Confessions of a Dream Killer
When our son, Gavin, was 5 or 6 years old, he struggled with school… A LOT!
One day, we were discussing the future. It was one of those hopelessly adorable conversations that as a parent, I hope to remember for life. In typical 5-year old fashion, Gavin’s dreams were big. “Mom, I want to be an astronaut when I grow up,” he said with wonder in his voice. He’d long had a love of anything space related. We could spend hours at the Science Center in the planetarium or exploring the space exhibit.
I was thrilled to hear of his aspirations! So thrilled in fact, that I jumped right in with my advice.
“Gavin, that’s great. Did you know astronauts have to work really hard, study hard at school and do really well? We better get to work!”
To me this was the ticket to his motivation, and I laid it on. During the continuous homework battles I would bring it up on occasion and make sure he was connecting the dots.
And, do you know what happened? I bet you do!
A few months passed and another pleasant conversation about the future came up. “Gavin, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a garbage man,” he said, this time with a stubborn edge to his voice.
Now, I mean no offense to the sanitation workers out there, but, his abrupt shift and then his reasoning told us all we needed to know. “Mom, it’s going to be too hard to be an astronaut. Being a garbage man looks easy.”
I was speechless… and ashamed. I was a dream killer, and I’d killed my son’s dream.
Don’t be a Dream Killer
As human beings, we all get a choice in how we show up for other people. I can cite examples of where I’ve shown up as a Dream Killer and a Dream Champion, as well as everything in between. I’ve also been on the receiving end of a dream killer, as I’m sure you have. We’ve all had a dream squashed by someone else.
When it comes to parenting I believe most of us want to show up as our child’s champion, but there are many reasons we might not.
In my case, it was an overwhelming need to push my son to do better, and an attempt to fire up his internal motivation. That caused me to take his joy away. Applying parental pressure ultimately backfired.
The need to protect and keep our children safe is another reason parents become Dream Killers. For example, I may have responded that becoming an astronaut was an unrealistic dream because only a very small percentage of people become astronauts. Why go down that path when you’re more than likely to be disappointed? Why not pursue something realistic?
To use another example. A friend told me the story of how her child was trying out for a school play. In order to protect him, she said, “You know only 3 people are going to be chosen. There’s a good chance it won’t be you.”
To her son’s credit he looked her in the eye and said, “Why are you discouraging me?”
Wake up call! Why indeed?
Because she felt the need to dim his hope and expectations to protect him against a potentially negative outcome.
Negativity Bias in Parenting
Negativity is a natural bias that human beings have. With a negativity bias we tend to dwell more on the negative: what we risk losing, the negative opinions presented to us, or the fear of failure.
Negativity bias encourages us not to take risks. To fear failure. This is a holdover from the days when failure meant death.
The social and emotional “dangers” to her son not getting picked for the school play felt far more powerful to my friend than the potential benefits of winning.
Logic and common sense tell us that the best way to learn is to embrace failure. To grow we need to get uncomfortable. Failure doesn’t typically mean death or serious harm in today’s day and age, yet our minds play tricks on us in an attempt to protect us.
So, as parents, if we want to empower our children to dream and to follow their dreams, we need to be very careful not to introduce our own negativity biases to them. To do so means that we take their joy and we inhibit their growth.
Be a Dream Champion
On the flip side, to be a Dream Champion is a wonderful thing. A Dream Champion believes that anything is possible and does not set limits or apply caution to another person’s dream. Trust me – their own mind does enough of that already and If not, the world at large will.
A Dream Champion supports and enables. A Dream Champion listens and allows for the person to crystallize their thoughts, beliefs, and dreams. A Dream Champion says: “That sounds amazing! How can I help?”
A parent who’s a Dream Champion may help out by being curious, asking questions, and helping their child find ways to lean into the dream. Perhaps they’ll find related experiences or materials to read or watch. Maybe they’ll introduce them to the right mentor or role model. Or, we’ll just be there to cheer them on.
A Dream Champion does NOT take on the dream for themselves. In my case, I became too attached to the dream of my son – more attached than he was. That meant my own negativity bias came out strong to protect us both from the dream. In taking on his dream for him, I hijacked it.
Back to My Story
As a parent, who makes many mistakes, I’m thankful that kids are resilient. This was one of many lessons my kids had to teach me.
For months and years, when Gavin was asked, he would tell anyone and everyone, “I want to be a garbage man.” He was so entrenched in this message that even a psychologist he worked with noted it. To her, and to us, it wasn’t that this was his dream (many little boys dream of operating big trucks), but it was his attitude of defiance as he said it. He was fighting back and exerting his control in one of the few ways he had at that young age.
And, then only a few short months ago, while we were in the car together, he launched a conversation.
“Mom, what did you want to be when you were little?”
I held my breath as I answered, realizing that he was telling me he was ready to trust me and talk to me about this again. “Gavin, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Well, Mom, I think I either want to be an astronaut… or, a YouTuber.”
This time I bit my tongue… chuckled to myself with the understanding that I had learned my lesson…. and, said, “That sounds awesome!”
I’m curious – what are some examples where you’ve been a Dream Killer? What about a Dream Champion? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!
P.S. We are building a workshop right now to help you discuss and connect to your kid’s dreams and goals. The methods are backed by neuroscience and it’s a critical step in developing self-drive and motivation. Sign up here to be the first to hear when the program is released.