How to Mentor a Kid with Big (Possibly Unrealistic) Dreams

Published by Lori Pickert on July 29, 2013 at 07:15 AM

From the mailbag, a series of similar questions:

How should I handle my kids’ huge plans that can’t really happen?

Some of my child’s ideas are down-right unrealistic…

My concern is that he will feel let down…

If I try to find the possible in his dreams, I see his disappointment. He doesn’t like my sugggestions for making it “doable”…

Your three-year-old wants to build a rocket that really flies — one that he can sit in.

Your six-year-old wants to build a three-story treehouse with a fireman’s pole.

Your nine-year-old wants to write a novel that will be published by a real publisher — or a screenplay that will be produced by a real movie studio.

How can we help kids tackle their big, ambitious, seemingly unachievable goals?

When you say, “here’s the lesson — do this,” you know from the outset what’s possible. When you instead start with a child’s question and build outward organically, you eventually end up with a big piece of work — a project — the result of authentic inquiry. It’s big, it’s real, and it’s meaningful. That’s not something you can preplan. — Stop Preshrinking Your Opportunities

Why is it important to let kids move forward on their plans, even when they seem totally unrealistic?

I often tell the story of a four-year-old girl at my school who built a very detailed robot out of cardboard and found objects. Her parents and teachers all appreciated the hard work she’d put in, her creativity and her concentration. Then one morning she told her parents she needed to bring batteries to school — because she was ready for her robot to “really work.”

She cut a flap in the back of her robot, pushed two AA batteries inside, taped it shut, and was pleased as punch that now her robot would move and walk.

The adults were all worried that she would be very upset when she discovered her plan had failed. But there was no big meltdown. She was disappointed, but in a frowny, thoughtful, scientific way. She decided she needed to do more research — she needed to investigate the inside of other machines to get a better idea of what made them work. So another line of inquiry began.

Before you move to stop your children from trying to do the impossible, take a breath and remember what your job is: to mentor and support, to brainstorm and listen, to remind and reflect. Your job isn’t to step in and tell them their ideas won’t work and their plans are doomed.

Remind yourself:

You don’t know what your kid can do.

If you guess, you may woefully underestimate. Don’t set limits where limits aren’t necessary. Don’t set limits where they will not only curtail what your child can achieve but may discourage him from getting started in the first place. Big doers need big, complex, far-reaching ambitions. Set the goal small and his motivation will shrink right along with it.

In my experience, adults guessing at what children can accomplish set the bar far too low.

When we move to protect our kids, sometimes we’re actually protecting ourselves — from embarrassment (maybe theirs, maybe our own) or from having to deal with big, messy emotions like frustration and disappointment.

Start ramping your kids up to independence now. Don’t wait until they’re 18 and then drop them off a cliff; let them take steps toward being in charge of their own learning and their own future. Let them have their own ideas. Let them have their big, towering dreams and ambitions. Let them work away at something that seems impossible to you. You don’t know what’s possible. They have all the time in the world to get where they want to go. You don’t know what they can do if they try. Instead of worrying about how long it will take for them to be successful, worry about how long it will take them if they never start.

The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do. — Sarah Ban Breathnach

You don’t know where his project will go.

He may deftly switch directions. He may spend months concentrating on just one part of his overarching goal. He may, along his “unrealistic” path, discover a deep interest that will last the rest of his life.

I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else. — Pablo Picasso

Children grow and mature at an astounding rate. When your nine-year-old says she wants to write a novel and have it published by a real publisher, and you reply, “Well, sweetheart, I love you and I think you’re very talented, but that is highly unlikely to ever happen,” she’s likely to lay down her pages and walk away. You haven’t prevented disappointment — you’ve only brought it from the misty future to the right now, and you also killed all the learning and skill-building that would have happened in the interim.

Your child may work on her novel for a year or more and then decide on her own to put it in a drawer and start another. In the meantime, she’ll be building her skills, reading books about writing, and producing steadily improving prose. She may go on to publish a novel when she is 14 or 15 — all because she started now, because you believed in her and supported her now.

Choose to deliver your bad news — that her dream is statistically unlikely — and what will happen to her ambitions? What will happen to her idea of herself as a writer? Will she wait and start her writing career at 15? At twenty? Never?

You are looking ahead and predicting failure, but you are guessing about the path your child is going to take — and you’re probably plotting out a very linear A —> B path. Meanwhile, your child is most likely going to take a circuitous, rambling path as she explores all the different aspects of her ambitious plan. She’s going to dig deep into one thing, then another. She’ll probably change her plan as she moves along. She’ll take a sudden left; she’ll circle back; she’ll add in a whole new line of inquiry she needs to explore.

You cannot predict the path an authentic, self-motivated learner is going to take. When you guess — and then decide to go ahead and pull the plug because you know it won’t work out — you eliminate all the learning that happens along the way.

Ideas fly in flocks. To hold one idea in mind means to hold a cloud of them. — Kevin Kelly

Real learning takes a long time.

When we nervously move to cut our children off before they waste time on an impossible undertaking that’s sure to lead to disappointment, what we really mean to say to them is: You’re not ready for this yet.

We want them to hold their big ideas, dreams, and plans until their abilities catch up. What we fail to realize is that the only people who acquire those abilities are the ones who are chasing big dreams. The ones who give up stop trying and so they stop learning. They stop working hard. They stop believing in themselves and in what’s possible.

They don’t hear, “You can’t do that yet” — they hear, “You can’t do that.”

We don’t meant to kill the dream; we only mean to postpone it. But succeeding at a big undertaking isn’t like buying a ticket to ride the ferris wheel. You don’t wait until you’re “this high” and then boom, you’re all set. Big doers start chasing big, ambitious dreams long before they’re ready to make their final ascent.

I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it. — Picasso

You don’t know how your child will react to failure.

If you interrupt him while he’s building and say, “That won’t work,” you take away his opportunity to learn from his mistakes, brainstorm alternatives, and feel the rush of self-esteem when he finally solves his own problem.

Likewise, if you try to protect him from getting his dreams crushed, you instead crush his motivation, his ownership, and his self-confidence. Out of fear that he may feel disappointed later on, you take away his opportunity to find his own way, to be resilient, to invent a new plan, to find another way. You eliminate the possibility that he might discover on his impossible journey a very realistic focus for all his ideas and energy.

It’s the experience that teaches — not the outcome. If outcomes truly did the job, then every soccer medal would lead to a place on the Olympic team. You are focusing on the outcome and trying to save your child from emotional trauma, but actually working toward his goals is what’s going to make him strong, resilient, confident, imaginative, and joyful. Let him choose his own goals to work toward — it’s the working that matters.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. — Henry David Thoreau

Self-motivated, meaningful work is never wasted time.

Do you think she’d be better served working on something she could really accomplish?

Is that because she would be acquiring more knowledge and skills? Or is it because you would have something more reasonable to share with family and friends?

Working toward big dreams, kids acquire the same skills as working on “doable” tasks — and more. They are working at their challenge level: the front edge of what they’re capable of doing. They are powered by intense motivation. Every big dreams breaks down into smaller goals which break down even further into achievable tasks.

If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it. — George Polya

You help them break it down. No matter how big or ambitious a goal is, it always breaks down. When they eventually run into something they can’t do (if it happens), then you ask them, “What can you do?” You model for them how to work on big, ambitious goals — by taking it one step at a time.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” — Anne Lamott

How you mentor the big dream

Instead of trying to convert your child’s dream into something “doable,” help her break her big goals down into smaller tasks. Help her find something she can start working on today.

Reflect her ideas and plans back to her. Help her see herself as a learner, maker, and doer.

Honor her work by giving her the space and time she needs. Invest in her deep interests.

Let her maintain ownership — don’t take over. Let her go at her own pace and set her own course.

Always take the approach of “If not X, then what?” Model how to take a break, step back, brainstorm, and look for alternatives.

For older kids and teens, treat their ideas with respect while communicating realistic constraints. Let them find the doable inside their own dream.

Older kids and teens are more likely to nix their own ideas and preshrink their own opportunities. Help nudge them past their own negativity and focus on what’s possible. Don’t put it off until the misty future when they think they’ll have more money, time, and freedom to chase their dreams. Help them understand that the more they learn to work with what’s available now, the more likely they’ll be to eventually become dreamers who do. The more they push things off until it’s easier or there’s more money or someone else chooses to help them, the more likely they’ll be to become dreamers who don’t.

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it out while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come. — C.S. Lewis

Your goal is to help your child become a person who can articulate ideas, make plans, break down goals into achievable steps, and see things through. How do you do that? By letting him fully immerse himself in his deep interest and his big ideas.

Eventually he will set a big goal, make a plan, figure out what he needs to do to make it work, do the hard work, make mistakes, solve problems, and finish. That’s the goal you’re working toward. Those are the habits and skills that you are building. But the entire journey is one of learning and discovery — not just the big finish. Miss the journey and you miss everything. It’s the doing that will build your child’s thinking, learning, and making muscles. It’s the doing that will form his thinking and learning habits and his character. It’s the doing that matters.

Supporting your child’s big ideas, big plans, and big dreams is how you help him become someone who’s capable of actually achieving them.


Comment by Emily on April 11, 2015 at 10:10 AM

There's lots of food for thought here, thanks! My daughter wants to own a horse ranch one day, so I've talked with her about some of the practical later-on steps (such as working on someone else's ranch), but this article is a good motivator to get her into 4-H right away. It's also encouraging because, while intuitively I know learning is messy and life is messy, it's hard to stand against the tide of people around you expecting a-b-c processes and posing questions and comments to that effect.

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 11, 2015 at 10:58 AM

hi emily, i hope you join the forum or the facebook group and keep me updated! :)

another awesome thing would be visiting a horse ranch (or ranches) if possible and maybe talking with the owners in person or via email to ask them questions. there is so much she could learn — about this business that interests her and about herself!


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