He’s not even a decade old, but Ben Pierce has stood in awe of Alaska’s dancing Northern Lights and the iconic New York City skyline. He’s stared in wonder at the brushstrokes of Van Gogh and marveled at his own smallness next to the magnificence of the Grand Canyon.
Born at 23 weeks of gestation, weighing just 1.6 pounds, Ben defied both the odds and the naysaying doctors when he not only survived but thrived in the neonatal intensive care unit. Today, the thoughtful 9-year-old is typical and healthy save for the Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), an eye disorder that doctors say may eventually leave him blind.
Thanks to sacrifices from his parents and support from strangers around the globe, the Denton home-schooler has spent the past year traveling with his parents and five siblings. He’s crossed nearly 40 items off a before-going-blind bucket list that he created at his parents’ request after an eye exam last fall revealed his range of vision to be rapidly dwindling.
“We sat him down and said, ‘OK Ben, is there anything you really want to see while you still have as much vision as possible?’” shares the boy’s mom, Heidi Thaden-Pierce. She says a physician urged her and husband Kit to help Ben create as many visual memories as possible. “We wrote down what he said verbatim and started the wish list.”
As Ben pieced his list together, his parents got a peek into the rich inner world of their son, a place where no dream is too big or too small, where a moment spent gazing upon a snail on a sidewalk can be as magical as a day spent at Disney World.
Ben’s circumstances are unique. But his story, which garnered national attention earlier this year, provides a reminder for the rest of us of the ferocity with which children dream and, experts say, the importance of parents taking part in those dreams, however unlikely or impossible the dreams may seem.
“Listening to your child’s hopes and dreams, buying into them as much as possible and helping them, instills intrinsic worth,” says Sara Cantu, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and registered play therapist supervisor with offices in Dallas and Mansfield. “It teaches kids they can do what they set out to do.”
A playground without limits
A whimsical land brimming with fantastical ideas, the mind of a child is a playground without limits. From aspirations of growing up to be the president of the United States to living on the moon or building a time machine out of cardboard, nothing is out of reach. And according to Julie Carbery, Ph.D., licensed professional counselor at Carbery Center in Dallas, that’s exactly how it should be.
“The exploration of hopes and dreams should be fully explored in the playful fantasy world of the child,” she affirms. “It’s good for a child’s identity to explore lofty goals for themselves.”
As children imagine and explore, they learn about themselves. Exploration can start as early as 4 years old and is a crucial part of early childhood development, says Carbery. It’s a catalyst for thinking about the future and the first point at which a child begins to form his or her identity and worldview. “Kids are able to appreciate that the decisions they make now affect the decisions they make in the future,” she explains.
Thaden-Pierce was initially baffled by the items on her son’s wish list. Some of his dreams, such as traveling to the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids, were lofty, but others were surprisingly quaint: a trip to the Apple Store, a look at chalk under a microscope, a trek to Albuquerque. “Some of [the wishes] were so weird and random,” Thaden-Pierce explains. “[It] struck me as he was writing out his list how much we, as grownups, take for granted. He has been just as excited to see little, tiny random things as he has enormous things.”
It was when she asked him about the origin of his dreams that Thaden-Pierce says it all began to make sense. Most came from books he had read and pictures he had seen, seemingly small things that together shaped the boy’s goals, values and unique perspective.
Experts says kids form their hopes and dreams in a variety of ways. While many come from outside influences, such as books and movies, others simply come from within.
North Texas mom Alecia Harbuck noticed her daughter Angelina’s intrinsic gravitation toward animals early on. If you were to ask the 7-year-old today what her biggest dream is for herself, she wouldn’t hesitate to say, “to become a veterinarian,” her mom shares.
It’s a common childhood fantasy, but it’s one Harbuck and her husband take seriously. They’ve made strides to make the dream possible. “She wanted a goat in the backyard for goodness’ sake, so we’re looking into city ordinances for that!” Harbuck reveals.
A goat for an animal-loving second-grader may seem excessive. But, like most parents, Harbuck says she’s simply passionate about helping her daughter reach her goals. “As crazy as her requests are sometimes, we always look into it,” she adds.
Earlier this year, a Virginia man made national news for traveling 8,000 miles to plant a flag in unclaimed territory between Egypt and Sudan, effectively claiming a “kingdom” for his princess-obsessed daughter. “If I were to die tomorrow, there would be no doubt in her mind ever about the lengths I would go to to provide for her and to show her that I love her,” he told Today in an interview.
It’s an extreme anecdote. But at its core is a sentiment all parents can relate to: the desire to move mountains to make their kids’ dreams come true.
Fortunately, moving mountains isn’t necessary, says local psychologist Nicole Caldwell, Ph.D. A listening ear is often all children need. When parents listen and ask questions, she says, kids feel validated, and when kids feel validated, they develop a sense of confidence and security.
“When you validate their dreams, even if it seems kind of silly or whimsical, you’re validating the idea that they’re thinking outside the box,” says Caldwell.
Without that sense of validation, kids hear that their ideas and aspirations don’t matter, which can lead them to shut down and disengage. They might feel unheard and unaccepted. “[Angelina] can tell real quick if I wasn’t showing interest or not listening,” Harbuck says. “It’s important for kids to know that their parents care.”
It’s not always easy for adults to silence their inner skeptics and see the world through their child’s eyes, to join her in her dreams and show her that they care about who she is and what she values. But Thaden-Pierce says the effort is well worth it.
“Just holding still long enough to listen to them individually has helped us be better in tune with what they are focusing on and ways we can help them,” she says, reflecting on how her parenting has evolved since embarking on the wish list. “Everyone has felt closer because it has encouraged more communication. We learn so much from [our children] about how they look at the world when we take time to stop and genuinely listen.”
Meeting in the middle
There’s a sense of urgency attached to Ben’s bucket list. As his vision diminishes, so do his chances of ever seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and the inside of a toy factory (wishes still unfulfilled). Due to sheer practicality and financial limitations, Thaden-Pierce says she’s been forced to veto some wishes, such as the Sistine Chapel and Mount Rushmore. (Though she admits she may be forced to reconsider, as “Ben’s dreams have a way of moving heaven and earth to happen.”)
“I don’t think [kids] have the same sense of realism that we do,” the mom admits. “Not that we want to rain on his parade, but kids dream big.”
To find a compromise between the reality of adult responsibilities and the big dreams of childhood, Carbery encourages parents to tap into their own creativity and find a way to meet their child in the middle. “There are things we can do to play into the fantasy of the child,” she explains.
For the Disney-obsessed child, this may mean hosting a family movie night or playing dress-up. For Thaden-Pierce, meeting in the middle has meant bringing some of her son’s more far-flung wishes to him. As Antarctica is out of reach, the family plans to visit ICE! at the Gaylord. To get a taste of Japan, they’ll pay a visit to the Japanese Garden at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden this spring.
“There’s always a way that you can make that child feel like they were really heard and that the parents are responding to their hopes and dreams,” Carbery says.
In typical 9-year-old fashion, what Ben wants to be when he grows up changes every day, says his mom. He realizes he’ll face challenges but has started learning Braille and doing cane training, so he’ll have the independence he needs to dream and achieve for the rest of his life.
“He doesn’t feel like there’s really anything off the table anymore and that makes me happy,” Thaden-Pierce stresses. “He still dreams big.”