While working with teenagers I find the "American Dream" to be something of a misnomer. Today's dreams consist of being professional athletes, celebrity actors, or award winning singers. It's almost like the "dreams" of today's youth are celebri-centric, but we know not all students will be the next Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, or Whitney Houston.
In my recent book, Alone, I write to parents who have helped to distort the American dream and encourage our students to pursue things our friends find compelling. Maybe it's time for us to understand our job is to encourage the gifts our kids already have brewing inside them.
I watch parents who are outsourcing the raising of their kids to coaches, teachers, music classes, and socially active groups without taking into consideration what they can do to be a part of growing the dreams inside them.
As a father of five children, I've already noticed this interesting concept bubbling to the surface of my own parenting skills, and often I have to regulate what I think is good for my kids with what they are good at.
When my son was only five, he fell in love with Legos. I know that's the case with most elementary students, and I'm not sure if it's a love with Legos or an ingenious product placement in the toy aisle at Walmart. In any event, I watched my young five-year-old sit for hours placing the lego blocks one by one until he created whatever was on the front of the box.
He built cities.
He built airports.
He even finished the Eiffel Tower and the Star Wars Death Star (for those Lego amateurs, this is no small accomplishment).
I must admit, to all my readers... I HATE LEGOS!!
I know, that probably makes me un-American, but it's true. The thought of sitting on the floor for hours and hours putting together blocks one by one... it's just exhausting to think about. But this five-year-old had it down.
My daughter was born with a vivid imagination. At six, she would take long walks in the woods and come back with wild stories of imaginary characters who lived in our backyard. It was absolutely amazing to hear the way she communicated with the animals, held court with her imaginary creatures, and concocted large tales of saving the world. She had something quite different from the Lego Loving tyke who lived across the hall.
My third son is a video master. When he was six, he took hold of the family video camera and began filming a day in the life of...
He strings together videos and his dream is to make a YouTube video people might comment on. He's very different from the Lego Tyke, and the Imagineer, as they are both different from him.
All that to say, three of my five children came from the same womb, and all three have different styles of living life. All three have been given a different purpose in life. All three have found their interests to be very different. As most parents would agree, it's amazing to watch these little people equally raised in the same environment be so drastically different.
It's funny how we how we loose this concept as they get older. We usher them into athletics, academics, and extra curricular activities we think will help them be successful. We outsource our encouragement to coaches, teachers, and mentors driving them all over the community to "be something" while they're in high school. I've seen mothers who might as well be given commercial driver's licenses as they haul their precious cargo from one event to the next.
But what if the American Dream had little to do with what "we" wanted, and more to do with who "they" are? I'm a firm believer that every student has been given an ability, a desire, a gift even, where they are made to be something. Even in a home with similar opportunities, my three biological children are so incredibly different.
What if we took away the concept of the dream being the quarterback on the football team, or the head cheerleader, or the valedictorian; and we just focused on helping them achieve what they were made to be? Now, if your kids are good at any of the above listed things, then by all means, keep them in the programs. But so many of the parents I work with are draining themselves to make sure their kids are the community favorite, rather than the best in what they were created.
I propose a new American Dream.
What if every American parent (or any parent for that matter) decided to look at life through the eyes of their kids? What if we all sat down and outlined a strategy to help our kids be all they were made to be, and divorced the ideas of celebri-status from our talk at home?
I've watch my son's eyes light up when I sit and build Legos even though I don't like them.
I've seen my daughter's affection for creativity only deepen when I help her write down her dreams and stories.
And, I've seen my son continue to hone his skills as a videographer the more I encourage him in his gift.
I think it's time parents re-define the American dream to include the dreams of their children. We need not worry about how many games they win or A's they get, and focus on what they find interesting. The rest of that stuff will come when they feel the full weight of our support.