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You Can’t Be Anything You Want to Be

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For most kids, their parents are, and will always be, their greatest source of support. Parents stand on the sidelines in the pouring rain to watch their 8-year-old play football. They navigate complicated systems to get their kindergartener into the best school. They will even drive all over town just to buy the new pair of shoes that their kid wants.

Parents believe in their kids and hold high hopes for their future. We tend to see our kid as being one of the smartest, the cutest, or the most athletic. We believe that our kids can do anything. The problem, though, is that we tell them. That’s right, one of the biggest problems that some kids have is that they have been told that they can be anything that they want. 

You are probably thinking, “What? Are you serious? How can telling my kid that they can be anything that they want to be, become a problem for them?”

The unfortunate reality is that it is simply not true. No matter what, your child cannot be anything that they want to be

Let’s say that your son wants to be a professional athlete. The odds of him playing for the National Football League (NFL) is about 0.09%. Even worse are his odds of playing football in England’s Premier League, as only about 1 in 8,333 (0.00012%) make it to the topflight. Perhaps your child wants to be “famous”. Well, the odds of becoming a professional actor, singer, or other type of celebrity are about 0.00086%.

Moving away from the spotlight, let’s say that your child wants to be a physician. In a study published in 2020, researchers found that only 16.5% of pre-med university students graduated with the requirements needed to apply to medical school. Of those that apply to medical school, only about 41% are accepted. That is about 6.75% of the pre-med undergrads. While those odds are certainly better than others, we have to remember that your kid must first have the ability to become a pre-med student, which means passing calculus, organic chemistry, and anatomy and physiology.

Moreover, regardless of their skills and knowledge, we cannot forget the costs associated with some of these goals. Whether we are talking about tutors, private coaches, university fees, or any other pathway that could possibly lead to great success – the cost is high. And let’s be honest, most of us simply cannot afford it. 

In the end, we must consider what we are saying when we tell our children that they can be anything that they want to be or that they can do anything if they put their mind to it. For many kids, such statements create delusions of grandeur. They start to tell themselves that they can be anything because they are the best at everything. While confidence is great, too much confidence can result in a lack of drive, an unwillingness to do the necessary work, or worst of all, they can develop a sense of entitlement that could make others unwilling to help them.

For other children, such messages can lead to them focusing on the most unlikely careers. They may become convinced that they will be the next big YouTuber, or star footballer. Their confidence tends to be so great, that they resist considering a “back-up” or “safety” plan. 

Finally, there are those who become paralysed. They are overwhelmed with the idea of being anything. There are just too many options. As a result, they become unable to choose anything. 

As parents, it is our responsibility to guide and teach our children as they travel along their path to adulthood. While we should encourage and support them as they grow, we must be careful that we do not set them up for failure. If your high schooler hates school and had to drop out of chemistry, it is appropriate to tell them that becoming a physician requires a lot of school and a lot of science, and that becoming a physician may not be a good choice for them. Similarly, if your 17-year-old son is struggling to get time on the field, I believe that it is your responsibility to tell him that making it to the NFL is unlikely and that he needs another plan. 

Being honest with our kids about these issues can be difficult. While we do not want to break their spirit, a healthy dose of reality as a teenager is certainly better than the unexpected failure they will have as a young adult when their expectations are not met and they have no idea what to do next. It may be a hard lesson to give, but you and your child will benefit from it in the long run.

Berney Wilkinson, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who has practised in central Florida for over 10 years and specialises in paediatric psychology, neuropsychology, and forensic psychology. 

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