Should Children Be Told They Can “Do Anything”, “Be Anything”?

Three kids pose laying in the grass

Dr. Hurd, here is a related issue to what makes people succeed. I take issue with parents/teachers who tell their young children/students: “You can be anything you want to be in life.” Some of these adults add: “ … as long as you put your mind to it, work hard, and never give up.”

My issue is that this advice evades the law of identity, which calls on us to recognize that everything in existence, including individual people, have a specific, delimited nature and abilities.

I love hearing stories of people who have a goal they want to achieve and in the face of naysayers, who tell them they will never attain their goals, prove them wrong. However, to tell children they “can” be “anything” they want to be, evades two fundamental facts: 1) there are no guarantees in any such endeavors; 2) and, as significant aspect of this fact, they may have certain limitations that would prevent them from attaining their goals. As an example, most individuals just don’t have the athletic ability to be an extraordinary basketball player like LeBron James, or even to become an average professional athlete, no matter how much they may believe they do or work hard to achieve that goal.

When pursuing any goal, the law of identity requires that we recognize our limitations when they become obvious to us. It requires that we adjust our goals to achieve more realistic pursuits, and recognize that their achievement is never a guarantee.

I wonder what kind of problems, psychological or otherwise, well-meaning parents inflict on their kids when they feed them the falsehood that they *can* be “anything” they want to be in life. Your thoughts?

I heartily agree. I won’t repeat what you said, because it’s the very same thing I would have said. What I will do now is elaborate.

One of the primary errors in telling kids, “You can do anything you want to do / be anything you want to be” is that it attempts to convey an attitude of optimism by dropping the premise of realism.

The reality is: You cannot have your optimism without your realism too. This might be too abstract a concept to get across to most children. But the things you do say to children still ought to be based on what’s realistic.

The better way to inspire most children is through telling them, “If you really want to accomplish something, you come up with a plan, and you see if it works out. There’s no reason to rule anything out, so long as you think carefully about it and follow through.”

As you say, this silliness about, “You can be anything you want to be” ignores the fact that no person can do absolutely everything. And while most of us are capable of doing one or two things really well, with application and effort over time, the fact remains that most of us are not that good at most things. And that’s OK.

It’s Pollyanna-like but, more than that, reflective of insecurity about the human capacity for accomplishment to compulsively teach children, “Just want it, and you can make it happen.”

Human beings don’t operate by wishes, and great things are never accomplished by wishes and dreams alone. Children should not be misled into thinking that they do.

Great things happen when people actively develop and apply their capacities for reasoning and thinking; persistently and intelligently put those capacities into action plans, followed up in practice; and fueled, all the while, by a sense that IF something is worthwhile enough to you and IF you come up with a realistic and accurate way of doing something, THEN you can indeed accomplish a great deal. Way more than you ever anticipated, in fact.

I don’t doubt that giving children unrealistic expectations leads to psychological problems. When the child and young adult discovers he cannot literally do anything he wants, he could become dispirited, blaming either himself for being fundamentally incompetent (when he’s not), or blaming others for not giving him the break he needed, and as a result becoming bitter or hostile. Many people will develop the false belief that success and accomplishment are due primarily to “luck,” chance, or “fate,” leaving undeveloped areas of talent that otherwise could have flourished with a combination of persistent thought and effort over time.

As I see it, the primary intellectual task of childhood is to help children learn how to reason. This contrasts with education and schooling as we know it. The central purpose of most schooling is to “socialize” children, or help them learn how to get along with others. Rationally defined, interacting with others can be a valuable tool. But it’s secondary compared to the central intellectual task of childhood, which is to learn how to think. Without knowing how to think, the child-turning-adult will ultimately have nothing to offer friends with whom he socializes, and won’t have the capacity to get anything personally satisfying out of those friendships, either.

The primary psychological task of childhood flows from the skill of reasoning. It’s the development of an attitude and belief that one can think, and therefore one is capable of both surviving and accomplishing a great deal in life thanks to thinking. This is the actual and proper meaning of “self-esteem.” Many conscientious parents aim to give their children self-esteem, but they have the definition wrong. They view self-esteem as saying or doing whatever it takes to “make my child feel good about him- or herself.” One of those things is spreading the falsehood that you can “be or do whatever you wish” — the implication being, merely by wishing it.

It’s not the truth. But the good news is: It doesn’t have to be. As individuals, we all possess the capacity for goodness and even greatness … in certain areas.


Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1