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How to Crush Your Child's Dreams

Photograph by Getty Images

Dear Catherine,

I realize I risk sounding like a total helicopter parent by asking this, but how can I encourage my kids without setting up unrealistic expectations? For example, my 1st grader is convinced she's going to be a Disney Jr. television star. Sure, I want her to sing, dance, and maybe even tell a corny joke or two. And I want to clap and laugh and tell her how amazing she is. But it's not as funny when she says, "So how old do I have to be to go on an audition so I can be on TV?"

Listen, we all know there are prodigies, but I'm not seeing it. I have a normal enthusiastic kid who thinks just because she wants to do something epic, she can. I love her confidence, but I'm not willing to hustle around to auditions and try to get her an agent, disrupting our entire family in the process. More importantly, I don't know how to diplomatically explain the term "long shot" without crushing her artistic spirit. Surely the French have a better way of dealing with precocious kids, right?


Dream Crusher

Dear Dream Crusher,

I can tell by your self-applied moniker that you already have a healthy dose of French in you. From now on, may I call you Briseur de rêves? That's "Dream Crusher" in French (pretty sure); I find the translation adds another level of authoritative weight.

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Regardless of your nickname, though, the fact that you are asking the question instead of begging talent agents to meet with your kid assures me this will be a snap for you. That's saying a lot because we live in a culture where everything kids utter, create, or perform is met with effusive praise, and often followed by lessons, coaches, exhaustion, and, of course, Instagram. (Guilty as charged, over here.) Before I went French, I was practically to the point where my child could defecate on a piece of paper and I'd idiotically respond: "Wow, that’s really interesting. I love your unconventional use of . . . materials. Let me take a photo." After enough of this, it's hard to be honest with kids about their talents.

It took borrowing from French parents—and lot of willpower—for me to tone down the kiddie kudos, which had become a knee-jerk, subconscious reaction to any little thing they did. The French praise their kids waaaaaaaay less than we do. The result, I noticed, was that French kids tend to focus longer and engage in projects for the sheer joy of it and not necessarily for the accolades (which then morph into the unrealistic conviction that they are the next Selena Gomez). Furthermore, there's a popular theory that wholesale praise actually harms a child's self-esteem.

French kids tend to focus longer and engage in projects for the sheer joy of it and not necessarily for the accolades

I did also notice, however, that French parents are often more likely to criticize their children. I'm not sure this is particularly beneficial to budding self-esteem either. Kids are always going to dream, and I well remember loping around my living room as a 7-year old thinking that my gymnastic moves, while perhaps not technical (in fact, I never managed to do the splits), were sufficiently spectacular to put me in the running as the next Nadia Comăneci. I was convinced I had what it takes, and I remember my own mother explaining to me, gently, that although my moves were cool and she loved watching them, I really wasn't a great gymnast. I'd never even had a lesson. She said that if I wanted to give up most of my hobbies and friends, and practice nine hours a day, I might be a good enough to compete, but even then I would probably never be a Nadia.

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I'm not sure what happened to my mom's lesson, but when my own daughter expressed (loudly) a burning desire to be a Disney television star, instead of thinking it through like you are doing, I encouraged her. The results were disastrous.

I wish I'd gone with my mom's approach, which does seem related to the French way but is slightly less harsh. A preemptive dollop of reality will be much less painful for both you and your daughter than chasing an unrealistic dream. In the meantime, why not encourage her to keep singing and dancing? Who knows, maybe one day a talent scout will discover her. It happened to Jennifer Lawrence! Then again, wasn't The Hunger Games just a metaphor for Hollywood?

Keep crushing!


Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at mommecs@bermanbraun.com.

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