By Veronica

When I was a kid, I absorbed a less than sparkling truth from the kids’ movies and cheerful teachers around me: I could be anything I wanted to be. There was no limit to my potential. As long as I had big dreams and worked hard, the possibilities for my adult life were wide open and endless.

I recall once when I was about eight, I referred to this idea in the presence of my father. It never occurred to me that he might not share this belief. The Free to Be You and Me approach to education had left me with the certainty that loving parents (which my father undoubtedly was and is) believe in their children, no matter what their children’s dreams are. But when I mentioned that I could be anything I wanted to be, my father looked at me skeptically.

“Veronica,” he said. “You cannot be anything you want to be. No matter how hard you try, you will never play professional football.”

Of course, I did not want to play professional football, so that was no heartbreak, but I remember being a little shocked that my father did not have faith in my unlimited potential. Children, after all, make excellent dogmatists, and I was a little disturbed that he was dissenting from the orthodoxy of my schoolteachers.

It did not take long for me to recognize my father’s common sense. My first practical experience came in seventh grade when we learned to sew in Home Economics. Until then, I had always supposed that if I was bad at something, it was simply because I did not have enough practice or my teachers were not explaining it well. But sewing, no matter how hard I tried or how carefully the teacher explained, was beyond me. My fingers would not do what other students’ fingers would. It was the first time I came face to face with my inescapable lack of ability.

Contrary to the assumptions of my youthful indoctrination, I found more freedom and encouragement toward accomplishment in accepting that there are things I simply can’t do. Once I recognized that there were things I could not do, the many things I could do were thrown into sharper relief. I saw my talents and skills in a new way.

I will never play professional sports, and I am equally unlikely to ever be a successful salesperson, sky diver or wedding planner. The skills and temperament necessary for those careers are as foreign to me as breathing underwater. But just as I see the talents that other people have for those jobs, I recognize my own unique abilities and feel encouraged to exercise them.

My children are so young that it is easy to see their potential as limitless. My four-year-old currently wants to be a paleontologist, a mechanic and an astronaut. None of these are serious goals yet, but maybe someday one of them will be. Part of my challenge as a parent is to teach her the courage and determination to overcome obstacles, but also to help her to recognize her limits in a way that allows a sense of accomplishment and encourages her real talents. If her dreams eventually have no more realism than those of the man in the Life of Brian who claims he has a right to be pregnant, then we did not do our jobs right.

Veronica Mitchell can also be found blogging at Toddled Dredge.

24 Responses to Potential
  1. Kelly
    July 22, 2008 | 10:08 am

    I heard a great parenting series from Chuck Swindoll last year. The essence of his advice was, “Your job as a parent is to get to know your children — their personality, their talents, their weaknesses, their strengths — and then to show that to them.” It was a really interesting way to look at parenthood.

  2. Beck
    July 22, 2008 | 10:33 am

    Terrific post.
    It’s almost like violating some modern commandment to say that our children are NOT going to be anything their wee hearts desire, but I already know that My Boy will never be, for example, an astronaut. He throws up too easily, for one.

  3. Julie Bo Boolie
    July 22, 2008 | 10:52 am

    Ah now if only the parents of all those rejects on American Idol read this post… though I’m told that that part of the show is the most funny so I guess it would be good parenting but bad T.V.

  4. mimi
    July 22, 2008 | 11:23 am

    Yes. This is right, I think. I think the ‘limitless potential’ dogma can be paradoxically paralysing: if I’m not strong enough to do the 50m dash as fast as my friends, it’s because I’m not trying, or whatever. I think it’s the same with body image. We’re not all the same, we are different heights, we have different talents. That’s okay.

  5. Sara Joy
    July 22, 2008 | 2:19 pm

    Alfie Kohn agrees with you.
    This book in particular highlights some of the pitfalls of the mentality you mention: http://www.alfiekohn.org/books.htm#null
    His other writing is insightful too, but well said Veronica, I agree completely. To be a child’s cheerleader and greatest advocate is to encourage them to use their gifts – not to spin their wheels in frustration.

  6. Sara Joy
    July 22, 2008 | 2:21 pm

    Oops – that didn’t come through how I thought it would…I have no gifts when it comes to computers.
    The book I reference is “Punished by Rewards”.

  7. Veronica
    July 22, 2008 | 2:36 pm

    Mimi, I agree. Limits can actually be freeing. Declaring every path an option is just another way of having no direction.

  8. bea
    July 22, 2008 | 2:51 pm

    Even if it were true that we could be anything we wanted to be, that particular truism makes no mention of the fact that we can’t be everything we want to be. I remember being profoundly shocked, in my early twenties, at the realization that the choices I was making would cut off so many possibilities.

  9. Sue
    July 22, 2008 | 3:09 pm

    “I remember being profoundly shocked, in my early twenties, at the realization that the choices I was making would cut off so many possibilities.”

    I sometimes worry about this as a parent. Am I allowing them to find their gifts? What if they have a gift in a certain area and because I’ve never given them the opportunity to try it, we never find it out?

    It doesn’t keep me up at night or anything, but it’s a thought.

  10. Megan
    July 22, 2008 | 3:18 pm

    I was raised by a SUPER pragmatic mother — I am always having to watch myself and adjust the balance that pragmatism and a willingness to encourage a child in something she initially gets frustrated by and wails over not being able to do. My three-year-old has a tendency toward perfectionism and doesn’t want to keep tryinga thing if she can’t get it right the first time, so for me, I’m sortof working at casting a wide net in terms of what she really CAN do with effort and practice, vs. trying to narrow things down. Second child may be completely different, and I’ll have to find the right balance for HIM, too. Whew. It just never ends, the complexity of this motherhood gig.

  11. Happy Geek
    July 22, 2008 | 4:15 pm

    I was thinking this very thing in church this Sunday as some very nice young girls were singing a song that espoused the whole “you can do anything” belief. It seemed a bit out of place in a church where the teaching is that without Christ we can do nothing.
    I remember at one point my dad telling me that I would not be a ballerina no matter how hard I tried as I had all the grace of a baby elephant.
    While his wording could have been a bit better I am glad that reality was part of my growing up.

  12. Minnesotamom
    July 22, 2008 | 4:28 pm

    I hope I can lean more toward your approach rather than being a complete pessimist. Since I get frustrated with myself for anything less than perfection (which is subjective, no?), I hope that I don’t hold my children to the same standard.

  13. Elle
    July 22, 2008 | 4:56 pm

    Yes, this rang loudly in my memories. My parents were of the sort that told me I could do and be anything that I wanted to do and to be. So I told my mom I wanted to be a horse.

    Yes, not so far.

  14. Barbara
    July 22, 2008 | 7:07 pm

    If a child/person truly has a gift, you would not be able to keep them from finding it.

  15. Barbara
    July 22, 2008 | 7:12 pm

    Oh! My first time here, and the last message was for Sue.

    An excellent post, Veronica. I couldn’t have said it better, but I do say it differently under Nature vs. Nurture.

    The ubiquitous concepts of behaviorism are everywhere yet – including in schools where they still encourage children as if they all have the same potential. Not.

  16. edj
    July 22, 2008 | 11:38 pm

    I totally agree with you, and I’m not surprised you thought it when you were 7. After all, children are fed a steady diet of this philosophy in most children’s movies, modern books, etc., along with the belief that “following your heart will always lead you right” (uh, yeah) and “the answer to all your problems can be found by following your heart.” (uh, gag)

  17. Sue
    July 22, 2008 | 11:56 pm

    “So I told my mom I wanted to be a horse.”

    ha ha ha ha ha

    I’m sorry, that just struck me as hilarious.

  18. Erin
    July 23, 2008 | 12:09 pm

    I know a young woman who is legally blind and therefore was in special classes most of her life. The brilliant school system in Omaha, Nebraska, told her that in spite of her disability she could do whatever she wanted to do– and she believed them. She wanted to be a famous singer. Her teachers encouraged her. She went to four years of college and graduated with a degree in vocal music. She CAN’T SING. It’s horrible. She is now twenty-five years old and has no marketable skills, so she’s finally taking the self-help courses she should have been taking ten years ago. The school system lied to her and now she has all kinds of college debt and a useless degree and a confidence that someday she will be a world-famous singer. It is so incredibly sad to me.

  19. Tina
    July 23, 2008 | 11:21 pm

    Some of the parents of American Idol contestants need to take your approach to parenting.

  20. jennifer
    July 24, 2008 | 12:57 am

    What a wonderful post. Truth is always freeing. John and I often talk about how much wiser it would be for us to help direct our children in their choice of careers instead of simply saying, “whatever you want to be, we know you can do it – we won’t stand in your way.” The fact of the matter is, I would stand in their way if I felt they were unfit for the college major that I’m paying for. My feeling is, wow, what a lot of confusion, frustration, and disappointment might be averted that way.

    You know, I’ve made a study of my kids for the past 13 years and I plan to continue to do so. I mean, why not be helpful if you can, you know? Isn’t that common sense?

  21. Pieces
    July 26, 2008 | 1:48 pm

    Recently I’ve really appreciated the concept of knowing your strengths. Instead of trying to improve the areas that I am lacking in, I should work on sharpening my strengths. Instead of achieving mediocrity in everything I should strive to excel at a few things. A very freeing concept.

  22. […] mother, however, has never really followed the party line on sentiment and unfailing affirmation. She did not save my baby teeth or locks of baby hair.  She did not croon over how quickly we […]

  23. increasing metabolism
    March 31, 2012 | 6:05 pm

    … [Trackback]…

    […] There you will find 72425 more Infos: 5minutesforparenting.com/47/potential/ […]…

  24. side effects of Niacin
    April 1, 2012 | 3:42 am

    … [Trackback]…

    […] There you will find 79763 more Infos: 5minutesforparenting.com/47/potential/ […]…

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

Trackback URL https://parenting.5minutesformom.com/47/potential/trackback/