Charley Pride was the son of an African American sharecropper in Mississippi. As a young man working alongside his father picking cotton, he mapped out his escape from the sharecropping life – he would play major league baseball and “break all the records” like Jackie Robinson, then become a country music singer. Pride of course did go on to play professional baseball, and became RCA’s bestselling performer since Elvis in the 1970’s.
Fear for Their Future.
Listening to Pride talking about bold dreams in this NPR interview, I was reminded of many childhood conversations I had with my parents, both children of Depression Era poverty. When I mentioned becoming a linguist, an anthropologist, a singer, a writer, an actor, my parents frowned and expressed concern. Even as a young child, I received the well-intentioned message that it might be dangerous to set my sights too high.
I wonder how Charley Pride’s parents reacted to his plans?
A youthful inflation about our talents and prospects can set us up for bitter failure, which is what my parents feared. If we believe that life will magically offer us golden opportunities and we are not prepared to work or make savvy decisions, we might find ourselves unprepared and disappointed. However, such an inflated sense of ourselves and goals is exactly what propels many of us out of our circumstances. It allows us to dream a dream for ourselves that can point us towards greater happiness and fulfillment. It is important to let our children have their big dreams, even while we point them toward practical accomplishments as well.
The imagery in “Jack and the Beanstalk” illustrates the tension between youthful grandiosity that appears foolish to parental eyes, and a sober realism devoid of hope or enthusiasm. Jack lives with his mother who works hard all day because they are poor. Jack, on the other hand, is lazy. He likes to sit around and daydream. All the pair have in the world is a little milk cow, and one day her milk dries up. This is a significant image of emotional poverty – a lack of that which sustains and nourishes, as well as a lack of a nurturing maternal principle. The mother asks Jack to take the cow to market and sell her so at least they will have a little money. On the way to market, Jack meets a strange old man who offers him five colorful magic beans in exchange for the cow. Jack thinks this is a very good deal, and is soon home with the beans, which he proudly shows to his mother. She is furious. Calling him worthless and good for nothing, she discards the beans by throwing them out the window.
Our young children frequently have outsized or fanciful ideas for their future, but teenagers as well may begin hatching plans that strike our parental ears as unrealistic. Hearing their grandiose ambitions may make us anxious. They are too naïve! They don’t have what it takes in terms of talent or persistence! What if they pursue this crazy dream and never get anywhere with it?
If we have such fears, it behooves us to be aware of the part of us that may be a little like Jack’s mother – quick to berate and belittle big dreams. Such impulses can dampen a child’s ambitions, encouraging her to settle for less.
What Do Our Children Need?
On the other hand, there is an important irony in the tale that is instructive. It is, after all, Jack’s mother who in effect plants the beans and gets them growing when she throws them out the window. Sometimes, a parent’s forceful rejection of a child’s dreams can awaken a defiance in the child that propels him or her forward.
Such was the case for Kira, whose father worked in a factory. No one in her family had ever gone to college, but Kira dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Her parents laughed at her and told her she would never amount to anything. Kira was deeply hurt by their rejection of her dreams, and yet on an unconscious level, she took it as a challenge. She won a scholarship to college, and eventually became an aerospace engineer, a career she finds fulfilling.
Kira climbed her beanstalk, which her parents paradoxically helped plant by their lack of support. Someone else in a similar situation might have given up. If we want to see our children achieve the spiritual, emotional, and even material riches that await at the top of the beanstalk, we need to be attuned to ourselves and to them to discern what they most need from us. We also need to admit that their fate is mostly out of our control.
Hearing our children’s big plans can also awaken darker feelings. If our own ambitions were cut down to size by dismissive messages from our parents – or by life itself – we may feel resentful of our children’s bright hopes. If we have even a little bit of such resentment, it can feel satisfying to set our children straight and demand that they hew to a more practical path.
We may feel ashamed if we see that we harbor such feelings towards our child, and yet there is an important opportunity for growth here for us. Becoming aware of such feeling can be a call to focus on unfulfilled dreams and ambitions we may have for ourselves.