Is Telling Kids "You Can Be Anything You Want To Be When You Grow Up" Actually A Good Thing?

By Gwen Farrell
·  6 min read
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We all grew up wanting to be something, however unrealistic. We spend the majority of our years in school working towards college, and then a job we work for the next 50 years or so. We all have dreams, and even as our dreams evolve over time, most of them are school and career-centered. But we’ve never stopped to ask ourselves if this kind of culture is really conducive to raising children in a healthy way.

Before we can even address the issue of college not being a one-size-fits-all solution for each and every individual, and before we can even change the narrative around motherhood and domesticity as being empowering rather than oppressive, we have to first turn our attention to how we talk to kids about their futures. We might actually be doing them more harm than good, without even realizing it. Is telling kids “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” actually a good thing?

Where Does This Idea Come From?

The idea that we can be anything we want is an inspiring one. It’s motivated many of us to pursue our goals and dreams, and will further still motivate many generations of people to come. But it’s a relatively modern concept.

For centuries, society has thrived on children doing what their parents did. It’s how businesses survived, families continued their legacy, and passed down their family name. Whether you were a printer, a tailor, a restaurant owner, or any other manner of business owner, you did what your parents did and your children had a career waiting for them when they were of age. While many would say this stifles the natural desire we all intrinsically have to pursue our own dreams, separate from our parents’ wishes for us, there is a large amount of security and pride that can be found in this kind of calling.

What changed all of this was the American Dream. Suddenly, young people with entrepreneurial spirits were encouraged to leave their own countries in droves and emigrate to the United States with the intention of putting down their own roots and making their dreams a reality. It’s to this spirit that we can credit so many of the families and businesses we know today, both nationally and in our own communities. The American Dream has given innumerable people the upward mobility they were never afforded before, and only by their tenacity, hard work, and determination have they achieved it. 

The American Dream has given innumerable people the upward mobility they were never afforded before.

Regardless of what is now seen as perhaps an outdated and obsolete concept, our way of thinking now dictates that we raise our children without much structure. “You can be anything you want” is an open-ended, large, directionless mandate that we hand down to our kids starting at very young ages. But it’s through these abstract qualities that our genuine encouragement can quickly turn sour. 

When Risks Outweigh Encouragement

One of the most fundamental acknowledgments we can make when exploring our sense of self is acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses. We all have natural gifts and abilities that we’re either born with or dedicate our time and energy to cultivating. But we also have natural limitations.

You can be a well-rounded individual and still have shortcomings. And whether we like it or not, none of us can be good at everything. In fact, we’re probably much better off devoting time and energy to attainable goals rather than getting overwhelmed by too many choices.

Young people feel increasingly lost these days. When we’re constantly told that all of the pillars of society have no genuine meaning anymore – marriage, religion, etc. – we grasp for something, anything, we can achieve or attain that will bring some meaning into our lives. In this kind of search for significance, we’re especially susceptible to pursuing a career that’s socially impressive or financially beneficial. But what if we’re not good at what we’ve decided to dedicate our lives to, or what if we don’t even enjoy it?

It’s not uncommon to hear of young adults dropping out of med school after being confronted with the realities of practicing medicine, or to hear of law school graduates taking high-paying jobs they actually hate in order to pay off sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan debt. It’s also not uncommon to hear of young adults who are so afraid of being confronted with the real world that they stay in school, earning degree after degree, perpetually stalling the inevitable and accumulating debt. Why are we subjecting ourselves to this kind of misery?

Success Is Subjective

What we really should be telling our children is that success is entirely subjective. We make our own version of success, and we achieve that by starting with our own definition of what that looks like to us.

This will be different for every individual. Many people need to be constantly under pressure, in crisis or in high-stress situations. They thrive in these environments, which is why they’re most suited for settings like emergency rooms or commanding an office full of their own employees.

It’s a sign of self-awareness and maturity to know what you’re suited to and what you’re not.

Others will see their own success through the contributions they make to their communities, maybe as teachers or librarians. Others will intrinsically know that the most valuable contribution they can make to society is through their home and their children. There are limitless possibilities as to what success looks like, but it’s unique to each of us.

We’re overwhelming our kids and potentially setting them up for failure when we say “you can be whatever you want.” Inevitably, our culture has already decided for them what the most “successful” or high-status careers look like, and they might pursue those careers even when their individual strengths and weaknesses are ill-suited to those callings. We can support them in whatever they choose, but a better way to encourage their passions and ensure they pursue a fulfilling life is to cultivate their strengths and their interests. Only then can they create their own idea of what “success” looks like to them.

Closing Thoughts

We can avoid considerable misery ahead of time by not encouraging our free spirit, head-in-the-clouds child to be a surgeon or the next president, to give one basic illustration. We aren’t all called to be rocket scientists, and there’s nothing wrong with encouraging that realization in our young ones sooner rather than later. It’s not limiting yourself to think so, but rather a sign of acute self-awareness and emotional intelligence in knowing what you’re suited to and what you’re not.

There’s no question that we should be encouraging our children, but with structure and purpose and intention. In this way, we’re giving them a higher potential of achieving what their own success looks like and pursuing callings that set their souls on fire, rather than what society may consider most impressive.

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