Rich or Famous? Teaching Kids the Right and Wrong Reasons for Doing Something

My humble folk band, The Falderals, got a write-up in our neighborhood paper. My son asked if this meant we were now “as famous as Justin Bieber”? Before I could figure out how to reply (because it’s really too close to call), my other son said, “no, probably only about as famous as a minor league baseball player.” So that’s the modern fame continuum for boys: minor league baseball player to Bieber. These days fame can be pretty quantifiable. We can check stats and likes and count “followers.” And our young people know this well. My son was disappointed by the paltry number of hits he got for the YouTube video of him getting his cast off. His grandparents could only watch it so many times. It’s good fun. But there is a danger when fame, recognition, and notoriety become our full measure of success. How can we make sure our kids pursue things they are passionate about, things they love to do, not just activities that will make them famous, well-liked, or go viral? Emily Dickinson can help.

I think about Emily Dickinson a lot. She wrote poetry her entire life with almost no recognition. Presumably, she did it because she enjoyed it, because it was something she found fulfilling, a passion that just came out of her. She edited and rewrote endlessly, until she felt the poems were perfect. Then she tucked them away into a drawer. She is considered one of the greatest American poets, though she doesn’t know this. It’s hard to conceive of a person like Emily today. Today she’d be encouraged to start a website, a YouTube channel, and, God forbid, a blog. She be told to Tweet more and market herself.

In a world obsessed with branding and marketing and media exposure, our kids can get a skewed vision of why you should do something. My students pick visions for their futures based on how they want others to see them, not on what they enjoy. This, we know, is a bad choice. But we all do it. We focus on doing what others will notice, not on doing what we feel called to do.

I struggle with this a lot. I’m in a band, and of course I want people to listen. I prefer writing the songs to performing them, but how else does a song get heard? I also write young adult fiction and run a website where I can monitor every hit. Yikes. It’s very easy to get obsessed with who is reading, listening, and how they’re reacting, instead of just doing what I love to do, like Emily would.

I’m not alone. These days everybody is under the same microscope of “likes” and “followers.” It’s not enough that you have a job and do what you love, what you’re good at. You have to promote yourself and stay connected and compete with peers. Artists can’t just create art; they need to create a brand, find a niche. It’s a reality, (and I’ll be self-promoting in a few more paragraphs).

Even memories are now marketing. We don’t just take pictures to remember something. We take them to post, to brand our lives.

So why should we do what you do? We all know the right answer. Because we enjoy it. We find it meaningful. It makes us feel good. It fits into our long-term goals. It makes the world better. We are passionate about it. We love doing it so much, we’d do it for free and even with nobody watching. But how do we teach this to our children?

1. Get kids involved in many different types of activities, so they get a chance to explore doing different things. It can take a lifetime to figure out where your interests, skills, and passions come together. We had a difficult year trying to get my fourth grader excited about anything. But then, on a whim, he tried making a stop-motion animation movie with his Legos. Something I would have found absolutely tedious he really enjoyed. So it pays to experiment. Check in to see that they are enjoying the actual activity or sport and not the praise and recognition that comes with it. Sometimes we get trapped into doing not what we actually enjoy but what others praise us for doing. Here’s a little activity to help your kids and students think about this: My Mission My Passion Contemplation Activity.

2. Celebrate accomplishments that don’t involve external recognition or praise. Help your kids feel the feelings of accomplishment inside themselves without focusing on gaining a lot of attention. What does it feel like to finish a drawing or weave a basket even when nobody sees it? Is it worth doing, despite that fact that no one was watching? Of course it is. A good exercise for young kids is to have them simply stop and notice how it feels when they complete a project or task. How does it feel to have worked all afternoon on this block castle and now have finished it? Will that go away if it gets destroyed? Or if nobody ever see’s it?

3. Downplay the media driven version of what gets praised. These days every kid wants to create a viral video; some are willing to risk their lives Jackass-style to do it. It’s easy for adults to notice other kids making a big splash on the TV and say things like, you could do that, you should be on TV, you should be famous. I’m guilty of this. Remember by saying this we reinforce the impression that accomplishments are only real when noticed by large audiences. Small audiences are a good thing. No audience is fine, too. If you really love what you’re doing, it shouldn’t matter if one person or a million is watching.

(To find out more about how marketing, Facebook, YouTube, and the world of “liking” affects your kids–and uses them to do their bidding– check out PBS Frontline’s fantastic special  “Generation Like.”)

4. Talk with your children about examples of successful people who do what they enjoy, what they love, what they are passionate about, despite what other people think. We all know examples of great people who were initially laughed at or shunned for doing what they love.

5. Finally, read more Emily Dickinson.


The reason we made the local paper is because over the next two months my band and family will be on a grassroots music tour. We want to prove to ourselves and our kids that you can always keep doing what you love, like Emily Dickinson, no matter what. With one minivan, two guitars, and three kids in tow, we’ll be driving over four thousand miles of this beautiful country, camping, jamming, exploring local hidden gems (and best ice cream stands) while playing as many gigs as we can on our path from St. Paul to DC to Austin to Omaha and home. You can read about it, listen to the music, and see if we’re coming through your area at I’ll be writing about the experience here at Tall Trees Grow Deep. And you can hear us talking/singing about the tour on Radio Heartland. Whew, that’s a lot of self-promotion.


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