to change. When I was 13, I wanted more than anything to be a professional figure skater. I was obsessed, and I needed everyone to know this about me. Only a few years later, I realized that life in the rink was lonelier and chillier than I actually cared for, and that my interests were pulling me toward radio production, which became event planning, then publishing, then sociology, then art therapy, then literary criticism.
Each time, I had to shed a skin – an attachment to the person I had claimed to be.
Sometimes doing so comes naturally. Other times, it’s embarrassing. By the time I got to college, I felt a need to transfer schools every time I wanted to switch my major. I could not stand the inner accusation of being someone “inconsistent,” which to me was synonymous with “inauthentic.” But of course, there was no need to hide from my past iterations, which remain a valuable part of me to this day.
So model flexibility on your own path, and encourage your kids to recognize their evolution, even if you’re sad to see past versions of them getting phased out. In feeling free to change and surprise themselves, they’ll shed the shame of “not following through” with things that once inspired them, if indeed those dreams stop delivering the goods.
Let’s also remember, that moment of reckoning is totally their call. It’s not just our job, but our privilege to give children the fullest measure of our faith. Besides, didn’t we know they would amaze us? Seems like an even trade to me.