Essential advice to kids: You cannot be anything you want to be

When your son says he wants to be an astronaut, and he’s already wearing glasses, why do you tell him that he can do it if he works hard? He can’t. No one can be an astronaut with glasses.

Why do you let your daughter think she can be a professional soccer player if she is not on the fast-track to that extremely competitive profession? Why not give her a reality check early on?

The information we give to kids about careers is so much BS that it’s amazing all kids don’t have nervous breakdowns when they turn 20 and realize they must actually choose a realistic career.

Parents don’t talk to kids about realistic careers. Because it’s not fun. It’s not thought to be encouraging to talk with kids about closed doors, even though doors close to us every day of our lives. Sure, other doors open, but it’s a tradeoff; one door opens and another closes. You need to acknowledge both.

Be honest with your kids. Talk about tradeoffs from the beginning so it’s not earth-shatteringly shocking to find out later that no CEO is also home with kids. Stop telling kids that doing well academically opens career doors. Because unless they are going into academia, academics don’t open career doors.

It’s hard to be realistic. It’s not natural to reign in a child’s dreams. My son wants to be a professional cellist. He knows the odds are terrible. I have suggested he would be happy being a teacher, and he says no. I have suggested alternatives like sales. “You’d be great at sales,” I’ve told him. Because it’s sort of like performing.

He’s not convinced, and I worry that my admonitions have caused him anxiety. It’s a fine line between encouraging and realistic. Universities study this issue, and so do companies (spoiler: set goals that are difficult but attainable.) I spend a lot of time looking for ways to walk this line.

Reality doesn’t have to be grim. For example Highbrow is a video library for kids and it includes a bunch of videos about what real careers are like. Each time your kid says, “I think I want to be x,” you can say, “Let’s take a look at what that would be like.”

The earlier you get your kid thinking about the realities of careers, the better choices they can make. Self-directed learning is best in the context of reality. Which isn’t surprising since adult life is best in the context of reality as well.

68 replies
    • Susan
      Susan says:

      You really can’t be an astronaut – or an airforce pilot – if you have glasses. If you’re already in when your eyesight goes, that’s a different story.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        well, it depends on whether you are the person actually responsible for the flight control, which would be the equivalent of the pilot, or the payload specialist, usually a trained scientist. I can ask our resident astronaut (Kathy Thornton)…

  1. Sean
    Sean says:

    When your son says he wants to be an astronaut, and he’s already wearing glasses, why do you tell him that he can do it if he works hard? He can’t. No one can be an astronaut with glasses.

    Or you could make a quick stop at google and discover that, of course he can.

    There might be all sorts of reasons that becoming X may be extraordinarily hard or even impossible for your kiddos. But you should probably make sure they’re actually valid reasons before you dash those dreams.

  2. kina
    kina says:

    It’s such an American thing to tell kids they can be anything they want to be. Of course they can’t. Well, the land of endless possibilities and opportunities has always had good PR and that begins in early childhood.

  3. John Althouse Cohen
    John Althouse Cohen says:

    The astronaut example actually shows why you shouldn’t discourage children from being what they want to be: you might be wrong in believing that the child is doomed to failure. Even assuming that astronauts aren’t allowed to wear glasses (though see the second comment), this doesn’t that a child who wears glasses can’t grow up to be an astronaut. The child could have 20/20 vision without glasses in the future by getting surgery.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      I immediately thought of Ethan Hawke’s character in Gattaca. He got a whole lotta’ surgery to go into space. Shiver.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        My college roommate fell asleep to that film literally every night. She’d flip it on and pass out.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “It’s hard to be realistic. It’s not natural to reign in a child’s dreams. My son wants to be a professional cellist. He knows the odds are terrible. I have suggested he would be happy being a teacher, and he says no. I have suggested alternatives like sales. “You’d be great at sales,” I’ve told him. Because it’s sort of like performing.”
    You may be able to reframe your conversations with him. Encourage the professional cellist dream. However, at the same time, tell him that it would be a good idea to have a backup plan (career) in mind. May be even two alternative plans. This way, you’re not discouraging him from pursuing his dream. You’re being realistic with him and teaching him that plans include backups because sometimes not everything goes according to plan.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    What are the odds of becoming a professional cellist or playing any classical instrument professionally for that matter? I’m really curious.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I was curious since Penelope mentioned that the odds of him becoming a professional cellist are low, what the odds actually were. Do those odds consider those who give up? How many available slots are there per year vs number of musicians who are vying for them? It is really interesting to me.

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:


          About 3000 people graduate with music degrees each year. About 200 orchestra positions open up each year.

        • Sarah
          Sarah says:

          I am a professional musician and I can tell you that the odds of becoming a professional classical musician are heinous. Honestly, if your son is not already winning competitions, his odds are exceedingly slim of getting a job. Of the “200 positions that open up in a year,” (I’m not even sure if that is accurate; that sounds awfully high), consider that there are only about 17 full-time orchestras in the U.S. In addition to recent graduates, competition for jobs includes people who have already won auditions and are looking for better jobs. Even regional per-service orchestra jobs, which might pay something like $2000 per YEAR, are extremely difficult to get. And then you have the instances where orchestras audition dozens of incredibly qualified players, all of whom play almost, if not literally, flawlessly, and then elect to hire no one for completely ridiculous reasons. (You can read about this at I know many amazing players who have auditioned for years, even decades–always at their own expense, which can run to the thousands for each audition when you include airfare, airfare for your instrument in the case of a cello, hotel stays and so forth–and have never gotten a job. Some have not even advanced past the first round.

          If he has not already done so, your son should have a serious conversation with his private cello teacher about this. Like yesterday.

  6. gena
    gena says:

    Overall, I don’t agree with you this time. I love self directed learning with goals a kid sets themselves. Who are we to kill their passion and stop them?

    If they ask my specific opinion about whether what they are doing will 100% get them a job, then yes, I will answer them truthfully. But is that something kids are likely to ask? No! And who knows this stuff with 100% certainty anyway?

    From what I’ve seen they’re mostly on a journey they’ve defined themselves; and since we don’t really know what jobs of the future will be, we should not stop them.

    My best hires in previous life were those who explored something at depth and had a passion. As long as they wanted the job, they were my best analysts coming from a totally different industry.

    My kids are designing clothing collections for their dolls complete with sketches, samples and a little boutique with all the tiny hangers and accessories. Would you suggest I tell them to stop because fashion industry is so tough? Not a chance.

    • Megan L
      Megan L says:

      I agree with you. I think that children should be encouraged to pursue their passions if only to develop themselves intellectually, creatively, and athletically as individuals. A career will come for a well-developed individual with a strong skillset in an area of their interest.

  7. gena
    gena says:

    I have to add this.

    We know many professional musicians and here are my observations:

    – those that dreamed of a permanent seat in an orchestra are either stressed or bored now in their 40’s.
    – our one cellist who didn’t get a seat, but traveled the world playing various gigs now has a music therapy business he loves.
    – it’s very hard to know whether that road is for you until you travel at least some of it in some way.

    If I were you, I would really encourage my son. And I am encouraging both of my kids who are in violin. They’ve surprised me many times with their talents. BTW both cello and violin sound amazing in rock bands :)

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      My friend too went into music therapy. She loves it.

      You know, P, I was walking around London and came across a remarkable cellist playing under a tunnel. And by remarkable, I mean amazing, technically correct, and playing from the soul. It was beautiful. I thought of you and your son. I waited for him to finish then asked him how he learned. Both of his parents were cellists: one professional, one a teacher. And there he was playing under a tunnel. I asked why he wasnt playing professionally and he said the parental pressure became too much.

      I think your kid is going to go pro.

  8. Emmanuel
    Emmanuel says:

    Teaching a chikd that life is ALL about tradeoffs is one of the mist valuable principles and keys for a balanced and happy life. One door opens, another one closes. Very right: accept that, look forward and feel confident about having made that trade off !!!

  9. Emmanuel
    Emmanuel says:

    The more gifted and talented a person is, the more potential doors that can open, but also the more doors that will remain closed or be closed because of the path that we take in life. Many doors hold valuable life choices, but ACCEPTING that other doors will close is key to a balanced and happy life, just as much as being satisfied with our actual achievements. If i take my kids to the community swimming pool one afternoon and have family fun, i cannot be investing in my career the same afternoon.

  10. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    When you are setting difficult but attainable goals be sure to build compelling narratives surrounding those goals. The specifics of achieving goals are far less important than instilling a sense that achieving goals matters.

  11. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    One day I googled “I give up” and up came with demotivator posters for sale. One has a picture of fries with the word POTENTIAL underneath and then something to the effect, “Not everyone is going to be an astronaut.” It had nothing to do with my cause of frustration but it caught me so off guard I laughed my head off. My son wants to be an astronaut. He is actively pursuing goals to that end. He is happy and motivated. He has seen that poster and he finds it hysterical. Who am I to know if he will make it or not? I am not a painter but in second grade I enjoyed it so much that for a while I dreamed of being an artist. I told my dad who said, “You won’t make enough money to live doing that.” It stung. People can achieve a lot with inspiration. I am not sure I would want my son in space, but the journey of trying is already thrilling for him.

  12. salbtj
    salbtj says:

    This is the dummetst article I have ever read in my life. People that write these types of articles are dream stealers and I think these articles are a waste of reading. I am never going to tell my kids that they can’t be what they want .

    • CaitlynH
      CaitlynH says:

      First of all, I’d recommend using proper spelling before calling something dumb… Second, I believe that Penelope is right. My mom told me that I’m a bad singer. When I tell my friends that, they’re shocked. They can’t believe that my mom would say something like that to me. I also play soccer. My mom is trying to get me to be a coxswain ( for crew ). She told me that I’m probably not good enough to play on the team. And she’s right. So now I have a backup. She told me what was unrealistic and realistic. And yes that hurt, but I’m glad that she did. (She also told me I couldn’t be belle for Halloween when I was young because I didn’t look good in yellow. That honesty is a little too far in my opinion)

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        Jesus. Your mom sounds a bit prickly.

        I try not to boss my kids around. If they ask me what I think I tell them.

        I think it’s more important for them to be able to assess their weaknesses for themselves. I tell them they have to be hard on themselves and realistic if they want to achieve big things. They can do most things, but picking is what’s important. Knowing themselves, relying on their knowledge and instinct an going after what they find they love. They’re the ones that will get in their own way and I just try to instill strength and empowerment besides a nurturing enironment, and stay out of their way.

        We’ll see.

      • Heather Sanders
        Heather Sanders says:

        “She also told me I couldn’t be belle for Halloween when I was young because I didn’t look good in yellow. That honesty is a little too far in my opinion.”

        I’m not sure if this was intended to be funny or not, but it did make me giggle.

        I remember walking down the stairs at the age of 12. I looked like a cross between Pat Benatar and Punky Brewster.

        My mom took one look and said, “You’re kidding, right?”

        I changed.

        Fast forward 30 years my oldest walks out of her room in (I swear) a similar outfit – for church.

        I looked at her and said, “You know you don’t match, right?”

        She said, “Yep.”

        I said, “Okay, grab your brother and sister and let’s load up.”

        I was honest, but let her wear it.

  13. redrock
    redrock says:

    30 years ago all kids wanted to be firefighters (well, the boys wanted to – after all it is not appropriate, ever as a dream for a girl) – nowadays kids want to be astronauts. I really don’t see the problem – should you tell a kid excited about space that the life of an astronaut is rather boring except for the 20 days in space every decade? Isn’t that against the unschooling mindset – you can do everything if you set your mind to it even learn calculus in 5 days? So, a kid at the age of 10 wants to be an astronaut (or something other crazy like the next Yo-yo Ma) and reads all the space stuff, how to build rockets, the atmosphere of Pluto, chemistry of the van Allen belt and so on. Then at 18 now grown-up kid realizes that astronaut was just a catch-all word for science, mechanical engineering or rocket designer – or maybe salesperson for Space X. What if you had squashed this dream of astronaut right then and there at age 10?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      What a low opinion you must have of unschooling. I’m an unschooler and know many unschoolers, and I don’t believe I have ever heard any one of us claim that a child can learn Calculus in 5 days. Showing your true colors, eh? If my kids truly desire to learn Calculus one day, we are a family that is well-equipped to teach it, but not in 5 days, give me a break.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        drawing from an ancient comment which said that if the kids wanted to he/she could catch up in math in a very short period giving examples about sitting down for a week and learning. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with unschooling per se and my opinion of it – I only wanted to contrast the idea of unstopping which is pretty free form and promotes a childs exploration of different topics with telling the child that it should not have any unrealistic dreams.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I think Penelope is drawing on her childhood experience of wanting to be a figure skater and spending time doing that when she was too tall to ever realistically be a professional ice skater. I don’t think she is advocating squashing the dreams of children.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        …no need to become less then polite in the comment section. I personally am all for independent learning although I would not go that far and say only unschooling is a valid way to bring up your kids. I think school has value, and I have seen many creative people who went to school the traditional way. But I also believe that it is totally fine for kids to dream about being an astronaut or whatever.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I apologize if my comment was rude, I didn’t see any “” around your learning calculus in 5 days comment to clue me in that you were re-quoting Penelope. Unschooling is about freethinking, independent, non-coercive self-directed learning. But my oldest daughter really struggles to sing in tune, I can get her voice lessons if she desires, but I don’t see her as a vocalist and if she said that was what she wanted to “be” I don’t know that I would tell her she shouldn’t, but I would rather encourage her in areas where I know she excels.

          • jessica
            jessica says:

            She could get into a punk band….or voice act.

            Have you heard little ariana grandes voice before her coaching? Night and day.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Haha – punk band, that’s awesome! ;) Don’t worry, I don’t plan on being a prickly parent. LOL

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Your calculus comment reminded me of the Sudbury experiment.

      This is a recap from a blog
      “from the book, Free at Last). In it, the author and school co-founder Dan Greenberg writes of teaching a group of a dozen boys and girls, ages 9-12, the entire K-6 math portfolio in 20 contact hours. Greenberg, who admits sheepishly that in a past lifetime he was partially responsible in the ’60s for the development of the “new math” and now had lived long enough to regret it, tried to dissuade them by suggesting that it would be a lot more fun to go out and play. But no use – they were obstinate and determined. He set only one rule: be on time, 11:00 A.M. sharp, twice a week, for a half an hour. If anyone was five minutes late, class was cancelled. If it happened twice, no more teaching.

      Greenberg found an old math primer from 1898, with lots of exercises, and away they went. No shortcuts. They added the long columns and the short columns, the fat ones and skinny ones, “borrowed” and “carried” and memorized the times tables. Long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots. (Square roots? They stopped teaching that in the ’60s, I think, when we were – or least the more “gifted” among us – given sliderules.)

      In 20 contact hours, every single one of the kids knew the material cold. No slackers. No failures. No one “left back.” No “math anxiety.” No boredom, frustration, embarrassment. No shame or humiliation. No competition, “achievement, “failure,” or “success.” No prizes. Just ‘rithmetic. The students held a party to celebrate.

      Walking around in a self-congratulatory haze, Greenberg contacted a friend, a leading elementary math specialist in the public schools, to gloat.

      “Not surprising,” mused his friend.

      “Why not,” asked Greenberg, having had the wind at least temporarily removed from his sails.

      “Because everyone knows,” he replied, verbally stomping on Greenberg’s ego, “that the subject matter itself isn’t all that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only we way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit everyday for years. Even then it does not work.” (Honesty is refreshing, isn’t it?) “Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff – well, 20 hours or so makes sense.”

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Oh, cool. There really is a “Learn MIT calculus in 5 days” thing out there.
        I hope that is clipped enough to avoid comment limbo.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I think I remember the blog post when Penelope said that kids could catch up in math, but I don’t remember it being about calculus. I think she meant getting all caught up on elementary math in a short amount of time leading to algebra.

          I do have math books all around the house from various levels all the way to the highest calculus. My daughter pulled one of the math books that would take a regular elementary school class a year to go through and she completed it in about 3 weeks.

          I think I have read the excerpt before that one can learn all of elementary math in a matter of months, it’s just that schools compartmentalize everything and teach in steps, for a few minutes a day with the rest of the math hour doing worksheets.

          Is that Sudbury experiment in a book or??

  14. Kris Costello
    Kris Costello says:

    Some interesting articles ideas for your ‘Cellist.’
    There’s a ton of articles out there and probably you’ve read many of them. If you have a kickstarter that explains that you want to be a cellist I will donate. I’m sure other’s will too. The main thing is, keep practicing and playing- the world need you!

  15. Linda
    Linda says:

    Playing cello is a fine hobby. Studying history is a fine thing to do in one’s spare time, without paying $1000 per credit to be forced to read a textbook. Astronaut? Yikes.

    Let’s get real friends. Take a look at all the various trend lines of where life is headed in the West and set your kids up for success. That includes a practical major or trade. They need to know how to grow food in the back yard. They need practical life skills plus an in-demand major or trade. Some social skills would be useful as well….ditch their media.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      …grow food in their backyard and ditch media….


      How about just teaching them how to not make choices out of fear.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I agree with jessica about teaching kids to not make choices based out of fear. We do that by not making parenting choices based out of fear. Our kids helped plant a vegetable garden this year and we also consume media, technology, video games, books, do math for fun, board games, and travel. They also learn how to take care of their bodies in areas such as nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

        It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario that has been presented by Linda. Either you learn to grow food OR you consume media. We do both! :)

        • Heather Sanders
          Heather Sanders says:

          “It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario that has been presented by Linda. Either you learn to grow food OR you consume media. We do both! :)”

          Where is the clapping icon?
          Insert it here.

  16. h
    h says:

    “When your son says he wants to be an astronaut, and he’s already wearing glasses, why do you tell him that he can do it if he works hard?”

    Because working to accomplish the wrong dream is more effective in the long run than flitting from dream to dream without ever taking action.

    Aside from the first sentence, there’s a lot to agree with in this post. This is related to my area of research, and this is what I would do as a parent based on what we know: 1) encourage big dreams and offer material support to act on them, 2) provide or suggest non-parent mentors, 3) don’t focus on content-free achievement (“do good in school”, “get a good job”), 4) be a role model of doing something of genuine value to others or society, 5) provide many models of dream flexibility (i.e., show your kids people who aimed for astronaut and found fulfillment as an air force pilot, physicist or NASA tour guide).

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Excellent point, h. Failing to become an astronaut could look an awful lot like success; the fallbacks are plenty.

      • h
        h says:

        Kids tend to think in terms of obvious well-defined roles when they make their dreams. It wasn’t until grad school that I discovered that training for *x* (astronaut, cellist, lawyer) was actually preparing me for an array of options, many of which were a better fit than x. I don’t think that’s unusual, and it’s why I’m reluctant to get on the “down with grad school” bandwagon, even if grad school is obviously a delay tactic for many people.

        But PT’s point here is really important. Some kids get stuck on one narrow dream and when it falls through they go adrift rather than applying that energy to a different path. I’m not convinced that saying “you’ll never succeed at that” is the right message, but figuring out how to open kids’ eyes to a broader vision of their dream is probably worthwhile.

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          Yes. This is what she is saying, minus the anxieties.

          At first the article bothered me, and I think that’s why. Itseemed to tilt negative. Cant do this, cant do that, cant be this, cant be that..what if it was reversed? Even if kids could be everything, they are limited by what is presented in their lifetimes and the age and time of their generation.

  17. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    I never bullshit or lie to kids, ever.

    I’d be surprised to hear that unschooling parents give the type of responses to the questions Penelope asked at the beginning of her article. If she is saying these are responses given by parents in general, then I would agree these are the wrong responses. For the typical parent, the bigger thing they need to work on is honoring their child’s right to freedom rather than coming up with the appropriate response to these questions.

    If there are unschooling parents out there who respond to these questions this way, they need to reevaluate their reasons for doing so. If my child is expressing interest in becoming an astronaut, I would ask him all about it. I would also do what I could to buy or find the resources that would help him attain this goal. The important part about my child having this goal is value pursuit – which is applicable in all aspects of life.

    I would never think to discourage my child by offering unsolicited advice. Even if he did ask for my advice, who is to say what is actually possible career-wise for my child. Do I know the future? Do I know all of the possible avenues now (or in the future) that might make this goal possible?

    Penelope brought up the idea of “reality check”. But reality is its own reality check. It is through the child’s interaction with reality that they will learn what is possible for them. Parents’ unsolicited input (especially discouragement) can easily cause the child to place too much weight on their parent’s evaluation of themselves. One of the great things about unschooling is that it makes it a lot easier for a child to eventually become an accurate self-evaluator. Do you want your child taking actions because they freely assess and choose them or do you want them taking actions based on what would mom do or say? Are you worried about how they will assess? Then have relevant (non-preachy) discussions about how you make decisions and why. If your method of evaluation is accurate then your child will see this when you are in action or when you talk about the results of some of your decisions.

    For the unschooling parents out there who have mistakenly said to their child, “you can be anything you want,” I sympathize. I think it comes from a good place. You want your child to know they are very capable and you want them to go after their dreams. You know what though, when you first chose to unschool them – ideally, in all aspects of their life – you were already “saying” both of these things.

    ** Side note concerning having it all, which I take to mean being happy and fulfilled in all aspects of your life. It’s all about balancing your values. My best friend, who has completely unschooled his 11 year old daughter since she was 3 (if not earlier), is the CEO of two companies. It takes serious long-term thinking to “have it all”. **

  18. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Your son may not be able to be a professional cellist, but I wonder if he might be able to do stuff like make cello arrangements of music from pop culture, like video game music, and post them onto Youtube. If he’s quite good (especially if he’s quite good for his age), he could amass a healthy following and acquire an audience/fanbase, maybe without necessarily channeling all of his career path energy into becoming a professional cellist.

  19. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Of our three, our oldest did not do college. But, 2 years ago she was the youngest hire at Starbucks in the district. Then, she was the youngest shift manager, and now she is vying for the youngest Assistant Manager position. She wants to work her way up in that company, and she’s done it by making herself indispensable and proving age has nothing to do with capability. She loves her work. Loves the people. She works hard and long and still loves it.

    My middle child wants to be a nurse. She’s a planner. She has the next 6 years of her life planned out. Her plans stress ME out, and I’m a planner, but it makes her feel calm. She has tutors for Math and Science because I am limited in those subjects. She also plays piano and guitar, but she readily admits she’ll not be able to support herself with those things because she is good enough for her enjoyment, but not to make a living.

    My youngest – my son – has said he wants to be an engineer in the Air Force. There are some components of that job that seem to fit with him and others that don’t. So, to test out the water we enrolled him in Civil Air Patrol. Right now, he’s none too thrilled with practicing formation and marching, the redundancy, and many aspects of C.A.P. –things he won’t escape in the military. We want him to get a taste of what it’d be like before he bases a career around it.

    They are all so different in their approach to life that it’s exciting for my husband and I to watch them come into who they are and see how certain careers will match them. It’s also fun to consider what careers may be available in a few years that aren’t here.

  20. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Good lord, what horrible, horrible advice to your son who wants to be a cellist.

    I’m a homeschooler and a musician/singer and I’d never stomp on a kids dreams like that. Seriously, what is wrong with you?

    If he’s not meant to be a professional, he’ll figure it out. In the meantime, please do not kill his dreams like that. Let him take it as far as he can. There are plenty of ‘fallback’ careers in music that earn very respectable incomes. But until it’s time for him to start thinking of putting a roof over his head, there’s no need to give him the ‘reality’ talks. You can say ‘it’s a tough career choice’ and leave it at that. See if he asks questions around that. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he doesn’t care and he wants to be a cellist more than anything in the world. I know you’re someone with strong opinions but you are flat out wrong on this one, sister.

    I feel sorry for your son.

    Good luck.

    • CeeBee
      CeeBee says:

      If you wait until its time to put a roof over his head, you have waited many years too long. As a parent, professionally trained singer, and former voice teacher, I don’t think what she’s doing is horrible. It’s honest. And the fact that she spends so much time allocating her time and resources shows him that she doesn’t flat out think he will never succeed. Horrible advice/parenting is when someone says, “You’ll never be good enough so don’t even try.”

      What Penelope underestimates here is the power of her role in this. Her ability to find (most parents do not know how to identify someone who has exceptional technique AND can teach/coach) and then provide him with that is something the majority of kids will never have. If she can pay for his undergraduate and graduate school expenses so that he doesn’t have to get a 9-5 to pay those bills when they come due, which zaps many people of drive and energy, then his chances are exponentially increased.

      • Rachel
        Rachel says:

        CeeBee, I have the same qualifications as you do and I stand by my comment. What she’s doing is the equivalent of ‘you’ll never be good enough.’ To discourage a child’s dreams at such a young age is unbelievably cruel and unkind. If you’re professionally trained, you should know that there are a myriad of career choices a professionally trained cellist could make and end up with a happy, satisfied life. You don’t have to be 1st chair in New York Philharmonic to be an accomplished, successful musician who can support themselves.

        What is this fear parents have of children not being able to sustain themselves in life? Give your child good life skills and they’ll make wise choices, barring character flaws that get in the way of that. It’s helicoptering, that’s all this is.

        The one thing I don’t think Penelope mentions above is whether or not her son has any talent. Now, if you have a child that clearly has zero talent for an instrument… then I could see giving him/her the hard, cold truth. But especially if there is some talent there… support their dreams, for goodness sake. It’s an ugly world out there, getting uglier by the minute, if children can’t follow their dreams, what will they have left?

        • Amy K.
          Amy K. says:

          “You don’t have to be 1st chair in New York Philharmonic to be an accomplished, successful musician who can support themselves.”

          This is true. I have plenty of friends who are musicians; some make their living that way (gigging, teaching, recording). For some, it’s a nice side gig when the primary job is SAHP.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          In a previous post, Penelope shared a YouTube clip of her son playing cello at a recital and I thought he was amazing with the talent to go very far.

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:

          Mediocrity is unacceptable in competitive fields.

          It’s challenging his desires, not blocking his way. Since he maintains he wants to become a cellist in the face of the challenge, this makes his determination stronger, and keeps him dedicated to his goals. Even if he doesn’t ‘make it’, the perseverance will have become a valuable life skill.

  21. Eric Earle
    Eric Earle says:

    Hi Penelope—
    I love your work and your writing very much. Thank you for all your hard work.
    I think that you are right in your article—kids can’t be everything. But I think they can be almost anything. There have been a lot of great books written (The Talent Code) that point to the idea that talent, for the most part, is a myth. We develop ourselves based on skill. Beethoven started playing music at an early age. So he practiced for so many hours.
    Most people who become successful at things spent 10,000 hours doing it.
    So, for example, I am 23 years old. I fully believe that I could become a professional soccer player if I put in the hours of deliberate practice to achieve it.
    But I don’t find full meaning and fulfillment in that. (It would be fun, but hey.)
    My purpose is to be a writer and mentor. And I’m investing my thousands of ours in those fields.
    Great Post.
    I loved it.
    Your friend,
    Eric Earle

  22. Jami
    Jami says:

    YES! Have you seen Divergent? Children choose appropriate careers or faction at a coming of age ceremony. Faction before blood! People told Hitler he would never be an artist and he got over it. Why lie to your kid and tell them they are beautiful or smart or loved? Ann Coulter for President you can’t be her vice president because you’ll never be President.

  23. Mac
    Mac says:

    Penelope, I’m curious how old your wants-to-be-a-cellist son is. If he’s not yet in middle school, I’m not sure your coaxing him to be “realistic” isn’t doing more harm than good. If he’s older, it’s probably less damaging since teenagers generally value the opinion of his/her peers and teachers more than their parents. But even then I don’t endorse your approach.
    My $0.02: My wife and I try to nudge our children toward relationships with other wise and caring adults along with good friendships with smart and caring peers. Among the many benefits we hope for is that our kids will have more objective voices to provide appropriate reality checks, knowing they can count on us to support them (emotionally, not necessarily financially ;-) in whatever crazy dreams they are chasing.

  24. Greg Prescott
    Greg Prescott says:

    You really do have to do everything you can to get a leg up. It’s important to be realistic with kids instead of telling them everything will fall into place without persistence.

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