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288 pages
Aug 2006
Howard Books

Pinocchio Parenting: 21 Outrageous Lies We Tell Our Kids

by Chuck Borsellino

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Chapter 1


You Can Be Anything You Want to Be

Debbie Borsellino, age seven

Business was brisk. The sign in the window said it all: "We'll make you whoever you want to be." Outside, the line was long; inside, the options were limitless: supermodel, Supreme Court justice, or Sleeping Beauty. The process was painless: make your selection, pay your fee, and live the dream. Excitement filled the air as lives were converted from plumber to president, from window washer to Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, the transformations were temporary. The sign over the door read Rick's Halloween Costumes. The fine print on the receipt read "All costumes must be returned by Tuesday."

When I was growing up, Halloween was an opportunity to suspend the realities of life and become anybody I wanted to be . . . at least for one night. It was about more than trading costumes for candy; it was about trading fact for fantasy. Even if it only lasted a day, it was unforgettable!

You don't have to be a Harvard-trained psychologist to realize that costume choices say a lot about a person's dreams and desires. When I was eight, I was a black bear. At nine I was one of the Beatles. By eleven I was a pirate, fully equipped with eye patch, hand hook, sword, pistol, and Mace (just in case). That was the year my parents took note of my gradual decline from black bear to Blackbeard. That was also the year they began to pray for me -- I'm talking on your knees, hands clasped, eyes closed, "We need a miracle" kind of prayer. Fasting was soon to follow!

Not long after that, Halloween changed. Halloween was "for kids," and dressing up was for the innocent or the immature. Nevertheless, one Halloween message survived long after the costumes were tucked away in the hallway closet: "You can be anything you want to be." All I had to do was dream it and then become it.

OK, then, I want to be Brad Pitt! That's when I noticed that noses began to grow.

Jennifer's parents didn't mean for it to happen, but their noses were growing too. Jennifer was barely out of diapers when she was told to dream beyond her limits. Not just to do something significant with her life . . . but something supernatural. Her well-intentioned parents told her that she was destined for distinction. They said she could be anything she wanted to be, and Jennifer believed them. That's when five-year-old Jennifer surveyed the landscape of possibilities and made a decision. While watching a football game one Sunday afternoon with her dad, Jennifer decided to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Why not?

Throughout her early years Jennifer's parents enrolled her in jazz and gymnastics classes, followed by two years of dance classes. She was told that she had "potential," but on the floor there was little evidence. In the seventh grade Jennifer began sixteen months of cheerleading lessons at Champion Cheer. Then it was time to fulfill her destiny and begin her march to Cowboys Stadium by first becoming a high-school cheerleader.

Easier said than done.

Jennifer was dismissed during the first round of competition in the ninth grade. Her lessons continued. She made it to the second round in the tenth grade, when the judges said, "Try again next year." Disappointed but still dreaming, she made her way back to cheer school.

Finally, it was time to shine or get off the stage. Jennifer tried out one more time in the eleventh grade. Unfortunately, the results were the same. Apparently, her five-foot-eight, 134-pound frame was her enemy -- not her ally. Jennifer's ankles couldn't handle the impact of landing her round-off back handsprings. Braces increased her support, ice decreased her swelling . . . but nothing provided a solution. Her heart was broken, her dream was shattered, and her belief in the "dream it and do it" theory was crushed.

Getting Wise to the Lies

During his nationally televised presidential nomination speech in 1996, Bob Dole stated that 74 percent of all Americans believe that with hard work, "you can be anything you want to be." He said it; we believe it. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the facts. Let's check the fine print:

It may be conceivably true . . . after all, 74 percent believe it.

It may be partially true . . . dreams do begin with desire.

It may be relatively true . . . it's easier to achieve your dreams in America than anywhere else.

But it's not absolutely true . . . even though that's the way we tell it.

It's a belief that's fashionable, but not factual. Whether we like it or not, birds don't swim, fish don't fly, and basketball superstars don't make baseball players, even when their name is Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan had a lifelong desire to play major-league baseball. With his basketball achievements behind him, his baseball aspirations before him, and his athletic abilities within him, he stepped into the batter's box -- and found out during the next two agonizing years that he couldn't hit a curve ball. The Chicago Bulls were delighted; Michael gave up baseball, returned to basketball, and led them to another NBA World Championship.

Someone like Marcus Buckingham could have saved him a lot of trouble. In his best-selling book Now, Discover Your Strengths, Buckingham challenges the notion that anyone can learn to be anything he or she wants to be. He asserts that one of the most significant variables that propels a person from average to awesome is neither skill nor knowledge, but talent. Skill and knowledge can be developed, but talent is unique, enduring, and resistant to change. According to Buckingham, teaching kids that they can be anything they want to be minimizes their individuality and suggests that each child is merely a blank sheet of paper. One page just like the other 499 in the pack of 500. A piece of copy paper for the printer rather than an individually cut diamond for the jeweler.

Arthur Miller puts it this way in his book Why You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be: education may help develop your mind, the church may help define your calling, motivation may help drive your dream, and the workplace may help direct your skills; but ultimately, success is based more on your unique abilities than your personal desires. After all, if anybody can be anything, then the only difference between a nurse and a neurosurgeon is personal choice (and their paychecks).

Recently I had the opportunity to sit with a highly skilled cardiologist. Not in an operating room, but in a television studio. Not between surgeries, but between stories. Max Lucado is an author who can touch the human heart with a word better than a heart surgeon can with a scalpel. He's a publishing phenomenon with more than forty million books in print. He can make a story come to life better than Broadway. Maybe that's why Reader's Digest declared him "Best Preacher in America." For fifteen years I knew Max from a distance, as I devoured most of his manuscripts. During the past five years I've gotten to know the person behind the pen, as I've interviewed him several times in the studio. The first fifteen years were like hamburger; the last five have been like filet.

The focus of our recent interview was his book called Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot. In it Max comes to the same conclusion others have: you simply cannot be anything you want to be. That you can is a lie that trickles into many a preacher's teaching. But as Max points out, God created each person to be "you-nique." To one he gave an eye for organization, to another an ear for music, and to another a mind that understands quantum physics. Would Beethoven have made a better chemist than composer? Could you imagine Picasso as an accomplished accountant? The numbers just wouldn't have lined up -- literally! Lucado asks, "Can an acorn become a rose, a whale fly like a bird, or lead become gold?"

The Bible asks a similar question: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?" (Jeremiah 13:23).


Believing a lie is the first step toward living it. Remember, our behaviors are driven by our beliefs. The fact is, following this particular lie will lead our kids down the path to personal disappointment, causing them to question both the message and the messenger. We want to motivate our kids to dream big and reach for their goals, but this tale goes over the line.


You may not be able to be anything you want to be in life, but you can do the most you can with what you have and do it in a way nobody has ever seen before.

My son isn't a superstar; my daughter isn't a supermodel . . . and I'm no closer to being Brad Pitt. For years my sister wanted to be Wonder Woman, but the tights never fit. Clearly, we can't be anything we want to be in life, despite what many well-intentioned people say. It's time to call this concept a fable, not a fact.

I'm not suggesting that we stop encouraging our children to have big dreams, but let's teach them to dream with their eyes open and their feet on the ground, rather than with their eyes closed and their fingers crossed behind their backs. Let's teach them how to develop the gifts and talents God has given them instead of trying to become something or someone they were never intended to be.

My dad was a welder. He worked at Proctor & Gamble as a welder for most of his life. He was probably the smartest guy I have ever known . . . and he didn't make it past the ninth grade. Times were different when my dad grew up. Destinies were determined by World War I, the Depression, and World War II. Putting food on the table and clothes on our backs was more important to him than academic achievement or self-actualization.

My parent's grew up to obligations; I grew up to options.

I don't remember my parents telling me, "You can be anything you want to be," but I knew kids whose parents did. Instead, my parents told me that God had a dream for my life and that if I lived for him, he'd fulfill that dream. So while my high-school grades were less than stellar, I discovered they were good enough to pry open the door to college. A bachelor's degree led to a master's degree, a master's degree led to a doctoral degree, and that doctoral degree led to another. (The truth is, I'm not that bright; but I did figure out that going to school was a great way to avoid work!)

Today I find myself living the dream I would have never dared to ask for. On many mornings I pinch myself on the way to the television studio. I didn't get here by living my life believing I could be anything I wanted to be. Instead, I got here by living my life for the One who said, "I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).

I offered God kindling; he made a castle and gave me the keys.

As parents we all want the best for our kids. We want them to experience success in life . . . to "live the dream." To this end let me offer a few suggestions:

Resist the Pinocchio pretence of telling your kids they can be anything they want to be. They can't. But don't stop with what you don't tell them; be intentional and proactive in what you do tell them: God has a plan and purpose for their lives. Help them discover and pursue it with everything they've got.

Encourage your kids to do their very best at whatever they try to do. Remind them that they don't have to be the best, just their best. Give them plenty of praise and reward effort, not just outcome.

Encourage your kids to set their goals high. All kids have certain limitations, but that doesn't mean they can't set goals that reach beyond them. Give God a chance to show up and take your kids from "their best" to "his best."

Motivate your children to work hard to accomplish their goals. Talent is a significant factor in goal achievement, but don't discount effort and endurance. If your kids can't outsmart or outskill those around them, they can always outwork them.

Encourage your children to try lots of different things: play in the band, join the soccer team, take an art class, check out the chess club. That's how they'll discover their own unique set of God-given gifts. God has packed our kids' bags with specific talents, gifts, interests, and desires -- all for a purpose. Part of our role as parents is to help them identify and pursue that purpose, not teach them to duplicate someone else's.

When you tell your kids the truth about who they are and what they can become, you're not limiting them. On the contrary, you're teaching them that with God's help, their destination can be better than they ever dreamed -- it's just not likely to include becoming a goldfish. Sorry, Josh!

Oh yeah, remember Jennifer and her dream to cheer? Her parents finally concluded that goals, gifts, and God are what make dreams happen. Jennifer had the goal but not the gift. Maybe God was pointing her in another direction. They encouraged Jennifer to ask God for a new dream -- one that utilized the gifts he had given her.

As a result, as one door closed, another door opened. Just like cheering, this door led to the football field -- but as a member of the marching band. Jennifer had been playing the clarinet since she was fourteen. Her talent was unmistakable; her gift was unquestionable. Both made her position with the band undeniable.

It was her God-given gift, not just her goal, that took Jennifer from the sidelines to centerfield.

The musical talent that Jennifer applied to the marching band marched her to college and beyond. She received a music scholarship to attend Texas Christian University. She is currently a member of the Saint Louis Philharmonic.