On Being Realistic


Telling a child to be realistic is a cruel but passive form of child abuse. There, I said it. It’s true. There were never more hateful, bitter, dream killer words uttered, generation after generation. The cycle must stop.

A child comes into this world without any awareness of his limitations. He is a clean slate of possibilities.

His parents ask him to hold a cup, he learns to hold the cup. They teach him to sit up and, as proud as he can be, he sits up and stays up. He is encouraged to walk and suddenly he’s moving all over the place. He’s exploring and touching and going in whatever direction his curiosity takes him. So, they put him in a playpen, “for safety.”

At some point, somewhere after toddler but before preschool, parents stop encouraging and start cautioning. Stay away from the stove, you’ll burn yourself. Be careful around that dog, he might bite. Don’t run with those scissors, you’ll poke your eye out. Chew your food, so you don’t choke. Use the handrail or you’ll fall and break your neck. Wear the helmet or you’ll crack your head open. Put on your coat, or you’ll freeze to death. Wear the knee pads, watch both ways, don’t talk to strangers, apply the sunscreen, back up from the television, don’t touch anything. It was the season of physical danger. It’s a wonder any of us ever ventured outside for fear of our own personal safety.

Then we went to school. Wash your hands, keep your hands to yourself, cover your mouth when you cough, don’t share combs, hats, straws, or lip balm.

Eventually, our parents stopped being so concerned with our personal safety and began to monitor our emotional safety. It became their mission in life to keep us from having our feelings hurt. He pulled your hair because he likes you. Bullies are just insecure. She’s nasty to you because she’s jealous. She got the part because her mother is a teacher. Gene Tierney had an overbite and she was a movie star. Yep, my mom actually said that to me. What buck-toothed 8 year old girl growing up in the 70s wouldn’t be comforted by that little tidbit?

Then came adolescence; the reality check period. At this point, our limitations were not only seen and felt by ourselves and our peers, but by our parents. Parents felt it was their job to keep their offspring from the pain of disappointment from the outside world by disappointing us first, apparently. This is a critical time for a child’s self-esteem. Most parents, unknowingly and unintentionally, muck it up.

I know I did. I’m a Mama Bear with my kids. They are both grown with kids of their own, but I will still take anyone to the mattresses who messes with them. There was a bar fight in Houston a couple of years ago, a guy harassed my daughter while she was waiting tables. Yep, the bouncer had to restrain me. There was the holy righteous fit I threw when a group of boys decided my son needed his butt kicked for no other reason than he was new in town and could play baseball better than most of the team.

Holy righteous fits were this Mama Bear’s super power.

But, as much as I love my children, I must admit I’m guilty of child abuse. When my daughter, taller than any of her peers at the age of 12, aspired to be an Olympic figure skater, what did I say? Honey be realistic. There are a very small number of Olympic ice skaters and none of them are as tall as you are now. When she decided at 15 she wanted to play college basketball, but had stopped growing in height shortly after I killed her ice skating dream, I used that hateful term again. Be realistic. You aren’t tall enough.

Oh, I encouraged her in many areas. I loved the saxophone and the girl could wail. She was in the marching band all three years of high school, went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Outback Bowl. She was awesome. She didn’t love it, in spite of her talent. It was not her dream. After graduation, she never played again.

She had outstanding grades. I encouraged her in that way, as well. Her grades were good enough to get a scholarship to a small college. But, she didn’t love that either. She came home after the second year.

I encouraged my girl in the things in which she had skill. But, because I wanted to protect her from disappointment, I did not encourage her dreams. They weren’t realistic… at least in my opinion. That’s all it was, really. My stupid opinion. Maybe she would have been the world’s tallest Olympic gold medal ice skater. Maybe she would have been the shortest starting forward in the WNBA. Maybe, maybe not.

But this Mama Bear didn’t let her find out. This Mama Bear didn’t give her the chance to prove to the world and herself what she was made of. I didn’t trust her to handle whatever happened; or perhaps I just didn’t trust myself to handle it.

But the pain of disappointment could not have been greater than knowing the person who is supposed to be your number one fan doesn’t support your dreams.

I told my Mom I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to take writing in college. She told me to learn to type so I could get a job until I got married. Have a safety net. I intentionally failed high school typing class.

My Mom was trying to protect me from the pain of failure. Play it safe. Be careful. Don’t gamble. She meant well. She knew how it felt to have crushed dreams. Someone important told her she didn’t deserve a writing award she received for an essay. She never wrote again.

So, in the name of protection, Mom was as guilty of child abuse, as I was. We both had the very best of intentions.

I don’t know that my daughter would have made the Olympic ice skating. I also do not know that she wouldn’t have. What I do know is I prevented her from finding out. I killed that dream in her.

My own dream of being a writer was packed away with my high school year books for many many years. But, it was never really dead. Now, in my 50s, that old ember has been reignited and burning again. I don’t know if I’ll get very far, but I don’t know that I won’t either. What I do know is that flame survived all these years and it deserves a chance.

I pray that my daughter starts to follow her dreams again; whatever they may be. When she does, this Mama Bear is going to say STOP being realistic!

Childhood is for dreams, big glorious, ridiculous dreams. Every child deserves that chance to dream.

I pray that the cycle of child abuse stops right here with me. I pray that my children never utter the hateful words “be realistic” to theirs. If they do, I’m afraid this Grammy Bear may have to throw one of her holy righteous fits.

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