Dreaming big while they’re small

Sofia reading Dream Big Little Pig

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we’re thinking about dreams. The other day, Sofia and I were reading Kristi Yamaguchi’s “Dream Big, Little Pig.” Have you read it with your little one? In the book, Poppy the Pig want to be a star. She tries different things to try to figure out how she can shine. Her initial attempts at modeling, singing, and dancing are met with disappointment and some fairly harsh words from teachers and judges. But, with her family and best friend encouraging her to keep dreaming, she finally finds a hobby she loves and that inspires others.

The book reminded me of something my Dad and I talked about when Sofia was just born. Whether it was postpartum hormones or just a natural reaction to suddenly finding yourself responsible for another human being, I had these awful moments of sheer panic at the million things that could possibly go wrong in my daughter’s life. I asked my Dad how he handled this awesome (using the first dictionary definition here) task of helping three children find that overlap between passion and talent. What he said really stuck with me, and relieved a lot of my anxiety.

Watch for early signs

One of my earliest memories is taking a stack of books about a foot tall and trying to carry them down the stairs so I could read them out in my grandmother’s garden while everyone else took their afternoon siesta. I wasn’t a big one for naps. Even though I couldn’t actually read the words on the page, I loved looking at the pictures and making up my own stories and songs based on them. According to my mom and sister, I never failed to entertain myself even without actual toys around. I could take a piece of tissue paper and a bolt that came off a piece of furniture and turn them into a princess and knight fleeing from an evil villain. My sister, on the other hand, loved rearranging dollhouse furniture. She wasn’t as interested in what the dolls were doing as she was in making their living spaces look like something out of Architectural Digest. Everything had to be just so.

My dad said he and my mom took note of these predispositions and encouraged them. If I wanted notebooks or pads of paper to write down snatches of songs, poems, or stories I came up with, they were readily available. I have stacks of them still in my parents’ home and enjoy reading what my younger self was dreaming up.

These days, I find my daughter doing much of the same thing I did. When playing by herself, she makes up songs to go with her dolls’ current storyline. At one point she seemed to be composing a libretto for a “Frozen” opera. Even her finger paintings have elaborate stories behind them. It’s what I love about giving her unstructured free time, just seeing what she comes up with. Will she aspire to be a writer like her mother? Time will tell.

Cast a wide net

When I turned three or four, my parents started enrolling me in different activities. In the summer, I joined my cousins for arts and crafts every afternoon. Around that time I also started piano and ballet lessons, following where my sister was already excelling. Throughout the years, I went through several art classes (watercolor, still life, pastels, oil painting, etc.), summer theaters, children’s choirs, speech classes … We did a lot, but it never seemed like we were over-scheduled. My dad said this was their way of seeing not just where our interests lay, but where our natural abilities could take us.

Sofia has been going to her dance class every weekend for over a year now. She’s got two recitals under her belt and it’s been wonderful to see what dance has done for her self-esteem. She’s watched Carissa’s kids practice on their violins and now pretends to play using two of her magic wands as violin and bow. She’s also mentioned wanting to learn karate like her older cousin, Jake. We’re happy that she’s interested in so many things. Now to figure out how to do them all!

Nurture the talent, but instill the discipline

As we grew older and our schoolwork grew more difficult and time-consuming, my sister and I were given the choice of giving up piano or ballet. We both chose to give up ballet—me because of my childhood asthma, and my sister because she truly didn’t enjoy the classes or the teachers. This only meant was that piano was to be taken even more seriously. We practiced for a half hour to an hour after dinner every day. My sister has a greater aptitude for the piano than I do. People still remember her recitals, and her pieces were always more challenging and complex than mine. However, like it or not, I had to go to piano lessons once a week and practice every night. I remember wondering why my parents wanted me to continue though it was clearly not my forte.

But reading notes and getting through a concerto were just a part of what my parents wanted me to learn. They wanted me to learn that developing a skill takes time and perseverance. That even the things you are passionate about can sometimes feel like a chore. The discipline of sitting down on that piano bench day in and day out, and playing a flubbed section seven times until muscle memory took over, were more important than whether I was actually able to get into Juilliard. A good part of success is simply showing up.

There’s always that tipping point when a child either loses interest in something or feels discouraged when things aren’t going smoothly. What’s a parent to do? Do you tell them it’s okay, you gave it a try and we’ll move on to something else? Or do you ask them to hang on a bit longer? I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they wish they had stuck with whatever instrument they felt forced to play when they were younger.

There are days when Sofia will get to her dance class and not want to go in, or stand in the corner refusing to join the other girls. Those days make me wonder whether we should stop her classes altogether. But I see how her face lights up when she shows off her new tap or hip hop steps to her grandparents, and that she loves to get up and dance for every jingle and piece of music playing in the background and I know it’s not time to give up yet. As long as that spark is there, it’s worth pursuing.

I can’t wait to see what my little ones’ interests are, or what they will be capable of doing. I dream big things for them, and hope that I too can find that precious intersection of vocation and avocation, purpose and joy.

How are you dreaming big for your kids? How do you encourage them to do the same?  

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