"I want to be Prime Minister!" announced one of my children over breakfast yesterday.
"Great idea!" I replied. "And what will you do?" There then followed a list of reforms that were planned, some more practical than others. Of course we both know that she is highly unlikely to take office any time soon and so the conversation was a kind of game.
But what happens when they really want to do something that's either highly unlikely or actually beyond them? Should I encourage them to follow their dreams or manage their expectations?
This is something that I think is becoming warped for all kinds of reasons. You only have to watch the X Factor auditions to know that something has gone wrong. I know it makes good telly to have the world's most tuneless singer caterwaul on national television only to be knocked back by the sniggering panel. Invariably the dumped performer makes a fuss, issuing threats to Simon Cowell and his ilk that they have missed the next big thing. What interests me is why did they think they had what it takes in the first place? Did no one take them on one side and point out the glaring truth about their lack of talent?
Historically, we British have always had a tendency to underplay ourselves. We didn't like to make a fuss, show off or get ideas above our station. Everyone knew their place and stayed there. By contrast, the first time I went to America I was immediately struck by how different the attitude was. If you wanted it and worked hard it could be yours. The only thing holding you back was you and all that. And lots of that attitude seems to be finding its way over here. Our previously inflexible class system is breaking down and there is far more social mobility than there used to be. Everyone is encouraged to do what they want and not be held back by old fashioned and preconceived ideas.
And all this is good. It's great in fact. Until you start telling everyone that they can achieve anything. Obviously there is our national obsession with celebrity but I don't just mean that. What if you have a child who loves animals? He is encouraged by his parents to believe that he can be a vet notwithstanding that his academic record will preclude him from achieving the necessary grades. Is being honest with him about what his future holds stifling his ambition or ensuring that his life is not blighted by disappointment?
The current system of grading students doesn't help. Previously, the grades would be distributed by percentage with the top 10% getting As. This meant that it was clear to all, not least the students themselves, where they might best pitch their ambitions. Is it any wonder that with so many students obtaining the top grades they all believe they can take on anything? But it's not true. We are selling them a lie. Of course there will be the odd one who under achieved and can outreach what seems to be their lot in life. But how many straight A students at GCSE have what it takes to study to be a doctor? And how would they know?
So what do I do? Do I let my child believe they will be a ballet dancer or a prime minister or a brain surgeon and hope that they are not too disappointed when they work out that it's not going to happen? Or should I manage their expectations towards something that is realistically within their grasp and have them wonder what if?