No, Kids, You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be

I have a challenge for us modern parents, especially the American variety: let’s stop lying to our children.

I know we mean well. I know we want the best for our kids. But, for the sake of our children’s happiness and sanity—not to mention their sheer survival—stop telling them, “There are no limits” and “You can be anything you want to be.”

There are relatively fixed limits on life. Lots of them. That’s actually how this thing called Life works.

  • Not every girl is pretty enough to be Ms. America, intelligent enough to go to Harvard, or skilled enough to write a best-seller.
  • Not every boy is fast enough or strong enough or talented enough to play in the NFL or NBA.
  • Is math not your strong suit? Then don’t apply to MIT or expect to work for NASA.
  • Don’t have an entrepreneurial personality? Then give up that dream of starting a dotcom and find a job working for somebody else.

There are biological, legal, and intellectual limits of all varieties. Our children cannot be anything they want to be. Period. Full stop. In fact, the list of things they cannot be is infinitely longer than the list of things they can be.

We know this. We actually live this truth on a daily basis. So why do we keep repeating these lies?

Do Your Best to Be Perfect

One reason we perpetuate these false aspirations is in the cultural air we breathe. We are the nation with a history of “manifest destiny.” Our creed is Dream Big. Limits are for losers. Our modern heroes are rock stars and professional athletes. Selena Gomez, after all, could post a picture of a rock on Instagram and get 98 million likes.

Be like her. Or be like LeBron. Be big. Be bold. Be famous. Be rich, beautiful, smart, rebellious, nice, witty, tough, artistic, and—this is important—still down to earth.

Whatever you do, though, don’t be average. That’s heresy in America.

In other words, kids, not to put too much pressure on you, but do your best to be perfect.

Where Is the “Other-Help” Section?

Another reason we keep telling these lies is because we believe we’re supposed to be the stars of our own biography. We are the center of our own lives, so our children should be at the center of theirs.

That’s why bookstores have a section called “Self-Help” but not one called “Other-Help.” We can download apps to help us track our progress of self-improvement on the ambitious path to self-perfection, but none to remind us to self-sacrifice to help our neighbors, to consider their needs more important than our own. And because we are “lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation,” (David Foster Wallace) we teach our children to be the same.

Be the Best Possible Servant You Can Be

Rather than telling our children, “You can be anything you want to be,” let’s tell them, “Be the best possible servant you can be.”

Teach your children to honestly evaluate their gifts, their skills, their interests, and to ask themselves:

  • How can I use these in a life of sacrifice for others?
  • Given my strengths and weaknesses, my personality quirks, my extrovert or introvert nature, how can I best love my neighbor?
  • How can I put myself last and others first?
  • How can I best look out for the needs of others?
  • What career or vocation best enables me to help other people?

Here’s a little secret about life that’s not so secret: the happiest people are the least self-centered. People who find the most joy and fulfillment don’t walk around gazing at their own navels. They are always seeking ways to make life better for others. They serve; they don’t rule.

And they accept their inadequacies with humility. No matter how they might excel in some small arena of life, even there, they know there’s always someone smarter, richer, funnier, and stronger. And they’re okay with that. They’re not driven by a superman complex. They’re thankful and content to be an average person.

You want your kids to be happy, live a less stressful life, and find fulfillment? Then teach them to be servants. To be honest about their inadequacies. To emulate heroes of self-sacrifice.

Don’t tell them they can be anything they want to be.
Tell them to be the best possible servant they can be.