Image by Bruno Cordioli/Flickr*
“What would you like to do when you grow up, kids?” I asked our children the other day. Work as a basketball player, a vet, a detective, a teacher, and a lolly shop owner were answers I got back from the older three.
“I want to be an adult when I grow up,” four-year old Jacob informed me after some thought.
I like finding out what they are interested in doing when they’re older because it tells me what and who they look up to. But I won’t be telling my children that they can do whatever they want in life and that they can be whomever they want to be.
We’ve all heard someone say enthusiastically to a child, teenager, or young adult, “You can be whatever you want to be”. I might have said it myself.
It’s a lovely idea. It sounds inspiring and motivational and full of confidence in the child in whom we may have invested lots of time, love, commitment, expertise, and energy.
It’s a lovely idea, but it simply isn’t true. A person might become what they had hoped to be as a child or even as young adult, but it isn’t a given.
There are limits of many kinds which may prevent them. And to give them the impression from their youth that there aren’t any serious limits on what they may do with their lives could be cruel. It could be setting them up for frustration and possible depression later on if they don’t have great resilience to go along with their aspirations.
Even if we do our best to instil resilience to go along with any great aspirations our children may have, then we still do not know if achieving those aspirations will make our children truly happy.
How do we know that by following our hearts’ desire we will end up happy and also do the right thing by others and by our Father in heaven?
I tell our children that they will be most happy if they try to understand what God wants them to do, and that they won’t really be able to start figuring that out until they are much older. But they can start preparing now by praying and getting to know Jesus better.
In the meantime they can dream about being a vet, a professional basketball player, or a superhero as much as they like. We will encourage their dreams and also help them develop resilience, because they will need both, but we won’t assure them that they can be whatever they want.
To tell them that is akin to saying they will be able to do, and have, whatever they will want in life. We simply don’t believe that is either true or morally desirable. We don’t believe it’s Christian. And it reinforces reliance on our limited self-centred perspective rather than on God’s unlimited perspective.
What’s important and what will ensure their lasting happiness, in this life and for eternity, is to find out what’s God’s will for them and following it. It may mean having one dedicated profession, or no job at all, or multiple careers. It may mean riches or poverty, activity or contemplation, pleasure or painfulness, romantic love or loneliness, or all of these at different times and in different ways.
Obviously they will need to decide at some point about their vocation in life, whether to marry and whom to marry, or whether to enter religious life.
But as their parents, our hope is that they will not set their hearts on being whomever they want to be, but on being who God wants them to be, and that in living in God’s will they will know great freedom and happiness in life despite their circumstances.
St Paul wrote of growing into physical and spiritual adulthood as a putting away of childish things. That also means attachment to material things, including our profession or our lifestyle (or hoped-for profession or lifestyle). It means coming to rely much more heavily on God for our life satisfaction. This is a ‘growing up’ that Lent helps us to do.
I’m glad Jacob wants to be an adult when he grows up. In the spiritual sense, so do I!
My column originally published in The Catholic Weekly.