I read an article lately that really resonated with some of my own recent experiences. It had to do with taking our children’s dreams seriously, and resisting the temptation to meet those ideas with our own sensible, grown-up feedback. This is easier said than done, I tell you. Thank goodness we get lots of opportunities to practice! My daughter, Faith, has provided me with two such opportunities in recent days.
A couple of months ago, Faith attended the first rehearsal for a children’s production of “Where the Wild Things Are”. She was by no means the oldest or the most experienced child in the group. Nevertheless, when she arrived home, Faith announced that she was planning to land the lead. Then she grabbed a pencil and rushed off to her room to circle “her” lines.
Let me just interject here that Faith had been in exactly one play prior to this, in which she played a flying carpet which spent most of its time nervously chewing its braid in the farthest possible corner of the stage. The flying carpet had exactly zero lines to memorize, which was fortunate since having to read from a script scares Faith even more than having to walk past a bee (if you know her, you’ll realize just how serious this is!) You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when she decided she’d not only practice the lines for “Max”, but would memorize the part in its entirety in what I can only term an act of supreme confidence or a brilliant preemptive strike designed to intimidate the other would-be wild things.
Now, what would you have done? Being a sensible parent who has lived in the world forty-something years and flirted with the theater myself, I decided it would be helpful to give Faith a more realistic frame of reference.
“Sweetie,” said I, drawing her to my side, “you don’t actually need to memorize all the lines to audition for a part. Don’t you think it might make more sense to wait and see if you get the part before putting in all that time and effort?”
But she was steadfast in her conviction that memorizing all the lines was a good idea. “Okay, then,” I capitulated. “Do you want me to go through them with you?” No, she wanted to do it herself – despite her anxiety around script-reading. Over the next two days, she spent a good deal of time in her room. When she finally emerged, she was fairly glowing. “Test me, Mommy! I know ALL my lines!” And she did. Not only did she know them, she emoted them (I would be remiss here not to give a shout out to my fantastic eighth grade English teacher Mr. Devine, who first introduced me to this all-important skill as he hovered precariously on the edge of a chair, ruler in hand, challenging his small charges to ‘Emote! Emote!’ But I digress.) The point is that Faith’s delivery of those lines was truly terrific. Wonderfully wild.
Now, you’d think at this point I’d have seen the error of my ways and sent her off with the utmost confidence. Alas, no. Instead, I thought about all the work she’d put into this and how devastated she’d be if she didn’t get the role. Perhaps a little dose of reality now would temper any future disappointment. After complimenting her performance profusely, I added, “Now, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the part. Whatever part you get you will do wonderfully.” I stopped just short of “There are no small parts, only small actors,” deciding to leave that pithy adage for Faith’s director to fall back on. With that jewel of wisdom, I wished her good luck and ushered her into the auditorium.
If only I’d come across the above-mentioned article sooner!
In “How to Mentor a Kid with Big (Possibly Unrealistic) Dreams”, Lori Pickert encourages us parents to “mentor and support, to brainstorm and listen, to remind and reflect. Your job isn’t to step in and tell them their ideas won’t work and their plans are doomed.” She goes on to point out two very important facts: first, that we don’t know how a child will react if she doesn’t achieve her dream. True, she may be miserable – but she may not. What’s more certain is the pain we know we’ll feel on our children’s behalf. But is that a good reason to dilute their dreams with a discouraging dose of reality? The second fact Ms. Pickert brings to our attention is this: we don’t actually know what our children can (and can’t) do. In fact, we tend to underestimate their abilities. “Don’t set limits where limits aren’t necessary,” she cautions. “Don’t set limits where they will not only curtail what your child can achieve but may discourage him from getting started in the first place.”
Uh-oh. That was exactly what I’d just done! Assuming she wouldn’t get the part, I’d tried to prepare Faith for failure rather than encouraging her to go after her dream.
Enter opportunity number two, which came in the form of a secret in a diary. “Mommy, I want to show you my plan,” Faith whispered to me one night at bedtime, “but only if you don’t say I’m too little.” Intrigued, I gave the requisite promise – which proved serendipitous, for had I discovered her idea before making this vow, I most certainly would have said exactly that: sorry, you’re too little.
“I’m going to be a famous actress, Mommy – a child actress. I’m not waiting until I grow up. And so my plan is to move out to Hollywood when I’m thirteen, get an apartment, and become a star!”
You can surely see how my previous promise was the sole reason I didn’t immediately disabuse her of any such notion. After reading Ms. Pickert’s article, I’m so glad that promise kept my inner realist quiet. Here’s another reason why: according to Ms.Pickert, “self-motivated, meaningful work is never wasted time. Working toward big dreams, kids acquire the same skills as working on “doable” tasks — and more. They are working at their challenge level: the front edge of what they’re capable of doing. They are powered by intense motivation. Every big dreams breaks down into smaller goals which break down even further into achievable tasks.”
I got to see the this first hand as Faith pulled out her diary and showed me her planning lists. She’d made one for what she’d need to pack (clothes, toilet paper, and a refrigerator, to name a few), another for her daily schedule (which consisted of rising at 5:00 a.m., applying her lipstick, catching a bus to work, arriving home at 11:00 p.m. and showering while her roommate read her passages from the Bible “to help me not to give in to all the drugs and things that will be on set, Mommy!”), to my favorite: the skills she’d need in order to live on her own (write a check, live on a budget, learn how to cook, figure out a bus schedule…good stuff, yes?)…list after list detailing how she would make this BIG dream a reality. Reading along, I thought my goodness, look at the learning going on here! And the motivation – I can see Faith slowly working toward mastering some of those “independent living” skills she listed. She’s determined to make this dream come true. And I’ve become determined not put a damper on her dream.
I’m not the only parent thinking along these lines. One of my favorite bloggers, The Stone Age Techie, has recently undertaken the Sincerity Project. Like Pickert, Ms. Kolp is passionate about listening to children’s ideas and aspirations and taking them seriously. “It’s very easy to just blow off a child’s ideas, and the younger a child is, the easier it is to make that mistake,” she writes. “It really is a mistake – a child who gets the message that his or her ideas do not have merit will stop sharing those ideas, and may even stop having them.” Now there’s a sobering reality.
Will Faith become a famous child actress one day? However it turns out, the skills she’s gaining now by pursuing that dream and the self-confidence she’s developing as a result of being taken seriously will serve her well – whether she follows this dream or finds a new one down the road apiece.
Meanwhile, she’s content with composing her lists and planning her wolf suit for “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Yep, she’s “Maxine”, the most wild thing of all.
Let the wild rumpus start!