On Dreams

Slate had a great article criticizing the Barbie Dreamhouse in Berlin. Buried in the essay was a great quote explaining what’s wrong with encouraging kids to “dream”:

a dream is not the same as a plan or a vision or an aspiration. It is the ultimate in passivity, something visited upon you while you are asleep. Or it’s what a princess does as she gazes out the window and waits for her happy ending. Do we need to telegraph to girls that the be-all and end-all of their young lives is spinning out beautiful mental pictures that have no basis in reality?

I have vivid memories of buying this dream rhetoric wholesale when I was much younger. I honestly thought that through some magical alchemy, dreaming my dreams with a true and pure heart would actually make them come true. I thought I didn’t have to do anything to look beautiful, attract a handsome, kind boyfriend, and live in happy prosperity; these things would simply drop into my lap if I was just the right kind of person and wished on enough stars. It was a nice delusion. The passivity of this stance was actually part of its virtue. It would be wrong or dirty or maybe even slutty to put myself out there and work hard for these things on my own. It would somehow devalue them if they weren’t unearned gifts from the universe. And I had no responsibility for changing things if I wasn’t satisfied. I had a vague promise of eventual happiness and nothing to do to make it happen. It made for a contented, empty, passionless, childish existence. I’m endlessly glad I grew out of this phase, but I’m embarrassed to say exactly how long it took.

I think this is a gendered thing. In general, girls are taught these messages more frequently than boys are. (Although I do see some of my male students express equally deluded hopes of becoming rappers and NBA stars, despite doing zero work toward those goals.) I can trace them directly back to Disney movies and sweet sentiments like “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” It’s nice to encourage kids to aim for big goals, but the emphasis needs to be on them doing the work and making it happen for themselves, instead of on passively wishing. Instead of dreaming, they should be planning, and putting those plans into motion.

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