My son has the entirely unique and easily attainable goal of being a world famous movie director. He brought a clapboard to first-grade on 'What-do- you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up?' day, so that settles it.
My daughter just wants to be Taylor Swift.
On the one hand I feel like I should repeat the inspirational slogans of school guidance counselors everywhere: “Work hard and you can be anything you want to be,” “Follow your dreams.”
On the other hand, I’m all like, “Get a job with the city and you’ll get a good pension in 60 years.”
Both my parents were teachers and that kind of stuff worked out for them.
I really, really wanted to be a movie star when I was young —YouTube stars weren’t invented yet — but it didn’t quite work out that way. It did work out very well for someone else in the children’s repertory theater I was part of, Ben Stiller. I always wondered: was he so much more talented or did his famous parents play a part?
“For those born into families without social and financial advantages, hard work probably is necessary. But it isn’t sufficient,” suggests Joan Maya Mazelis, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, who teaches and researches about inequality in the United States. “Luck is an uncomfortably big piece of the puzzle.”
So it’s almost certain that actors and anyone without connections in highly competitive fields struggle more.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that moving between social classes is even less likely than was previously thought possible. Among the findings: children with parents in the 90th income percentile are likely to earn almost double those with parents in the 50th income percentile.
Yikes. For someone like me, who is frequently in overdraft, those are sobering words.
There are of course exceptions: Bill Clinton, Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey come to mind as rich and famous celebrities who started out with nothing. But their stories are few and far between.
“Rags to riches stories capture the public imagination precisely because they’re unusual and they offer people hope,” Mazelis said. “Often, when we dig a little deeper, we find those exceptional climbers had more than intelligence, talent, ambition and hard work helping them — they often had great timing luck, ending up in the right place at the right time.”
So how do we encourage children to follow their dreams and make sure they don’t become permanent tenants in our basements? For me, becoming an adult meant accepting jobs that I could tolerate, sometimes love and generally count on to pay the bills so I could pursue interests I’m passionate about. In other words, growing up convinced me I’m pretty much like everyone else and my children likely are too—although their grandparents are doing everything possible to convince them the opposite is true.
Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of 15 books, gives this parenting advice:
“A touch of reality doesn’t hurt,” Newman says. “It is often a smart idea to let your children understand that there will always be someone smarter, more talented, more…but that doesn’t mean you give up.”
What does Newman do?
“If it were my child,” she continued, “I would explain that you never know where a new connection might lead. Encourage meeting new people and expanding your network.”
In other words, if your name doesn’t end in Carnegie or Walton, work harder than the children whose names do. Or get to know them. And don’t be discouraged.
“Of course we all have to believe in that achievement ideology — work hard and get the success you deserve, to have hope, to get out of bed in the morning, to live to fight another day,” Mazelis said. “But knowing that hard work isn’t enough is crucial to stave off disappointment and self-blame.”
Instead of telling my kids to follow their dreams, I think I’ll tell them this:
Work harder than anyone else, even if that’s not always enough. That way, if you don’t succeed, you can live the rest of your life knowing you gave it your all.
Kim Brown Reiner is a NYC mom of two, who tries not to speak to her children before drinking coffee.