My wife and I are standing in the kitchen when my young son Aidan announces the big dream he wants to chase: He wants to be a comedian. His lofty aspirations are our fault, really. We've always encouraged him to trust who he was created to be.
Theologian Frederick Buechner writes, "All of us have the mark of God's thumb upon us. We have the image of God within us. We have a holy place within us that gets messed up in a million ways. But it's there." He explains that our primary purpose is "to let whatever is down in the holy place drift up."
Dreams are part of that divine thumbprint. We are willing to chase them and even suffer for them if necessary. In many cases, we don't choose our dreams; God chooses them for us. He places them in our souls from the beginning, and they drift up from that holy place, over and over again throughout our lives.
Could a comedian be drifting up from that holy place within Aidan? We sort of smile-grimaced at our son's declaration and tried to act enthusiastic. He noticed. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head. Then he said, "I'm also thinking about becoming a teacher." My wife and I immediately lit up over his more realistic career ambition, and judging by his smile-grimace, he noticed.
As parents how do we encourage our children to pursue who God made them to be while also empowering them to be successful in life? There are good reasons for our children to chase their dreams, but there are also at least five not-so-good reasons.
To gain our approval
Most kids want their parents to be proud of them. But if that becomes the filter through which a child identifies her dreams, she will chase things that bring parental approval rather than God's approval, which is what really matters.
If you notice this tendency in a child, create spaces of stillness for him to listen for and identify the passions drifting up from that holy place within him. Then try saying this to your child every night at bedtime: "You are not here to make us proud of you; you are here to be who God made you to be."
To become rich
While many of us have a vested interest in our kids earning enough to not live in our basements forever and hope they do well in their careers, their success in life is not dependent on wealth. Making money is necessary to live, but a child’s sole focus should not be on the money itself. We need to help our children see that success as a Christ-follower comes from practicing our God-given passions until the image of God within us is unmistakable.
Instead of asking our kids what they want to do with their lives or careers, let's ask them why they want to pursue these areas. And if their answer is only to get rich (with a focus on the money alone), let's help them find a better motive, such as joy, passion, sacrifice, kindness or creativity. Use this question to help them awaken their divine DNA.
To be famous
Today's young people are increasingly chasing fame as their dream. They want to become YouTubers more than they want to become doctors. Why? They think fame will solve all of their problems, especially their loneliness problem. Of course, fame never made anyone less lonely. In fact, it often does the opposite.
To challenge the allure of being a celebrity, ask your child this simple question: "What would you want to do with your life, even if it got zero views?" Make a list of the ordinary, everyday things your child would want to do, even if no one noticed. You've just made a list of dreams worth chasing.
To save the world
Today, kids and teens seem passionate about making a difference. We, and our kids, want to change the world and leave it a better place. The problem is, if a child's dream is to save the world, her efforts will likely end in burnout, cynicism or despair. World-saving isn't an individual effort; it's a group project that must be centered on Christ, the hope of the world. And big change doesn't happen in a lifetime; it happens slowly, incrementally, one generation at a time.
Challenge your child by asking, "What would you do if all you had to do was serve the world instead of save it?" Then remind him that if everyone used his passion to serve the world, we would begin to see a big change.
To earn God's favor
This may sound like a worthy goal, but it gets everything backward. What our kids need to know most is this: God has already blessed you, with you. The dreams that are drifting up from that holy place within you are an outward sign of God’s favor in your life. And using the unique personality, talents and skills God has given you allows God to bless the world through you!
Ask your child, "What do you think God made you to do? What are some things you like about yourself?" Use that list as a starting point for a conversation about dreams worth chasing. For example, the characteristic of compassion could fit in the medical field, a counseling role or vocational ministry.
Dreams Worth Chasing
Chasing dreams for the right reasons can be a complicated idea to communicate to our kids. Rather than trying to express it in words, try communicating it through your actions. As parents, we can take inventory of the things we do to make people proud, and find a better motive. We can forfeit a financial opportunity and fame in order to do the things we truly love, balanced with doing what we need to do. And we can stay focused on the fact that we are servants — not saviors — to those around us.
The other day, Aidan told me he's definitely going to be a comedian. I smiled without a grimace this time, because I see what is drifting up from deep within — I see a passion for standing up on high places and telling truth in a way other people can hear. Perhaps he will do that as a comedian. Perhaps he will do that as a teacher. This morning, he did that by standing behind the lectern at our church and reading Scripture.
He's chasing his dream. Where it will lead him, I do not know. I can only pray it will lead him back to that holy place God has placed within him.