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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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