I Refuse To Bullsh*t My Kids By Telling Them They Can Do 'Anything'

by Heather Siegel
skynesher / iStock

My daughter taps the microphone. “You watching?” she asks.

“I’m watching.” I take a seat on the couch near our Goldendoodle, the two of us held captive as Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” loads into the karaoke app.

For the third time.

My middle-grader shifts and smiles, feeling the excitement of anticipation as the intro loads, and I’ll admit it — for that briefest of moments — I allow myself to believe as much as she does.

Maybe she can sing it well this time, and who knows, one day, with enough hard work and practice, just maybe she will become the celebrity singer she’s hoping above all hope to become.

She delivers the first line. My ears stiffen. The dog changes position at my feet.

The chorus reaches a crescendo. The dog shimmies up and walks out of the room.

And my daughter? The beautiful, intelligent, funny, gentle, smart, capable love of my life? She gives it all she has, flat notes and all.

“Was I good?” she pants, red-faced and breathless.

It’s easier to lie. I’ve lied before.

“Mom do you like this painting?”

“Like? I love it. “

“Mom aren’t those leaves cool?”

“Wow, those are the coolest leaves I’ve ever seen.”

Lying can instill confidence in your kids. Lying can be a prerequisite for parenting.

Lying can also be a disservice.

One needs only to watch any past season of American Idol — and see those countless delusional kids auditioning — to know that, at least sometimes, leveling with kids is also important.

This seems like one of those times. My daughter is not standing before me singing for fun. She is singing in earnest, as part of her training and practice to audition for Broadway.

Aware that I am her mirror, and her inner voice, I choose my words carefully:

“It was pretty good.”

She eyes me. “Good enough to audition for The Voice?”

“I think you have to be 13 or older for that, no?” Even if that’s not true, I’m using it to wiggle out of this trap.

“You know what I mean. Good enough to be a celebrity?”

And there it is.

“Well,” I say, trying for a nonchalant tone, “everyone has a unique talent. And while you’re singing is good, it may not be your unique talent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy it.”

“So you’re saying it was horrible.”

Her intelligence may end up being her unique talent.

“No. I’m saying that everyone is exceptional at different things. And to make it as a singer, you have to be exceptional at singing.”

“Do you think if I get lessons, I can be exceptional?”

“Maybe,” I say, wanting to believe again. I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I know about putting in the 10,000 hours of mastery.

Long ago, when we went to Mommy and Me music classes together, the teacher there, a hippie woman straight out of the 1960s show Magic Garden gave me a similar opinion on the matter. After working 20 or so years with young children, her takeaway was that no child is born with a good or bad voice, that it’s all about repeated exposure to music. She would likely agree with Gladwell that the notion of a prodigy is faulty, that the people whom we call talented have actually been working long and hard at their crafts.

And yet, even if this is true — that we can truly become whatever we want to become if we put in the time and practice — even if we all have a little Mozart in us (he supposedly put in is 10,000 hours by the time he wrote his first composition as a teenager) or the determination of an Olympian “Eddie the Eagle,” do we really not need some fundamental and measurable talent?

More, if I encourage mediocrity, in the hopes it one day yields “exceptional,” aren’t I discouraging my kid from pursuing the things that come naturally to her, so that she can be über-exceptional at one particular thing?

I loved writing in my teens and 20s, and I was lousy at it. The process was exhausting and intolerable at times, and yet I kept at it, putting in my 10,000 hours for years and years — without even the encouragement of others. I’m decent at it now. But I am equally happy that I pursued other creative endeavors along the way that offered me a livelihood — that paid for my writing time.

And that suddenly seems like the answer on this karaoke afternoon. To nurture her singing as a hobby in the background. To let it bloom over time on its own. If she is truly serious, she will keep at it, the way I kept at it. She will sing along to the radio and perform living room shows, and I will give her fair and loving mock-judge scores. But to push this into the forefront now, and run out and get voice lessons, will be to neglect all those other things she excels in.

Plus, there is the elephant in the room — the why of it all.

“Let me ask you a question.” I pick fuzz from a couch pillow. “Why do you want to become a celebrity?”

She shrugs. “Because everyone knows you.”

“And for what? Singing? Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone knew you for something more important? Something that made a difference in the world. Like curing diseases? Or just helping people?

“I can do all that when I become a celebrity.”


“Here, let me sing it one more time, and you can give me your honest opinion…”

I lean back to listen. To my surprise, she’s not as flat as last go-around.