Validity of "You can be anything you want to be" as advice

After reading this thread"The TV Trope of Girls Beating Boys in Sports", there was some discussion about the validity of suggesting that anyone can be what they want to be, because of fundamental limitations related to physical ability, statistical likelihood, etc…

I’m not sure what to think; it does seem a bit jerkish to run around telling small children that they can’t be/do anything they dream of, if only because at that point, it’s mostly fantasy to them, and their potential isn’t yet narrowed down much.

But by the same token, suggesting to a tone-deaf teenager with no sense of rhythm that their dream of musical super-stardom is something they should actively pursue also seems kind of irresponsible as well.

What do you think? I tend to fall on the side of teaching children as they get older to be able to rationally assess things for themselves. For example, I always wanted to be a pilot and astronaut. At some point during early high school, I realized that I didn’t have the eyesight to be a pilot, and that none of the academic fields that the mission specialists tend to be experts in were what I wanted to do for my lifetime, so the prospect of getting a PhD in something just for the sake of being an astronaut seemed kind of insane, when I considered that there was every chance I wouldn’t be chosen, and I’d be stuck working in that field forever. At no point were my parents anything but supportive- but they were always realistic with me about stuff like that.

I guess you could abandon the “you can be anything” line when the child is sufficiently mature to be able to set realistic goals. When that is, depends entirely on the child.

I am sure this is not very helpful, but I can’t imagine a single rule could apply across the entire population.

Sounds like you answered your own question right there. Be supportive, but also be realistic.

If the parents live long enough you start to hear, “you could have done anything, and you chose this?”

It is a balance between spurring up hope and confidence while also keeping it in check. You don’t want kids to leave their potential wasted and unused, but to tell them they can be something they can’t is just setting them up for crushing disappointment.

This seems to be a common topic of discussion out in the world. To cite just one example that agrees with your premise:


For me, particularly when raising children, this is similar to talking about sex. Your answers get more detailed as kids get older and more sophisticated.

So, I think starting a very small child out with “you can be anything you want to be!” is OK. (Yes, there is a Santa Claus!) This works for a very small child because they do not have a concrete sense of reality vs fantasy at those ages.

However, very soon the message needs to evolve to include limits based on physical reality. “No, junior, when I said you could be anything you wanted to be, I didn’t mean you could be a race car. But you can be a race car driver, or someone who makes race cars, if that is what you like!” The challenge is to not limit beyond that. By saying to a girl that she can’t be a football player would be too limiting, IMHO. How do we know there won’t be female football leagues in 20 years?

Nice username/thread combo, Icarus… (just had to say)…

It’s poor advice because it isn’t true. Letting little kids play play make-believe is desirable, it is part of their cognitive development. The point at which realism has to enter the picture is around age 12. I taught middle school for the last nine years of my teaching career and I saw way too many kids making poor decisions because they were all going to be rap stars or professional sports stars. Hell, I saw that among students all the way up through grade twelve and into college. The fact is that we can’t all be anything we want to be or I would have been an international playboy jewel thief assassin astronaut.

I think whether you’re good cop or bad cop is actually besides the point. The much more important thing is focusing on actions.

So, whether you say “I doubt you could make it as an astronaut, can you prove me wrong?” or “You can be an astronaut if you stay on target. What have you done this week?” doesn’t matter; they’re both quite motivating and the child can organically learn how much they care about X and how their skills match up with that role.

But OTOH, both “Sure you can be an astronaut!” and “It’s extremely unlikely, only a fraction of a percent can do that job” are equally destructive in terms of motivation.

IANA parent, but I was a child once :slight_smile:

One one hand, it’s technically not true, at least for a lot of people.

On the other hand, virtually everybody is capable of doing far, far more than they initially realize.

Is it “realistic” to suggest to a Nebraska boy that he can become a hugely successful and highly respected businessman and billionaire? Is it “realistic” to suggest to an aspiring businessman in a small Arkansas town that he can create the largest chain of retail stores in the world? Is it “realistic” to suggest to a Mamie Doud from a small town in Iowa that she can grow up to marry a future President?

Etc., etc.

The premise that, culturally, there is a problem with too many messages telling people they can do whatever they want with their life, and too few messages telling people that they can only accomplish limited things (decided by whom?) is laughable and not worthy of consideration.

The parent who tells their child “don’t think of challenging boys at sports, because they’re just naturally going to be better than you” is not only harming their child, but is also doing so based on intentional mis-understanding of demographic data and how it applies to individuals.

This advice may require an asterisk. Nonetheless, it is certainly truer now than at any other point in human history.

If I had to err one way or the other, I would certainly prefer unrealistic aspirations over arbitrary limitations.

An excludied middle argument. If an eleven-year-old wants to be a pro athlete, their aspirations can be used to encourage the hard work necessary. By the time they’re in high school, it’s time to start giving the odds, risks, and unforeseen career-enders. If they’re still determined, you can point out that sports don’t last a lifetime and one needs the proverbial fall-back.

And we absolutely have too many follow-your-dreams messages. Hence the perjorative “snowflakes.”

It’s not an excluded middle. The OP that inspired this saw a “girl underdog” on a TV program for young people, and therefore extrapolates that we’re raising our girls up to expect to be able to achieve against men unrealistically, and maybe we should cut it out.

Yes, a high schooler who wants to be a pro athlete needs realistic feedback, and yes, there’s perhaps an issue with colleges who, for their own gain, chew up and spit-out athletes.

Do you honestly think that kids in high school are being hidden from the truths about pro athletics, and that this is a new phenomenon? Cite, please.

[And frankly, that’s neither here nor there with regards to the general concept of “you can be anything you want to be.” The problem in athletics isn’t that people are encouraged to dream, it’s that their dreams are taken advantage of by unscrupulous institutions.]

The number of kids who truly want to pursue pro athletics by the time they graduate high school, who don’t have the talent but think they do because society ruined them is so small as to be meaningless, and is a red herring in this conversation.

And unless you want to define “snowflake” and show even correlation between whatever that definition is and some sort of increase in “telling people they can be what they want to be,” I suggest you have less of an argument than you imagine you do.

You can be anything you want to be, presuming you put in the work and have the skill. Don’t look so sad, kids, sometimes you can get the skill by doing the work!

(Sorry, Johnny, I don’t know what kind of training you can do to be invisible. Maybe ask somebody else?)

“Putting in the work” is also a red herring, and a harmful one. Millions and millions DO put in the work and get NOTHING. “Putting in the work” is a hoax, perpetrated by … I’m not sure, whoever stands to gain from having millions of poor suckers believe that.

Who stands to gain from a widespread false belief in the airy-fairy non-existent magical efficacy of hard work?

Personally, I always found the “you can do anything you want to do!” terrifying. If I can do anything, how do I pick? What if there isn’t anything I want to do very much? In some ways it would have been easier to have parents who were pushing me to be a doctor or something…

When they turn eight I reveal that for nine out of ten dreams, putting the sufficient amount of work to attain them will probably destroy your life and will very possibly kill you.

I like to ease them into the realities of life.

I think it’s important to realize that many things that have in the past been classified as “physical limitations” often just require someone to do the thing in spite of the limitation. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everything, but it certainly applies to lots of things.

And not even things that change culturally like “women can’t be professional sports players” (until there’s a women’s professional league).

For a significant amount of recent history, the general belief was that being a woman precluded lots of physical activities. Not “you’ll never be as good as the best man”, but “you’re physically not capable of running a marathon or swimming the channel or climbing a mountain without serious damage to your health.” That’s obviously bullshit.

Before Def Leppard’s Rick Allen, I imagine that just about everyone believed that having only one arm was a hard physical limitation on being a professional drummer. But it turns out it isn’t. Would he have pursued being a drummer if he had been born with one arm? Doubtful. Now that he’s been able to do it, would I tell a one-armed kid he can’t be a drummer if he wants to? No, I’d tell him it’ll be harder than it would be for most kids, but he can absolutely do it if he wants to.

Yeah, what a horrible message.

The message should be: If you want to get really good at something, you need to work really hard at getting good at it. And the way to help their goals be realistic is to also point out that while becoming really good at something requires lots of hard work, becoming the best at something requires really hard work and some amount of luck or innate skill.

I disagree: putting in the work is indeed no guarantee of success; but not putting in the work is a sure-fire guarantee of failure.