What Dreams Are Made of

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

I talk about making dreams come true a lot. That sounds so…frivolous, so hokey—so why do I keep saying it?

Because it is so important to kids’—and adults’—mental health, that’s why.

First of all, some definitions:

Goal: The object of a person’s ambition or effort. An aim or desired result.
Ambition: A strong desire to do or achieve something.
Dream: A cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.

The Kids

The Bombardment is those social and cultural factors I have talked about endlessly that have changed how kids are in the world as well as how parents parent, often to the detriment of their children’s development. Two of the things that get lost in The Bombardment are dreams and aspirations. And then what happens? Poet Langston Hughes said it best:

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

In this case, I am talking about the KIDS’ dreams and aspirations, not the parents’. That’s a big part of the problem: often the kids are living the parents’ aspirations, or, rather, ambitions, for them, and not their own. I remember talking with a college career counselor a few years back. He was telling me the story of a student who was in his office, sobbing, because she wanted to be a religion major and go for her Ph.D., but her parents forbade it because they wanted her to work on Wall Street. Although it might seem to be a simple thing for a college student to tell her parents “no” and do what she wanted, when you remember that besides the emotional difficulties of going against much-loved parents, they were footing the $50,000-a-year bill for her college, so it wasn’t that easy. I often show kids the Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the characters who resonates the most is the young man who adored the stage but couldn’t find a way to stand up to his father.

This happens to children of all ages. You would be surprised how many kids don’t want to disappoint their parents so keep quiet about how intensely miserable they are because they are working towards their parents’ ambitions, not their own dreams. Typically, many kids can’t acknowledge those emotions even to themselves. And when this happens, you end up with stressed, anxious, and depressed kids.

What is so important about dreams?

Everyone must build a safe, productive, rewarding life for an internal reason, not for anyone else. Hearing their own voice and discovering their dreams literally give kids something to build a life around—something to live for. To do that for someone else’s goals, ambitions, or even dreams to the exclusion of your own is something that causes stress, anxiety, depression…in other words, all of the things we see in so many kids today. Fulfilling your own dream is a journey; fulfilling someone else’s dream is like being on a treadmill. The lack of a dream to follow is often a large contributing factor to failure-to-launch 20-somethings: they either were never allowed to form their own vision for their lives—their dreams, in other words—or they were never allowed to pursue them and develop that crucial independence from their parents. For many, it was just easier to give up and play video games all day.

When kids are taught to build a life around their dreams, they realize that they have choices, lots of choices. Choices means control, so they learn that they actually have control over their own lives. And that leads to an internal locus of control, which is the psychological term for realizing that you have control over your own destiny instead of being a victim of outside forces against which you are powerless. Kids allowed to pursue their dreams can have a dream, create an ambition, set goals, develop a plan, and follow that plan. They can learn how to handle the curve balls that inevitably happen when plans are followed, get up when they fail at a part or all of it, maybe change their minds a little or a lot when things don’t go according to plan, and achieve their goal and get closer to their dream. Even if they have changed their goals and plans, the journey itself has been an invaluable and enriching experience.

Everything is driven internally. Adults may help, may be crucial to the plan implementation in many ways, but the motivation is internal. It must be for the journey to work.

Look at all of the lessons learned. And every one of them is crucial to your child having a happy, productive, constructive adulthood.

Your job is to lay the groundwork, both emotionally and materially, to make your kids’ dreams possible. Your job is not to make pursuing the dreams easy or do any of the pursuit for your child. That ruins the whole thing, because what one finds when one pursues a dream is that the journey of that pursuit is the dream, and achieving it becomes the icing on the cake.

Think of the parable of the man who wanted to make a caterpillar’s journey easy and cut the end of the cocoon to help it out: of course, the poor thing died, as the future butterfly needs the struggle from the cocoon in order for its wings to develop properly.

Now what about you?

How successful have you been at pursuing your dreams? Are you on a journey or a treadmill? How happy are you? Often, the answers to those questions are linked. If you have not been able to incorporate your dreams into your life, think about what you are modeling for your children: do you want them to have the same level of happiness as you have had? Or do you think they could do better on the happiness scale than you have done?

And if you’re secretly unfulfilled so are living through your kids, are you going to pick up the proverbial scissors to try to make your kids’ paths too easy?

C.S. Lewis, most well known for the Chronicles of Narnia children’s book series, wrote, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” If you haven’t fulfilled any of your dreams, maybe it is time to start. Everyone should have that journey, and every parent’s daughter or son needs to enjoy her or his parents’ contentment and joy and sail to sea themselves knowing the journey is her or his own. I’ll leave the last word to Carl Jung:

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”