Parents: Life’s Sneaky Dreamkillers

Don't be fooled: Her mother may someday tell her she'll never be the first woman to sing "Run the World (Girls)" on a space shuttle.

As he accepted a BET Honors award for his storied filmmaking career, Spike Lee spoke one of the truest, saddest, most poignant statements ever.

“It has been my observation,” he said, “that parents kill more dreams than anybody.”

I shook my head and clapped in furious agreement. Yes, Mr. Lee. You don’t have to wait for your 11th-grade chemistry teacher to tell you “you’re smart, but you don’t have the logic to the complete the labs.” Sure, she can shatter your dreams of attending Johns Hopkins Medical School–rendering all your hours of studying the MCAT guide and college biology textbooks over summer vacation futile–but your hopes can crumble much earlier. The blow needn’t come from strangers tossing your resume or disgruntled online commenters with their drawers in a wad about their own deferred aspirations.

Undoubtedly, the jab that smacks your dreams to the mat can come from your parents, the people who gave you your chromosomes, the people you’d expect would offer you the most encouragement and support. Shameful.

Now, I must admit I’m coming from a slightly different angle here. Except for the stint in sixth-grade erotica, My parents always encouraged me to pursue the career that would fulfill me. At 11, it was medicine. I promised my mother I would become a doctor, and though that pubescent hope is still possible–Me, Ph.D sounds pretty good–I will most likely never be a physician. Now, thankfully, that is okay with me. It wasn’t when Ms. Chemistry Dreamkiller so smilingly offered me her .02 about my scientific aptitude, but today, I’m comfortable with being a patient. At least I can win trivia games with my knowledge of the periodic table.

[Which is the only other element besides mercury that is a liquid at room temperature? Bromine!!]

Some parents, though, really do kill their kids’ dreams, either by telling them, flat-out, that they’ll never get into college, Hollywood, or anywhere else, or¬†indirectly leading their starry-eyed offspring to another vocation. You’ve probably seen the completely sane dance moms on TLC.

I understand how big dreams can sound to practical folks. I still get the courtesy nods–“Oh, ok, that’s good,” with the patronizing smile–when I tell some people my dream is to write for a magazine in NYC. I can’t be upset though, because that’s the same nod that I, admittedly, give to 35-year-old aspiring rappers. Some dreams just seem to farfetched for others to grasp, including parents. Parents are people, and people are judgmental.

But what good would come of us if no one dreamed of anything even remotely spectacular? We wouldn’t have half the amenities–shoot, even pants with zippers–if someone hadn’t dreamed sideways. And if the encouragement to dream big begins anywhere, it should begin at home and then in school, the two places children spend most of their time.

The world is going to give children enough heat. That’s why parents should instill genuine confidence in their children, confidence that compels youngsters to think boldly yet prudently. Kids should always get a healthy dose of realism and flexibility: Telling a child she’s a lazy bum is no better than telling her she’s the smartest kid in the world, as both statements leave no room for variation. But for the most part, parents or guardians should be the child’s first cheerleaders, even if the aspiration really is off the charts.

Without wild dreams–and someone to believe in them–Spike Lee, Steve Jobs, Oprah, and many, many more people would just be (or have been) regular old folks taking up seats on the Metro.

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