The other day I was watching a movie wherein a mother told her daughter that she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up. That got me thinking to myself what I’ll tell my sons one day when they say, “When I grow up, can I be…?” I don’t think I’ll answer it the same way.
To me, telling your children that they can be anything they want to be sets them up for failure. Why? Well, mostly because it’s not true. Not everyone can be an airforce pilot, a surgeon, a rock star, famous rapper, an NFL player, or teach at M.I.T. In fact, precisely the opposite is true: the fact that not everyone can do it is why it’s such an accomplishment. In an effort to set my children up for success, and after much deliberation, I decided to take an approach that would give them the autonomy and agency of self-discernment. Combined with a realistic methodology of exploring their options. I decided that I would answer this question with another question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Then, no matter what the answer, I will be as supportive as possible. Want to be a firefighter? Let’s go to the local fire station and meet some of the guys. Let’s check out the fire engine. Want to be a policeman? Same thing. Want to be a rock star? Let’s get you some guitar, bass, or drum lessons.
I can guess what you’re thinking: “How is being supportive of their goals, no matter what they are any different from telling your child that they can be anything they want to be?” I’m glad you asked (if you did)! The fundamental difference between the two is that one is purely verbal and emotional in nature, while the other is objectively goal-oriented. Imagine if Jimmy Paige had asked his dad if he could be a guitarist when he grew up, and his dad had just said “Of course, you can be whatever you want”, and hadn’t actually encouraged his son to get lessons and practice? The face of rock as we know it would be different.
The difference between a professional and a layperson has less to do with raw God-given talent and ability, and more to do with practice and countless hours of dedication. It’s been said elsewhere that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master. Leaving eight hours a day for sleep – that’s 625 days of solid, 16 hours a day, no weekends, no holidays, no breaks – practice. So, when my sons ask for my input on the direction their lives should take, I will answer that question thusly: “What do you think would enable you to pursue happiness? What would be most fulfilling? What are you good at? Let’s take these into consideration, and come up with a few ideas.”
Ultimately, what my children end up doing when they grow up isn’t up to me, but I have a lot to do with their ability to pursue their dreams, no matter what they are. Considering the myriad of pitfalls, false starts, and other detours that they will inevitably deal with, it’s going to take patience and perseverance for them to achieve their fullest potential. So, as their father, the best thing I can do pursuant to this goal is to be present, loving, and supportive.
In my experience, the happiest people are those who love what they do, and what I want most for my children to be is happy. That’s why I’m a full-time dad, because to me, there is no better job, and nothing I would rather be doing! Until next time, fellow fathers.