What could possibly be wrong with telling our kids they can be anything? Plenty.
When my son turned one, friends gifted him with an illustrated Snoopy the Dog book called "You Can Be Anything." On page after page, this chirpy book shows Snoopy engaged in a variety of impressive professions: Sports Star, Surgeon, Flying Ace, and so on.
Dressed in the garb of his chosen occupation, Snoopy is pictured as a "world-famous lawyer," a "world-famous literary ace," and even a "world-famous grocery clerk." Snoopy is superlative in everything he does.
The book was big and bright and colorful, and probably intended for an older child since the pages - instead of being thick and sturdy like board books - were made of regular paper.
When my son tried to turn these flimsy paper pages with his pudgy little hands, they inevitably ripped. Which delighted him, so he ripped them more. I let him. I even helped him sometimes.
You might think this permissiveness was due to a laid-back nature, or some lofty ideal of allowing my son's curiosity (paper rips when I pull it!) to range free. You would be wrong.
The real reason I didn't mind him ripping the pages of this book was because, as a psychologist and parent, I deeply object to its core message, which is succinctly stated on page one: "Just like Snoopy, what you can achieve is limited only by your imagination. You can be anything!"
This message - that our kids can do and achieve anything they put their minds to - can be deeply alluring to parents. What parent wouldn't want to believe that their children's achievement is limited only by imagination, and to encourage their kids to pursue ambitious goals, like becoming a surgeon or a tech company founder?
What could possibly be wrong with telling our kids they can be anything? Plenty.
First, studies show that pursuing overly-ambitious goals can be harmful. When researchers study organizations that set stretch goals for employees - goals intended to motivate high performance - they find that these lofty goals often have significant negative side effects. In particular, they find that when people are focused on a goal, and failure to achieve that goal has high costs, unethical behavior increases.
"The real reason I didn't mind him ripping the pages of this book was because, as a psychologist and parent, I deeply object to its core message, which is succinctly stated on page one: 'Just like Snoopy, what you can achieve is limited only by your imagination. You can be anything!'"
As an example, the study's authors point to the unfortunate experience of Sears, Roebuck & Co. executives in the 1990s. When the company set a high bar for auto repair sales quotas ($147/hour), hoping that this would spur staff to higher sales and productivity, the company found instead that staff overcharged customers and recommend unnecessary repairs. As one of the researchers notes: "When employees care exclusively about reaching a goal, and bad things can happen if they fail, cheating goes up."
It's not hard to see distressing parallels between this finding and contemporary statistics about our children. Many kids report feeling intense pressure to achieve in school and beyond, and many more kids say they have cheated. As Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, a noted authority on cheating, says: "I don't think there's any question that students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students, and that's abetted by the adults around them."
Some attentive parents may rightly point out that Snoopy's message to kids emphasizes imagination ("What you can achieve is limited only by your imagination!") instead of focusing on the essential ingredients of effort and persistence: More important than imagining a goal is working hard to achieve it. True, but even if the message "You can do anything!" is broadened to include hard work, it still falls short.
Telling kids that they can do anything - whether fueled by imagination or hard work - obscures the critical role of chance in success. Not every child who wants to be a surgeon or sports star can become one, even if they work hard at it. At the same time, in every success story there is the grace of good fortune. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman puts it: "Success = Talent + Luck. Great success = A little more talent + A Lot of Luck."
While Kahneman acknowledges that skill is a key part of success, his work emphasizes that chance plays a predominant role. This can be a bitter pill for those who want to believe that we control our own destiny, and that, therefore, our destiny reflects something about our internal qualities, such as ability, drive, or worth. Implicit in this way of thinking is a different equation: Highly successful person = person with the right stuff. From here, it's not a far leap to the notion that the haves have it because they are innately special, or because they worked hard and deserve it.
Of course, there are many who don't work hard to develop their skills and pursue opportunities - and who therefore are unlikely to achieve success if chance comes knocking - but the reverse is not true. Just as with the proverbial wet sidewalk (if it rains the sidewalk will be wet, but the sidewalk being wet doesn't always mean it rained) people with average resumes are not necessarily less outstanding or deserving.
In a recent New York Times Magazine article about her stardom, Oscar-nominated actor Ellen Page reflects on her brush with chance. A talent scout visited her high school, heard about her from the drama coach, and auditioned her. The rest, as they say, is history.
Page is undoubtedly a very talented actor but her talent would still exist without her great success. As the article notes: "Page wonders, sometimes, what kind of life she would be living if she had happened to be sick that day she was scouted . . . College, she thinks. Soccer."
If parents promote the idea that success is primarily determined by variables within our child's control, even such noble things as skill and effort, we are ignoring the overriding influence of chance, to the detriment of our children. When they fail at something (as inevitably we all will) children who don't recognize the significant role of random chance in determining life's outcomes may blame themselves or stop trying.
Conversely, those who do achieve prominent success may overestimate their role in it, and see those who have more average resumes as inferior or less deserving. On a societal level, as Malcolm Gladwell has argued, ignoring the role of chance means that we overvalue the achievements of individual stars and also miss opportunities to use our collective institutions to alleviate inequities.
I hope what Snoopy is trying to remind us is that we should not be stopped by pernicious socio-cultural stereotypes of the sort that tell girls that they can't become mathematicians, or people of color that they can't be CEOs. With this, I heartily agree.
That said, it's a statistical fact that not every child can grow up to be a Supreme Court justice, a sports star, or a best-selling author. Our futures are shaped by many forces beyond our control, including chance, genetics, and other accidents of birth. Then too, statistically speaking, most of us will be average (that's the definition of average after all).
But so what? Let's ask ourselves why we mourn the idea that our children's futures are not limitless. Why do so many of us dislike the idea of having average children?
As a psychologist, I see books like "You Can Be Anything" as a mirror of our own anxieties about our children's identities and futures. I suspect that many of us harbor the secret desire that our children's accomplishments will reflect well on our parenting, and, more selflessly, that our children's high achievement will guarantee their well-being.
This is not to say that parents shouldn't expect their children's best or encourage them to work hard and persevere, just that a focus on achievement per se ultimately does kids (and ourselves) a disservice. When we create a mindset that high achievement is better than being average - that high achievers are more special or deserving - we diminish kids' ability to value both themselves and others.