A grandmother recently told me that her son and daughter-in-law have told her only grandchild, an 8-year-old, that he can be anything he wants to be in life. She was incensed.
"What a bunch of baloney!" she exclaimed. "What a completely irresponsible thing to tell a child!"
I agree wholeheartedly. One cannot be whatever one desires to be any more than one can have anything one desires to have. Here, for example, is a short list of the things I could never have been, no matter how hard I tried: professional football player, fastest man on the planet, tightrope walker, nuclear physicist, brain surgeon, fighter pilot, concert pianist and King of England.
My parents never told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. They told me what all parents should tell all children: I was blessed with a finite set of strengths. It was primarily my responsibility to discover what they were, develop them, and use them for the benefit of my fellow citizens. (I'd rather do this parenting thing than be King of England anyway.)
Ah, but those were the dark ages of parenting, when children were spanked and told to be seen and not heard and were, the statistics tell, a whole lot happier and more carefree than today's over-managed lot. In the dark ages, parents tended to tell children the truth about themselves. When children behaved badly, for example, they were not told they'd made "bad choices."
They were told they behaved badly, even atrociously, and ought to be ashamed of themselves. That's now called "shame-based" parenting. And the mental health of the American child has been in free-fall since the Great Psychological Enlightenment of the late 1960s.
Today, this "you can be anything you want to be" hooey has become ubiquitous. Enlightened parents seem to believe telling children fictions of this sort is one of the obligations of a truly caring parent. As a consequence of this lack of guidance and leadership, increasing numbers of young people in their late 20s still haven't discovered their Inner Wannabe.
I meet lots of young adults who seem to have no clue concerning what it takes to truly accomplish something of value in this life. Like the young woman who had a verbal habit of using the wrong verb tense and spoke with a lazy, almost incoherent accent who told me, with a straight face, she was thinking of becoming a veterinarian. I immediately thought of children who receive gleaming trophies and standing ovations for playing benchwarmer on the worst team in the local kids' soccer league.
Then there was the young woman who recently told me, with a straight face, that her goal in life was to win "American Idol." I could think of nothing to say except "Well, isn't that special!" Don't worry. She didn't get it.
A friend recently told me of a young relative of hers who was, during her childhood, treated like "a really big fish in a little pond." She is now a "panicked, confused, college freshman."
This young woman has been told all along that she can do and be anything she wants to do and be. In college, without her parents helping her make straight A's, she is discovering that she isn't as capable a student as she's been led to believe. "She's devastated," writes my friend.
How sad, and sadder still for the fact that this young woman's devastation can be largely credited to parents who obviously never considered the old saying to the effect that good intentions pave the road to Perdition.