Why We Shouldn’t Settle For Children Reaching Their “Full Potential”

We should not place limits on what children can do.

When I think about education equity, I often recall a quote from one of my favorite movies, A Bronx Tale. In this classic film, Robert Deniro’s character tells his son a million times that “the saddest thing in the world is wasted talent.” This line hit home, especially because of the clear cut idea that “you can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t do the right thing, then nothing happens. But when you do right, guess what? Good things happen.” This seemed simple enough. Replace talent with potential, and I’ve been saying practically the same thing for the last five years. In my work leading thinkLaw’s critical thinking revolution across the country, I have obsessed over what it would take to create a system that allows all children’s potential to match their performance. For too long, I thought that if all children reach their potential, underachievement would be a thing of the past. All children would be pushed to their max, and all would be right in the world.

I was wrong.

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As a parent who supports other parents across the country on unleashing their children’s critical thinking, I often ask parents how they would define success for their children. This idea of “fulfilling their potential” gets repeated again and again, with lots of nodding heads suggesting that wasted talent very well may be the saddest thing in the world to lots of families. This is especially true for parents of children identified in gifted and talented programs. Thinking about this idea of potential for my own children, I start to feel uneasy. I feel uneasy because if I’m being completely real, I have to ask myself an eye-opening question: how am I in any way qualified to determine what my child’s potential is?

The truth is, I am totally out of line to suggest I have any role in saying what a child’s full potential is, whether that is my own children or any other child. I can look no further than my own life to see why the idea of reaching one’s full potential is so bogus. When I struggled in high school with 80+ class absences my freshman year and multiple failed courses, I had a counselor give me the “potential” talk. I had all this potential, and I was wasting it. And if I just started going to class and doing my work (her version of “you can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t do the right thing, then nothing happens”), I would magically reach this potential.

But what did that actually mean?

It meant that there was a fixed endpoint that was determined to be “mission accomplished” for a kid like me. When a Black male on free and reduced lunch from a single parent home with an incarcerated father graduates from high school prepared to graduate from a competitive college with a computer science degree, that kid beat the odds and surpassed his potential. We should celebrate because now he can get a “good” job. For kids like me, “making it” meant that I reached an appropriate level of success considering all the odds against me. I had big dreams to apply to MIT and give myself a shot at Ivy League schools. But my college counselor at the prestigious Bronx School of Science advised me that it would be a waste of time and money. “Too much of a reach,” she said. I later learned she shared this advice with several other of my Black and Brown classmates, including at least two who graduated with multiple Ivy League degrees. But I felt limited because I was already exceeding my potential, according to her.

To be clear, if we created systems where every single child had the type of educational opportunities to graduate college, this would be amazing. But for my own children, would I ever want to limit them to some fixed notion of what reaching their potential means? Yes, I would love for my seven year old daughter and four year old son to graduate from college. But if my daughter drops out because she decided to start launch a tech company that puts Amazon out of business, she is defying the boundaries of what it means to merely fulfill her potential. My four year old son really loves to eat food. He loves eating food so much that he truly wants eating food to be his future profession. But he really hates the idea that there are people in the world that go hungry. If he decides that he wants to seriously pursue his dream of feeding everyone who is hungry, there is no question that would exceed any notion of potential I can dream up. I need to get out of the way because he’s got some people to feed!

We should stop talking about students reaching their full potential because this language is inherently suspect. Because of excessive explicit (not implicit) bias in education, we too often set the bar far too low for Black, Brown, Native, and students growing up in poverty. It is unacceptable for “full potential” to mean endless opportunities for some students and a “getting a good job” for others. And no matter what a student’s race or socioeconomic status is, setting a real or imaginary finish line for students forces students into arbitrary measures of success they could undoubtedly push past. Dreaming big should not be a privilege.

I admit, I was once a dream-killer who bought into problematic potential practices. To be clear, I never told a young person to “be more realistic” in their goals. But my SMART goal-setting process (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely) in my first years of teaching led me to setting goals for my students that were laughed at for being too high by some of my colleagues. So I changed them to goals that were undoubtedly attainable and realistic because they were low. This reminded me of Jay Z’s song, So Ambitious, where he recalls being ridiculed and counseled for his dreams being too big. But he did not give in like I did early in my career. He disregarded those who warned him to “wise up” because no one from his Brooklyn neighborhood makes it. He ignored well-meaning people who warned him that the world is not kind to young men like him. And Jay Z responded with a line we would all do well to ask ourselves whenever we question our potential or someone questions ours:

I’m different. I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off of what everybody isn’t.

If we thought of potential like Jay Z and Google’s Jaime Casap do, we would understand that we need to separate our children from our own limited notions of success. How many of us would be thrilled if our children got a job at Google? But Casap, Google’s Chief Education Evangelist, frequently responds to questions from young people about how they can get a job at Google with one word: don’t. “Don’t work at Google. Make your own damn Google.” Fortunately, we have lots of other things we can do besides talking about children reaching their full potential. We can set the stage for excellence and give them the tools to perform excellence. We can create a world where they have the opportunities to discover their passions and gifts and build the pathways for them to allow those passions and gifts to flourish. Lastly, we can recognize that Robert Deniro was wrong: the saddest thing in the world is not wasted talent. It is allowing fixed notions of potential to limit our children’s ability to excel beyond our wildest dreams.

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