One day my very animated six-year-old declares he is going to be an astronaut, the next day he's ditched the moon to do whatever his hero, daddy, does instead. My girls, one eight and enamored of all things fancy, and the other a tweeny, sophisticated beyond-her-years nine year old, sometimes figure they'll be fashion designers or veterinarians, and sometimes an American Idol. Why not, we say? Dream big and go for it.
That's what newly named American Idol Kris Allen did. The underdog, he made it to the finals with the very favored Adam Lambert -- and won. It was an amazing moment and a great way for me to yet again talk with my kids about their dreams and reinforce that those dreams should have no limits, at least not now. But then I second guessed myself, with my internal nagging ability, wondering if this was actually a disservice to them and I was actually setting them up for disaster.
"Initially, especially when kids are young, we should be supportive of whatever they want to pursue and not worry about bringing 'reality' into the picture," advises Eric Damman, a Manhattan psychoanalyst. "During the early stages of any creative endeavor, questions such as 'will this be successful' are often counterproductive." However Dr. Damman goes on to say, "if your daughter who at age four dreamed of being a ballerina and is still pursuing that dream at 18 even though her teachers have been clear that she does not have the talent necessary to 'make it,' then a gentle conversation could help her to adjust her dream. Is it possible to pursue her love but in a different arena (could she be a dance teacher, choreographer, producer, etc.?). Even here, however, the point is not to squelch the dream, but to help shape it in a way that might be more realistic, and ultimately fulfilling." Oh, like when I realized since I could barely draw a stick figure, my love for fashion was not going to be as a designer but as an editor at a magazine. Gotcha, Dr. Dammann.
Cuddled together watching the Tivo'd Idol finale (staying up for the live show would result in a very cranky Thursday morning), I heard some interesting aspirations from my kids like soccer player and artists (my big one says as she's decorating the sketchpad I bought her for camp). I got a chuckle when my son blurted out "or a Krabby Patty maker" like Sponge Bob (note to self -- too much Nick lately) and a lump in my throat when my little girl said "I'm going to be a writer just like you."
While I listened, I realized that right then and there I could help them try to achieve these goals (maybe not life as a cartoon patty-maker) or any of the million more that would flow in and out of their heads and hearts. By supporting their desires (even these early ones), I was also helping boost their self confidence. I'm not talking about screaming on the soccer sidelines like one overzealous and very hoarse mom I've watched barely able to contain her excitement when her son actually kicks the ball rather than run away from it. I'm talking about listening, supporting, and dreaming with them. "Your child will tell you, either directly or indirectly, what he or she is interested in," notes Dr. Damman, "and if you're really listening you can follow up with a discussion of how to peruse their interests. Are there classes he/she would want to take? Are there supplies we can buy? "
What's also most important to keep in mind says Dr. Damman is for parents to "help their child find joy in the activity whether they'll ever make it to American Idol or not. In fact, if the goal of pursuing an artistic endeavor is to win American Idol (or its equivalent), then the child has lost the point. Obviously the winning is great if it happens, but if it becomes the sole goal, something crucial has been lost. The winning should be the gravy, not the goal."
And goals don't have to start at unattainable. Let's take a child who wants to play the piano. "It is initially very important to help the child set realistic goals that are incremental, such as being able to play a scale a little better each time" says Dr. Damman. Think of it like a weight-loss plan after pregnancy: losing five pounds gives you the confidence and drive to keep going for more. I know from experience how that works.
And there's no rule that says reach one goal and you're done. Look at Shawn Johnson -- now famed for her win on Dancing with the Stars, don't forget her big win at the 2008 Olympics -- four medals anyone?