When Lauren Petrullo was about 9 years old, she told her dad that, when she grew up, she wanted to be so rich that she could “buy a boyfriend.” She figured this would be necessary, because she would be “too busy with my successful career” for dating. Petrullo imagined that she and her boyfriend — who she wanted to be tall and big-hearted, like her 6’8” stay-at-home dad — would live at Disney World together, in a house with princess beds and rooms for all her friends to stay in when they visited, which would happen often thanks to the private jet in her driveway, “so that I could fly them out.”
Far-fetched? Maybe. But research has shown that this kind of childhood daydreaming about the future is common, and can have an impact on kids into adulthood, says Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, a humanistic psychologist, founder of the Center for the Science of Human Potential, and host of The Psychology Podcast. Whether that impact is positive or negative depends a lot on how people interpret those hopes and fantasies. Our dreams can either haunt us, or help us navigate as we travel down the road from adolescence to adulthood, bobbing and weaving around obstacles along the way.
Daydreaming vividly about could-be achievements allows young people to try out different identities: Will I be an astronaut? A politician? An oceanographer? A parent? Dr. Kaufman’s research has shown that this kind of “positive constructive daydreaming” (a term coined in the 1960s by psychologist Jerome L. Singer) can help kids flex their creativity, practice planning for their futures, and engage in healthy self-reflection. It can also encourage people to cultivate hope — exactly the thing that often motivates us to actually take action to achieve our dreams, says Valerie Maholmes, PhD, author of Fostering Resilience and Well-Being in Children and Families in Poverty: Why Hope Still Matters. “[We’re all able] to see beyond our current circumstance, but it’s hope that makes us do something about it — along with having mentors, a supportive environment, and resources to help you get where you want to go,” she says.
When kids’ dreams are encouraged, it increases their ability to believe they can succeed, adds Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. “The more self-efficacy they have, the more they feel they can make a decision or take action that will result in positive change and the more likely they are to have bigger dreams that they can achieve,” Lahey says.
Of course, kids’ fantasies about their future aren’t necessarily the same as goals that are meant to be accomplished. “What really matters for adult success and happiness is not what you dream about, but more the process of how you dream,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD, professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at USC. She says daydreams give kids a chance to practice “constructive internal reflection,” or the process of thinking critically about what they want their future values to be and represent. Daydreaming about their adult life allows children to discover their “values-driven goals,” which, Dr. Immordino-Yang explains, can answer the question: “What kind of person do you want to be, no matter what opportunities you have?”
When Keesha Clark was young, for example, the now-34-year-old social worker and founder of Born Noir Nails had a fairly common career-related dream: She wanted to be president. Lying on her bed in her childhood home in Brooklyn, NY, Clark’s fantasies focused not only on what her life would look like, but also on what she’d be able to do with the job. “There I was, the first Black woman president sitting in the Oval Office, answering calls, signing policies, creating world peace,” she remembers. “I envisioned images of my heroes — MLK, Shirley Chisholm, and Angela Davis — proudly perched along the walls, and the Spice Girls jamming in the background as I signed the groundbreaking legislation.” Clark wanted to make real changes, and dreamt “of the world I wished to see.” Although Clark never got to become president, she still found ways to make a difference. She’s been extremely involved in Black Lives Matter, as an organizer and educator. She's a leader in her community, acting as an advocate for Black maternal health and as a therapist. “It’s fulfilling work, and although my dreams now don’t look the same as they did, I believe my values have stayed the same,” Clark says. “I don’t want to be president now, but I’ve found that there are other ways to make change.”
Children’s imaginations, glorious and wandering as they may be, don’t take flight without context; like everything else, they are susceptible to outside influence. This can be a good thing; Petrullo says that her parents “were always encouraging me to think more expansively,” meeting even her most over-the-top fantasies with the question, “Is that all you want?” You should always think bigger, her parents would say — if you order a burger, don’t just settle for adding a slice of cheese. Ask yourself if you want to add avocado or sweet potato fries. Petrullo and her mom still remind each other to “add avocado” to this day when discussing their hopes and dreams, and how important it is to figure out what you really want and then ask for it. This type of positive motivation — to think beyond the moment at hand, and believe in all the possibilities to come — helped Petrullo even before she reached adulthood. Her father — a retired veteran and the “emotional epicenter” of her family — died when she was 13. Petrullo believes her parents’ early encouragement was to thank for her resilience and tenacity during the difficult years that followed. The family struggled financially; at one point in high school, Petrullo worked three jobs to help make sure her youngest brother had all the toys he wanted on Christmas, just as her parents had been able to provide before her father’s death. “Then, it wasn’t that I thought, No, I can’t achieve all the big dreams I have, but the ‘how I would achieve them’ part changed, and the ‘why’ mattered more. Why do I want this and what will it mean for my family?” she explains.
Not every child is given validation to dream big, though. Many times, parents, teachers, and caregivers can have a detrimental effect on kids’ aspirations for themselves. One common way this happens is when adults project their own dreams onto a child, says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT, the co-owner of BFF Therapy and an anti-racism business consultant. “If you say, ‘Here’s your one talent: You’re a physical person and you’ll be good at football, so we’re going to be proud of you for physical things,’ that’s different from letting kids have many dreams,” she says. Some adults may also give “reality-checks” to kids’ dreams, like, “Don’t be a teacher, you won’t make enough money.” Or, “You can’t be the next Taylor Swift, you’re tone deaf.”
It’s not just the people in their lives who influence children’s dreams. “Kids are impacted by the media they get exposed to,” DeGeare says. Watching a diverse group of people in the media, in government, and in their lives working various jobs is key to unlocking kids' abilities to dream big. Clark remembers when she was 6 years old, she was handed a large, plastic ruler in school that had all the former presidents’ names and faces on it. “I remember seeing that it was all white men,” she says. She found this discouraging, but still believed she could be the first Black woman to get her face on the ruler. She largely credits her ability to believe in herself to her parents, who not only exposed her to videos and books that showed Black role models such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Mary McLeod Bethune, but also didn’t sugarcoat the hardships they went through as Black people in America. “I hated the fact that I was aware that people would not like me because of the color of my skin,” she says. “That was so heartbreaking to me and I wanted to change it. My idea at the time was that if I was president, I could make the change.”
Kids who aren’t exposed to diversity can have a harder time seeing a big and hopeful future for themselves. We know that institutions that are steeped in bigotry can have a detrimental effect on our lives, and that extends to our aspirations, goals, and fantasies. “Our dreams get so commercially influenced by pop culture and capitalism, even from a young age,” says DeGeare. In the U.S., what “success” looks like has largely been defined by capitalist ideals, DeGeare adds, something that has led to people having a very narrow idea of what constitutes adulthood: the corner office, the designer clothes, the luxury car, the marriage-plus-two-kids-by-30. A particular vision of success can also be re-affirmed and re-taught through TV shows, movies, and other media that depict big houses with chandeliers in every room and casual rides on private jets. “People need to look back and ask, ‘Was that really your dream, or was it based on something MTV Cribs told you that you should want to have?” DeGeare says.
We’re inundated with messages that tell us to equate material goods and patriarchal, privileged markers with feelings such as accomplishment, happiness, security, and even love, DeGeare says. And, these messages can limit kids’ dreams just as much as individuals’ reproval can — if not more. And blindly trying to achieve dreams like this as an adult can lead to burnout and regret. “If someone believes they’ll only be a good father if they can provide this monetary thing for their family, either because their father was able to or because they weren’t and they wanted it based on the models they saw in media, it can be a tricky thing to work through,” DeGeare says. “If my goodness is tied to what I can afford, it can be tied to grief and disappointment.”
Childhood ambitions and fantasies can be viewed as tools to help young people reflect on their values and establish their sense of self. But, just as we grow out of our beloved childhood pajamas and eventually stop reading our favorite picture books, our dreams do — and often should — change, grow, and even fall apart over time. That’s only natural, and a function of organic evolution. But the inverse is also true: The dreams that are unhealthily implanted and reinforced can be much harder to release, even though (and perhaps especially because) they’re disconnected from and sometimes damaging to our true principles. Holding onto these types of dreams can have long-lasting, sometimes devastating effects: DeGeare says that many of her clients feel bad about certain childhood dreams they never achieved, like the married-with-kids-by-30 timeline, for instance, and experience depression, anxiety, or feelings of failure when they deviate from that goal.
As a child in Dubai, Ferwa Chevel Khalfan pictured herself growing up and moving to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, marrying the perfect guy at 24, having a posh penthouse like the ones she’d seen on Gossip Girl, and, ultimately, making Forbes’ “30 under 30” list. Now, at 28, she sees how these visions of success were too “materialistic.”
“I had very rigid ideas about when I should get married and have kids and hit certain career milestones,” Chevel Khalfan says. She moved to New York in her early 20s, but soon after started to get down on herself. She was struggling in her relationship, she didn’t have the apartment, and time was ticking and she was nowhere near the Forbes list. “My life wasn’t following the timeline I’d set for myself, and I didn’t know how to deal with that,” she remembers. “I shut down and got depressed. I knew what I could do to help myself, but I was unmotivated to actually do it. I couldn’t afford therapy. I felt like I’d crashed and burned.”
Eventually, Chevel Khalfan got the mental health help she needed, an experience that later inspired her to start a business that aimed to help kids work on resilience and mental wellbeing — but it took a lot of work. The thing that helped her the most was to focus on what she had achieved, rather than what she hadn’t. This let her detangle her core values (like a strong work ethic) from material achievements (a spot on the “30 under 30” list). Instead, she identified the ways in which she was fulfilling her values (such as starting her business and working to improve her relationship), which in turn helped loosen her grip on an old dream that was weighing her down. Now, Chevel Khalfan says, “Life doesn't really happen the way you plan it, but is what happens as you're planning.”
Children seem to intuitively understand what adults forget, which is that the content of their dreams matters only a little, but the act of thinking big allows us to understand what really matters to us. We can and should look behind the material face of our dreams and identify the things we consider precious — and those which we’ve been taught should be precious, but which might not actually matter much to us in the end.
Still, every now and then, some or all of a person’s pure, deeply desired childhood dream will come true. When it does, it doesn’t mean they’ve reached the mountain top of success, but it can be meaningful nonetheless.
Petrullo, for instance, didn’t end up living in Disney World, but she did go on to work for Walt Disney Company — and in Cinderella’s Castle, no less. But her path to getting there was different from what she’d once pictured: The first time she applied for the job, she got rejected. Even so, she believes she ended up at her dream job at the right time, because that’s how she met her future husband. She says he’s better than any boyfriend she’d imagined “buying” when she was younger. He’s tall, he’s big-hearted, and, like her father, he always encourages her to think big and add avocado.