Best Parental Advice Ever: “You Cannot Be Anything You Want to Be When You Grow Up”

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I think one of the cruelest things we tell our children is that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. That speech pattern arises from a people who are more defined by radical individualism than the gospel. To tell our children they can do anything they want to do, be anything they want to be, is built upon the assumption that their lives belong to them. Yet, one of the most basic Christian beliefs is our lives belong to God. Life is not something we generate. Life is constantly received as a gift.

What should we tell our kids instead? I think maybe we should teach our children how to listen to their own lives. I tell my boys that they actually cannot be anything they want to be when they grow up – at least not if they plan to live as Christians. Instead they must learn to pay attention to the presence of God as it guides and teaches them who they are meant to be and what they are called to do. Identity and vocation are not options about which we must decide, they are callings that we must discover over time.

Identity and vocation are such central aspects of what parents pass on to their children. That we shape our kids in relation to these questions remains one of the most precious acts of parenthood. Too many parents are molding their children to believe that they are autonomous individuals who can choose anything and everything with regard to how they spend their lives.

The tragic result is that children grow up thinking they can choose, but never know they have been chosen. Children grow up trying to make a life for themselves, instead of receiving life as a gift from God. Children have no sense they they were born into an ongoing story that is much bigger than their fleeting lives, and the only way to give their lives true meaning is to allow themselves to be drawn into the larger story. As Christians we believe this larger story is called gospel, and it is about the redemption of all things through Christ. Our lives will find meaning and purpose only when we receive them as gift, offer them back to God, and commit to the journey of discovering why God has created us and put us in the world in this time and place.

This video is hilarious. There is just enough truth to the premise to make us all a little uncomfortable. It’s kind of scary. Will my kids be brimming with unearned self-confidence, egocentric and convinced that they can do anything?

The best exchange was:

Taylor: “I’m what you would call Twitter Famous.”
Host: “Meaning?”
Taylor: “Not famous.”
Host: “I suppose your self-esteem reflects that?”
Taylor: “No, on the contrary my self-esteem is through the roof because nobody has ever been honest with me about how mediocre I am.”

Empty praise is an illusion which leads to a distorted view of the self. It’s not that self-worth should be strictly tied to performance, but it should at least be tied to reality.

What we should teach our kids is not, “you can be anything,” but rather, “You cannot be anything, because you have to be you.” It’s great to tell your kid, “You have unique gifts, talents, personalities, callings, etc.” But, it must be said in the context of learning that those things are gifts which are meant to be stewarded for the kingdom of God. Uniqueness is not achieved, it is a gift from God. Maybe we should tell our kids, “You cannot be anything! Because you’ve been made for a unique purpose. Your job is to figure out who you are, what you are good at, bad at, passionate about and willing to work for. Then you look to see where God is at work in the world & leverage all that you know about yourself to participate in God’s redemptive project. You are responsible to be who God has called you to be, and to allow God’s kingdom to break into this world through the way you live, and work, and love, and even how you view yourself.”

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • Pat

    I think kids can be taught that they can be anything they want to be as long as it’s grounded in biblical faith in which they understand that God is in control and the anything I want to be has to be something that is God-honoring. Also, that I have to be mindful of being anything for which God gives me the power and ability to be and be gracious about the things that may not work out. Scripture teaches us that we can do all things through Christ which strengthens us as well as it teaches us how to content where we are and that all is vanity. A firm grounding in scripture and faith should go a long way in helping kids to have a healthy perspective and not see failure and loss as the end of the world, but rather as all part of the journey of faith with a God who withholds no good thing.

  • Mark

    The problem with this way of thinking, Tim, is that it’s overly simplistic. It offers no guidance for a child. Telling children to, “not worry about it, God’s got that,” can lead to the similar problems. See that’s what my parents did to me. I’m a musician simply because I’m good at it. And I use that gift at my local church, but if I were to leave it up to my gifts to help me decide what my life was supposed to look like, my family would be destitute, not just the bottom of lower class, like we are now. This line of thinking seems very short-sighted, and quite frankly can be just as damaging as telling your kids that they can be anything. Because see, I dealt with the problem that I was the only kid that i knew who’s parents were telling them that he couldn’t shoot for any star and try. That I could not be anything that I wanted. And my self worth was damaged because of it. So how should one bridge that gargantuan gap betweem supporting your children in what they want to do and what they can do? Honestly, I don’t think there’s an answer. Obviously, going too far either way can be damaging.


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