My 16-year-old daughter and I were on a 2-week Kerouac odyssey to D.C. for the 4th of July fireworks, her first visit to NYC, and then on up the east coast to northern Maine, a border crossing into Canada, another first for her, and back to Georgia.
She was sharing a list of some of the colleges her friends were going to attend after graduation and the angst she was experiencing trying to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up, including whether she wanted to go to college or was college “material.”
Serendipity is a playful imp, because we were passing New Haven, CT, at the time and I mentioned it was the home of Yale University. “Why don’t we stop and see where I might decide to go,” she said sarcastically.
The father in me responded automatically. “You could go there if you really wanted to.” I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to using the “you can do anything you put your mind to” mantra when encouraging my kids or my students.
“Stop, Dad,” she protested, “you know that’s never going to happen.” And she proceeded to tell me the facts of life in one of those astonishing Cosby-esque dialogues that leaves me in awe of my daughter’s insight and wisdom – a characteristic not generally attributed to a teenager.
My daughter explained thoughtfully and compellingly why she would never qualify for admission to Yale. Or be a runway model. Or play for the U.S. Olympic soccer team. Or… It was a practical, unemotional self assessment without self pity or lament.
Her insight challenged a fundamental life premise and prompted a personal epiphany – I know first-hand that life has limitations.
The wrong eyes to fly in the Air Force. Not enough coordination to play even minor league baseball. Maternal genetics which meant not keeping a full head of hair. Overqualified to be offered desired job opportunities.
And yet we told our kids as they were growing up and continue to tell them that they could and can be and do anything they want in life if they want it badly enough and put their minds to it.
They can’t. Nor does the handsome prince always show up to revive the Sleeping Beauty with a kiss or fit her with a glass slipper. Sometimes the Beast isn’t a cursed prince, the wolf does devour three little pigs or the young girl in a red cape, the straw doesn’t get spun into gold, the ugly duckling grows up to be . . . ugly, and the Little Engine can’t.
Interestingly, we’ve tried to teach our children that they will fail, that life isn’t easy and it isn’t always fair. That lesson clearly contradicts the premise that you can do whatever you want in life.
Our daughter and her 25-year-old brother have both played competitive sports and understand losing. They don’t understand when every team and every player at a tournament wins a trophy. They understand school grades. They don’t understand why every student in every class wins an award at the end of the year.
We’ve also tried to instill the ethic that not trying is a bigger failure than trying and failing.
In New Haven, my daughter could have been channeling Doris Walker, the single mother in the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street, who argued that parents “should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not have them growing up believing in a lot of legends and myths like Santa Claus, for example. . . . (By) filling children full of fairy tales, they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of reality. . . .”
According to my daughter, she was right. Lesson learned, Dad.