Optimistic Realism

One of the fantastic things about the internet is that we have the opportunity to learn all different points of view and outlooks from people we probably never would have come in contact with otherwise. Today, for example, in a parents’ group I belong to I got to be a part of a conversation that showed me a point of view I’d never considered- and I walked away with a new understanding and the opportunity to be a little better at this parenting thing. (This is one of the equally frustrating and encouraging things about parenthood, no matter how good you are or how much you screw up you can almost always be better. )

The discussion was about letting our kids know that they can do or be anything, that the possibilities for their lives are limitless and that the bigger their dreams the better. Sounds great, right? I was nodding my head and patting myself on the back when suddenly… someone disagreed! How could this be? This group is full of progressive parents- parents who, like me, believe in encouragement and support. And yet here was this person suggesting that we shouldn’t teach our kids to reach for the stars! What. the. hell??

But the more I read her position and why she held this opinion the more I felt myself opening up to what she was saying. So, what exactly was she saying? Well, to paraphrase and expand on her points:

  1. No one is limitless. Some of our limitations are genetic, such as beauty or intelligence. Some of our limitations are external, such as time or money. Some of our limitations we place on ourselves by making choices that we may regret but can’t undo. The key is to not get bogged down worrying about those limitations but to instead accept them as part of ourselves and figure out how to be happy anyway.
  2. When we tell a child they can be anything we are lying to them. Not everyone can be president. Everyone can run, but not everyone can win. Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete. Everyone can train, but not everyone can qualify. And the winners in these situations may not be the people who worked the hardest in life or are truly the best- they may just be luckier on the right day than their opponents.
  3. It is impossible to have absolutely everything you want in life. Some dreams are mutually exclusive and you have to choose one over the other. Writing the great American novel while backpacking around the world doesn’t really seem on par with opening your own restaurant. Neither of those seem on par with starting that big family you’ve always wanted. You might be able to do a lot but to do it well you’ll probably have to choose. Never becoming a fire fighter shouldn’t be perceived as a failure if it was a necessary sacrifice on the way to becoming something you wanted to be even more.
  4. We are inadvertently teaching our children that it’s not okay to “settle” for anything less than greatness. They will find it really difficult to be happy making a modest but comfortable life as a working actor if they’ve been conditioned to believe that all they have to do to get that Oscar is want it badly enough and work hard enough for it.

All of these ideas certainly gave me pause… on the one had I couldn’t imagine telling my kids to accept their limitations or to settle for less than the best. But as I went about my day these things kept coming back to me and I knew there was some truth to what this woman was saying. I just had to figure out how to reconcile it with my pie-in-the-sky idealism.

I realized that I already have this sort of optimistic realism when it comes to short term goals. When the kids want something expensive or that seems daunting I don’t tell them yes or no- I ask them how we can make this happen. What sacrifices will be necessary to make it happen? How long will it take to make it happen? Are there any obstacles that will make it impossible? Is this thing they want worth all of the effort and sacrifice? I don’t answer these questions for them, I use them to open up a dialogue so they can answer them for themselves. But somehow there’s been a disconnect between this and my approach to bigger, long term goals.

After this discussion today I can see that I need to be opening the same dialogue when K comes to me and says she want to be ballerina that I do when J says he wants to learn stop motion animation. I also need to add more questions to think about because when you’re talking about big dreams the conversation should also include what life will look like once they’re accomplished. That dream job might not be worth never being able to afford seeing Paris. Or having to work long hours that would mean being away from your family a lot- or possibly not having time to have a family at all.

In the end I’m still an optimistic realist. I want my kids to have big dreams and never be afraid to chase them. I just have a more clear understanding that I can’t be afraid of honest discussion about what chasing those dreams, large and small, will entail. This is that supportive, encouraging independence role I recently discovered . I knew it was going to be tricky.

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2 responses to “Optimistic Realism

  1. Very good post. I have been teaching my own children that they should strive to be the best at whatever they choose to do with their lives but the most important thing they should be is happy.

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