Encouraging your children’s fantasies—and their future!

It’s something a child hears often: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A simple, even rhetorical question. But for children, this is a serious inquiry that can also be a great opportunity to share their ambitions, dreams, and creative longings.

Even if the answers vary from one day to the next, as they often will, the question conveys a message important for children to hear: “I care about your dreams.” But while this question is important, how we as adults respond to the answer is even more important.

Of course we want our children to dream, and the bigger the better. We know that every accomplishment they eventually experience—whether academic, professional, financial, emotional, athletic, creative, physical, spiritual or whatever—will start with a dream. If we wish for them the realization of these achievements, we would certainly wish for them the visions or fantasies on which these outcomes will one day be built.

The way we listen and respond to their answers will let them know whether or not we accept what they have to say, and if we’re truly behind them all the way. Discourage or dismiss a dream and we risk injuring a creative spirit, even when our intentions are protective or otherwise well-intended.

Take it as a compliment that when children share their dreams with you. Their willingness to divulge something so personal is a testament to their faith that you will listen and take them seriously. This trust is sacred. Children can be remarkably sensitive to an adult’s willingness to respect their world (although some kids will share with even untrustworthy adults out of a desperate need for connection).

So if you’ve got people in your life who want to let you in on the wonderful future they imagine for themselves, here are a few things you can do to ensure that trust, and to help give their the confidence, determination, and character strength to follow their dreams. (These ideas apply to adults, too!)

Listen respectfully

You’ll know that you’re doing a good job in this department if you’re giving your children your attention, making eye contact, and resisting the urge to interrupt, judge what they’re saying, or telling what you think they should feel, think, or do.

If you’re truly listening, your kids will be doing most of the talking, with you encouraging them to “go on” or “tell me more.”

Of course, if your children want to talk when you’re not free to give them the attention they deserve, validate the need to be heard and tell them when you’ll be available: “I want to hear about this. I’ll be able to listen better as soon as I finish putting these things away (or when the big hand is on the six, for example).”

Treasure the trust your children shows you. Take them seriously, even though their dreams may seem silly and their goals misguided. Recognize that your child may not feel the same way about this particular goal or issue in a few years (or even a few minutes). Accept the validity of the moment.

And by all means, respect confidentiality. Ask if it’s OK to tell others what your child has shared with you: “Is this a secret or can I tell Grandma what you told me about this?” Above all, avoid ever using your children’s disclosures to hurt, criticize, or embarrass them when they make a mistake, get on your nerves, or fail to do what you’ve asked.

Love and accept your child unconditionally

Sometimes this will mean accepting values and preferences that are different from yours, or goals that are different from the picture you hold of your children’s future. Trust demands unconditional acceptance of who your children are and acceptance of the fact that the path they are on may not be the one you would choose or imagine for them.

Respect and value each child’s uniqueness, as represented not only in the fantasies they hold, but also in their preferences for food or music, for example, or the way they study best. Your children’s dreams may be quite different from your own. Be willing to look at the agenda you hold for your children, as well as your need for them to be, or become, a certain person (or dream a certain dream) in order for you to feel good about yourself.

Respect your child’s version of reality

Sometimes your children’s versions of an experience will be quite different from your own. Are you willing to respect their right to see and experience things in their own way? Encourage your kids to trust their instincts, respecting that they have their own sensitivities, inclinations, and inner guidance.

Never, ever discourage a dream

At times it will be tempting to want to protect a child from what seems like an unrealistic, demanding, messy dream. In fact, their fantasies may even dredge up memories of your own disappointments or previous failures, or trigger old, seemingly self-protective attitudes like cynicism, discouragement, or reluctance to take a risk.

Remember that sometimes the best way to get a sense of what is truly realistic is by pushing ourselves beyond our perceived limits. The truth is, we don’t know which possibilities are available down the road, or what another person can or cannot in time achieve.

Statements like “That won’t work,” “Oh, you won’t like that,” or “You wouldn’t be any good at that,” are toxic and disabling. Unless their ambitions pose an immediate danger to themselves or others, let them explore and find out for themselves.

Model and encourage an “I can” attitude

Keep your thoughts positive. When life starts wearing us down (as it inevitably will from time to time), it’s easy to get sucked into doubt, fear, and even despair. Try holding a picture in your mind of a world that abounds with infinite, positive possibilities instead, and live your life according to those beliefs.

Live your passion and encourage your kids to do the same. Let your children see you being determined, persistent, and responsible.

Focus on what is good and right in your life. Despite the expression’s overuse, there’s much to be said for the benefits of “an attitude of gratitude.”

Keep an open mind to things that might otherwise sound unlikely. When you hear yourself thinking, “Oh, that’s ridiculous (or impossible),” try, “Well, why not?” instead. Help your kids set goals and identify ways to reach them.

Rather than asking them to defend a dream, celebrate their ambition, their courage, and their imagination. Instead of telling them how they should achieve their goals, ask them what they need, what their plan involves, and what they are willing to do to reach their dreams. Remember that you don’t have to focus on failure to help them anticipate and manage setbacks.

Allow kids to be kids

Part of dreaming big is having enough unstructured time to allow dreams to develop and emerge. Encourage their creativity and imagination. Allow them to be silly and frivolous. Balance work with play, directed activity with spontaneity.

Teach them to listen to their own hearts, and protect the quiet time they’ll need to notice when their dreams are tapping them on their shoulders.

Use kids’ mistakes and disappointments as opportunities for learning

Something magical happens in our relationships with kids when we stop seeing mistakes as excuses for yelling and start seeing them as opportunities for learning.

For some adults, it almost goes against a natural instinct to not criticize young people when they mess up. And yet, look at what can happen when, instead of scolding, we ask questions like, “How did you want this to turn out?,” “What do you need to do to make this better?” or “How do you think you’ll handle this differently next time?”

Dreaming means being able to imagine ourselves beyond what we’ve already experienced or encountered. The risks necessary to reach dreams will invariably invite missteps, miscalculations, and false starts. Help kids see these bumps in the road as just another part of an exciting ride.

Create an environment in which it’s safe to dream

Honor your children’s need for emotional safety. Believe in your kids. Encourage them. Accept them for who they are, and for what is real to them. Allow them to learn from their mistakes without criticizing or shaming them. Help them through a hard time by being there for them, and by showing faith in their ability to persevere and overcome adversity.

Enlarge their concept of the world and encourage growth with love and faith instead of threats, disappointment, and demands. Help them confront their fears and go beyond their perceived limitations.

Encourage them to discover hidden talents, desires, and skills. Challenge them to expand their perception of the possibilities they hold for themselves, all the while, accepting that they are exactly where they are supposed to be right now.

And who knows? One day, perhaps your children will be in a position to respond to someone who wants to know the secrets of their success. Chances are, beyond their education, inborn talents, and perhaps the occasional stroke of dumb luck, it will all come down to an ability to dream.

That’s their job—to dream and dream big. And as the significant adults in their lives, our job is simply this: to hold a sacred and fertile space in which their dreams may grow. ❦

© 1998, 1999, 2002, 2017 Dr. Jane Bluestein

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