Why Dreaming Small Is Way Better Than Dreaming Big (A Child’s Wisdom)


Photo Credit: Bigstock (mandygodbehear)

I made my daughter’s dreams come true.

On an ordinary Thursday afternoon, Caitlin and I went to the drug store with her older brother Quinn to pick up a prescription. We had to wait for it and, surprisingly, the waiting wasn’t a total disaster. The kids went to the toy aisle and no one ended up in tears about plastic nonsense I refused to buy them. Then, we went to the candy aisle, and they endured my lecture about diabetes with preternatural patience.

I was so pleased, I bought them each a roll of Mentos.

As I drove home, prescription in hand, they opened the candy in the back seat. Caitlin gently unwrapped hers—first pulling out one Mento, then a second—before breathlessly saying to her brother, “Look, Quinn. The first one was yellow, and the second one is yellow too. It’s my dream come true.”

Conventional wisdom says that kids dream big and adults dream smaller and smaller until they quit dreaming altogether. But what if the opposite is true? What if, when we are young, we actually dream quite small, but as we grow up, our dreams get bigger and more grandiose and more unrealistic? What if that’s why we big people eventually give up on our dreams?

And what if we all started dreaming like a child once again?

Most of the time, our little ones have relatively small, ordinary dreams. They want two yellow Mentos in a row, or they want to become a firefighter or a veterinarian or a schoolteacher. Last November 9th, I told Caitlin she still had a chance to become the first female President of the United States. To which she immediately replied, “I do not want to be President.” I looked at her incredulously and asked why not. She looked back at me even more incredulously and said, “That is way too much work.”

What if kids are the realistic ones, and we adults are the ones lost in fantasy?

Kids who paint paintings don’t want to become Picasso, they just want to become themselves. They don’t need their work hung up in a museum, just on the fridge. Though they may dream of winning the World Series someday, they also dream of winning the next game of kickball in gym class, and they are totally satisfied when they do.

Quinn recently wrote his first book—twenty pages of lined paper filled with little kid scrawl and stapled together down the left margin. He presented it to us proudly. There may have been some copyright issues with one R.L. Stine, but my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Our enjoyment made Quinn’s dreams come true.

Bestseller lists are for adults; kids dream about hugs from mom and dad.

What happens between our small, ordinary childhood dreams and the grandiose dreams of adulthood, which eventually become so big they cave in upon themselves? Shame is what happens. Somewhere along the way, we become ashamed—we begin to believe who we are isn’t good enough—and so we try to prove we’re good enough by doing something that no one can dispute is more than enough. We dream about saving the world. We dream about reaching the top.

We dream about doing it all and having it all, until we dream so big our dreams eventually pop, like an overly ambitious bubble of Big League Chew.

When I was in seventh grade, I wrote an essay about my special place—a small island in the north woods of Wisconsin, owned by my aunt and uncle, and a vacation destination from time to time. When I wrote the essay, my dream for it was small. I hoped my teacher would give me a good grade, and I hoped my aunt and uncle would smile when they read it.

That was three decades ago.

Now, I’ve written my first full-length book, and the voice of shame in me wants me to have extraordinary dreams for it. But I want to dream like my little girl dreams. I want to dream small and ordinary. I want to dream Mentos dreams. I want to be able to say, “Hey, one person was comforted by it, and another person gained clarity from it—my dream come true.” Because, for the little one in me, my dream has already come true:

I get to write, and people get to smile about it.

What does the little one in you dream about? Listen for his or her voice in the backseat of your mind, whispering with awe about what he or she wants. Listen, too, for the voice of shame, blowing up that dream into something unrecognizable and unattainable. Then…

Dare to dream small.

Dare to dream ordinary.

Dare to become your truest you.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


P.S. My new book Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life is available for pre-order. For a limited time, when you order Loveable, you will get a free bonus—The Year of Listening, Loving, and Living—a second full-length book I’ve written as a practical companion to Loveable. You can click here to find out more.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

40 thoughts on “Why Dreaming Small Is Way Better Than Dreaming Big (A Child’s Wisdom)

  1. Live like little children, right? Dream small? I wonder what that could look like for me? (Disclaimer: I think I already know…but it just seems so insignificant. And, yes. The mere thought of it brings more of a tear to my eye than the thought of a big dream. Point taken, Dr. Flanagan. Point taken.)

    • Rebekah, I can so relate to your use of that word “insignificant.” In fact, the title of the third chapter of my book is “The Search for Healing Through Significance.” I imagine that tear in your eye was a symbol of some part of your heart coming home to itself. Don’t forget that moment, cultivate it, okay?

  2. Your daughter is such a smart young lady! 🙂 – I was thinking these days how important it is being that I am learning to find a “work-around” to my dreams and find the ways too to be happy with the new-format. And a couple days ago (2 to be honest), I read the story of Phil, a man with lung cancer who once read about the Camino de Santiago but was very week and undergoing chemo, and clearly could not endure the physical challenge of a 30+days pilgrimage. He instead, re-created the Camino in his backyard, marking arrows in the trees, measuring the distances, then marking a map of the Camino, collecting pictures from the landscapes, the albergues, the churches, etc, and he walked everyday in his backyard day dreaming he was in Spain, passing by these landscapes he knew by pictures, but feeling he was there in his pilgrimage. This way, he was making his dream true but “adapting” it to the challenges of his health. He finished the 500 miles pilgrimage without leaving his backyard, and his dream became true. To the point actually, that he recovered his health some time ago, and he could actually went to Spain to walk it (even with a filming crew who made a film about his story). However, as he said, he was happy before going to Spain actually, he was happy because he completed his pilgrimage that was his dream.
    I feel it is good to acknowledge that as kids, we also have these big dreams about our adult lives, not only small dreams, and it is great to have them as they mark a way we would like to walk towards getting them become true, but if that doesn´t happen, Phil´s story is a good example of what we should try to do: giving them a second thought and see what is possible for us, and “re-calculate” our route and work towards making it true. Then, happiness also will come from this re-designed dream (in the end, we all know that the blue prince is not blue -Thankfully!!!) – Warm hugs. Cris

      • First of all, Cris, please never feel like you have to shorten your messages! I teared up as I was reading Phil’s story and wanted to hear more actually! 🙂 This is such a beautiful example of someone giving themselves permission to dream small–literally, on a small scale–and finding peace there. It’s also a great example of how when we do focus on cultivating our ordinary dreams, extraordinary things so often happen. Thank you, Cris. Keep your long comments coming!

  3. How do you stop fear from crippling your little dream? Fear of failure, or of subsequent dissatisfaction? What if you are discontented with adulthood and feel disconnected with the little one inside? Where do you find release from the death grip of pride? I feel like one of those monkeys they catch with a hollowed coconut and food inside. Too suborn to let go and be free. I have some connection with a jovial part of myself as evident in my user avatar but, even if I let go of adult responsibility I end up binging on cartoons with the kids all day and have nothing to show for it (meaning the time spent didn’t equate to quality time with the children in addition to skipping out on honey-do stuff). I feel confused about how to be grown up and how to connect with the little dreamer inside. An analogy that comes to mind is my life feels like a bad mix tape where I have a few sporadic favorites enough to listen but frustrate myself rewinding and fast forwarding trying to skip the songs I don’t like and not miss the ones I do like. I need to figure out how to remix and play out a life that feels more like an awesome road trip instead of a never ending commute.

    • JC, those questions all resonate so deeply with me. I can tell you that you’re not alone, because I’ve asked those questions myself, and so many of my clients have asked them of me that I finally decided I need to share my observations and answers. I swear this isn’t a plug for my book, but those are exactly the kinds of questions that should be stirred up by an 800 word blog post and exactly the kinds of questions that can only be answered in a longer form, like a book. Or a life. I am going to be keenly interested in your reaction to it and will be looking forward to the dialogue about it!

  4. Big people have big egos, always fighting for attention. I definitely find it hard to quiet the ego and listen for my heart.

  5. Such good words. I was reminded of the time I was challenged to ask God what He delighted in about me. Know what I heard? My ordinariness. What? But then as I thought about it, I was relieved. I didn’t have to prove how good or special I was. I could enjoy the fact that being ordinary was acceptable, was enough . I wasn’t a designer, but I can follow directions and sew and knit and do other crafts. That has helped me feel free to enjoy doing these things although I didn’t do the designing. I’ll never help a lot of people, but I can help those near to me-even when it is just ordinary things, making a meal, listening, sharing laughs, etc. Thank you for your words today.

    • That is EXACTLY the kind of thing I believe God would say! I love it. Absolutely love it. And thank you for sharing about the freedom it gave you to live out the passions you have, touching the lives of the people around you, and trusting that is enough. So beautifully lived and said.

  6. Thank you again… you make a difference in my very gray world right now! I never thought my dreams were so grand until they were shattered. As a mother there is no pain like watching your child make wrong choices and know there is not one thing you can do. Our adult relationship in my dream was a good one with mutual trust and respect…not dreaming much anymore.

    • Doreen, I’m so sorry to hear about the turbulence in your relationship with your child. There is no doubt that dreams get shattered. When they do, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to pick up the pieces and try to put it back together again, or go find another dream. FWIW, your dream seems like one worth picking back up and holding onto.

  7. I love this so very much! I run a nonprofit in Austin, TX called Austin Angels and FEB 1st we are launching a program called Dare to Dream. We work with foster care children through a program called the Love Box campaign and each and every month a mentor visits a child in care and we are launching the Dare to Dream to give these kids the ability to Dream Again! This was perfect timing for me! XOXO

    • This sounds like amazing work you are doing! Thank you for giving your life in service of these kids. And I’m so glad this post resonated. Particularly for kids who have quickly lost hope in their dreams, trying to dream too big too quickly can feel overwhelming and hopeless. May they discover the small, ordinary dreams that have been planted in their hearts and, in the midst of your love and care, come to believe they are worthy of seeing those dreams realized.

      • I’m going to use this sentence for my speech tomorrow that I am giving to 50 different corporations! “May they discover the small, ordinary dreams that have been planted in their hearts and, in the midst of your love and care, come to believe they are worthy of seeing those dreams realized”. – THANK YOU!

  8. I have often felt embarassed because I have small dreams.
    “No I don’t want a bigger newer kitchen,house, wardrobe, vacation.” I just want to enjoy what I have.
    “No, I do not especially want to put my art work in the group’s exhibitions.” I really make art for my own pleasure and to have friends and family enjoy it.

    Living small works for me. I value contentment in this moment . Thanks for the validation

  9. I will admit some of your posts resonate with me more than others. This one truly did.
    I don’t have the ‘typical’ life. I’m a hard working RN taking her masters. One course at a time. I’m a single parent pretty much my whole adult life. I have 2 wonderful sons. One of whom is severely handicapped. I cannot ‘compete’ in today’s world with what people value (McMansions, fancy cars and vacations, super-achiever children…) we have a very simple life. And I prefer it that way. My kids are spoiled with love and I encourage kindness and independence. We value the team work and laughter in our small family and especially the ‘little things’ case in point. We went to the zoo…saw amazing animals…my son stared wide-eyed in amazement “mom!! That sparrow-it was looking right AT me!!” All 3 of us STILL laugh about that.

    • Sheryl, I so admire the energy and life you are pouring into your kids, and the grace with which you are embracing them and the life you have created together. And oh my goodness, what a wonderful example of childlike joy. May each of us reclaim the ability to be overjoyed by a sparrow looking at us! 🙂

  10. You nailed it once again! So appreciate your ability to take a random event in your family and “pay attention” enough to use it to help the rest of us GET IT. I will be musing over this quite a bit, I believe.

  11. It’s really about owning our choices isn’t it? Its about not letting someone else (or their persona that we make up in our heads) tell us that our dream is too … anything. It can be our own voice – our saboteur – that can tell us that our little dream is irrelevant and not big or important enough or just too big to fit our pathetic capability. So then, if we don’t keep that saboteur in check, we abandon the little dreams or set our sights on moon shots because we are letting “someone else” drive our choices. Good post Kelly!

    • Right on, Glen! I like the use of the word “saboteur.” It is a perfect description for what I call “the voice of shame.” Life is about keeping that inner dude in check. Thank you!

  12. Thank you again, Kelly, for another wonderful post. I felt freed to be able to dream again and not be ashamed that it wasn’t a “BIG dream or it’s worthless!” but I felt that my little dreams are worthwhile even if only for me. Thank you again and am looking forward to your book coming out! Congratulations!

    • I’m so thrilled to hear that, Jenny! I’ve really appreciated your reflections and insights over the last couple of years and I suspect that your dreams, while perhaps “small,” are very, very good. Dream on, friend!

  13. I couldn’t help but immediately think of our little 15 month granddaughter. I’ve been with her for a week now, and I’ve been so reminded of how we all start out, and then what can happen along the way when our dreams start to succumb to what others “think”. She is so delighted with her little self right now..she just started walking and you just know that all of her hopes at this time are just to not fall down! I’m thinking that there’s a lesson here for me..I think that today I’ll enjoy my small victories, and for sure enjoy hers. Today we are both going to dream big, and if we fall down…well….

    • Exactly, Donna! What a great observation of your granddaughter. For each of us, there was truly a time when our sense of worthiness was foundational to who we were. It was a natural part of being alive. Few of us can remember that time, though, because our experience of shame starts so early. It is always helpful for me to see a child like your granddaughter and to be reminded I used to accept myself in exactly the same way.

  14. Great article but…May be a small thing but noticed right away how you warned your kids about diabetes. With all due respect, Kelly, you just perpetrated the No. 1 myth about diabetes. You do not get type 1 diabetes from eating candy. And the causes of type 2 are complicated with sugar intake only one of the many causes that contribute.
    I am the grandmother of a type 1 child who has been fighting this deadly desease since she was 5 years old
    And the idea that they or their parents are to blame for allowing too much candy is really frustrating. They have enough to deal with, without the public believing they caused it themselves.
    I invite you and your readers to educate themselves on the causes and experience of type 1 diabetes by going to the websites of JDRF or Beyond Type 1.
    Thank you.

  15. Just dream….regardless of the size! And dream for you…just you! Because in dreaming we become authentic to our own destiny, whatever that looks like. I have a dream that by re-inventing my network marketing business I can feed the hungry. Not for any other reason than I have always been passionate about feeding people. It has the potential to become a BIG dream but I have to do what I am passionate about to get there…..And doing what you are passionate about makes your dreams Big and it makes them come true! Thanks kelly!

  16. Thank you, Kelly. You post has answered a question that I (or rather the self-saboteur’s voice of shame in me) have been asking myself with self-disrespect “Why can’t I remember myself having any big dreams when I was small? Why many people, especially successful ones dare to dream big from a very young age, but I didn’t?”

  17. Hi, Dr.Kelly!
    I was introduced to your blog by my small group supervisor in a graduate counseling program. I look forward to the new entry every Wednesday morning! I especially loved this blog because I think that in a world where you feel like a failure if you get less than 1,000 likes on facebook, you start nipping your dreams in the bud well before they have a chance to take root. I love your encouragement to dream small because the beauty of the dream is never dependent on how many people see (and approve) it. Rather the beauty of the dream depends on the innate beauty of the dreamer.
    In my case, I’m a stay-at-home mom of four, and I blog when I get the chance because I love to write and because when just one person responds (usually a friend or family member), it makes my day. It’s lovely to know you’ve been in the same place. I’m in good company!

    I hope my comment makes your day a little brighter!


  18. I have been downsizing over the past five years. Returning to the minimalist I was before. Before so many things. But one of the things that kept growing and staying out of control was my dreams. huge, huge dreams. Building an empire kind of dreams. Multiple business, streams of revenue, ROI….

    Until one day I woke up and realized I hadn’t spent any real time with my son in weeks.

    I chopped all the dreams off at the knees and started over. What do I *really* want to do? Be? Feel? And how much work is that going to take? What will I sacrifice to make that happen? And is it worth it.

    I loved this post. It feels like you’re giving me permission to do exactly what I already did. Not that I need your permission, but it’s nice to know that others feel the same way. (-ish).

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