“What do you want to be when you grow up?” The teacher asked. All at once shouts began to ring out in the classroom accompanied by wiggling bodies and waving hands “I want to be a teacher!” I want to be an astronaut!” “I want to be a marine biologist!” “I want to be a doctor!” “I want to be the president of the United States!” Their expectations are limitless.

When we are small, we imagine we can be literally anything we want to be. I remember when my daughter was four she insisted she was going to grow up to be a real live unicorn. She was both adamant this would be so and furious at me when I pointed out the impossibility of such a thing. Ultimately, she just figured I was a dumb grown-up and she could be whatever she wanted. Which, I mean sure. Who am I to logic away from my kids’ goals and expectations in life? When they are young, it is easy to feed into the notion that anyone can grow up to be anything they can imagine. 

As kids get older, when asked the same question the answers are similar, but no-less full of grandiosity. I had to do an “all about me” poster in fifth grade and I can vividly remember writing that I’d be a professional soccer player when I grew up. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t even very good at soccer, and I haven’t played since my junior year of high school—which is ancient history by now. 

While it is fine to encourage and indulge a grade schooler’s dreams of the future, when a child gets to high school, they are starting to lay the groundwork for what they would like to do upon graduation. And here is where I found myself stumbling around conversations about the future with my big kids. 

The sad truth is that because of the major trauma my kids, and many other children adopted from foster care, school can be a struggle. My child spent his formative years struggling to survive. Learning to spell his name wasn’t high on anyone’s list until we met him at 8 years old. Now in his teens, we are working with an education specialist to try and help him make and accomplish some future goals. And here is where I am torn.

I so badly wish I could say to my 16-year-old that it is a logical, acceptable, and viable path for him to be a professional hockey player. That’s his big wish. That is the only goal he wanted to list when we had an education meeting. Worse, the other adults that are supposed to support him encouraged him for picking such a great goal. What they don’t understand is that to be a professional hockey player the training should probably be well underway by 16. And he hasn’t ice-skated for a few years now. He is supposed to graduate in two years. While he’s made huge strides, I don’t see him overcoming all the obstacles he would need to for him to be able to be a professional hockey player. We needed some healthy expectations. 

So where does that leave me? Because I want to envision a future for my children where they could be whatever their heart wants. I want to see them break cycles of abuse, addiction, and familial trauma. I want them to believe they can be whatever they dream of. It’s a difficult line to walk. 

I never want to be the mom that is hyper-critical of my kids and their abilities. Far be it for me to say someone isn’t smart enough to attain a college degree. However, it is my job as a mom to help them succeed and I cannot do that if they aren’t setting realistic goals and expectations.

Here’s what I do. I break down the big goal into lots of little goals. So, let’s say he was going to be a professional hockey player. What would my son need to do to accomplish that goal? 

For starters, he’d need training. So the first goal might be to find a hockey training program. Maybe the next goal is a college team: applying to colleges with hockey programs he could theoretically be on. From there, he would need to work on getting passing grades, not getting on academic probation, etc. 

When I posited these steps to him, he realized his goal was out of his reach. I didn’t have to say anything discouraging or disheartening. I just said, “Here are the smaller steps to get to your big goal.” When my oldest daughter decided in second grade she wanted to be a veterinarian I helped her outline what that would look like school-wise. She has the capacity to reach that goal, but she had the opposite problem my son had as far as expectations go. She was fairly certain she wasn’t smart enough to go to college. We disabused her of that notion, hopefully for good, but probably just for now. 

Every once and again we have to check and see if the big goal is the same or if we need to swerve. Obviously, it’s not a big deal if my 9-year-old decides she wants to be four different things in the next week. The first goal is good grades in elementary school. Next is good grades in middle school. It won’t be until picking classes for high school that we have to look at higher goals. 

For our adopted kids, many of the dreams parents dream for their kids are disrupted before we met. A few of my kids’ brains were harmed when their birth parents used illegal substances around them or while they were babies in utero.  That caused huge obstacles for my kids. Everything is harder when the brain isn’t performing the way it is supposed to.  I think the trick has been to not tell them they can be anything they wish. I tell them they can be anything they work towards. Then we talk about all the steps. 

Maybe I’m a cynic. Maybe my child with a below-average IQ can be president of the united states. There might be more hope for him than I give credit for. Still, I think it’s a parent’s job to prepare their kid for the future and not lie to them. We need to instill realistic expectations. So for me, that means dreaming smaller.