Any one of us who has ever watched a child at play knows the innocent assurance that children can exhibit. Young enough not to have been faced with the need to have a job or take care of a family, children tend not to consider consequences before they act. Although this can be endearing to watch, it is only endearing when those children are acting under the supervision of a person old enough to keep them out of harm's way. The thought of a child doing exactly what he or she wants to do, innocent and confident but unsupervised, is not at all endearing: it is scary.

Children left to their own desires might not be so frightening if we could depend on them to curb those potentially dangerous desires that they sometimes have, and if we could only be sure that they would think and think twice before trying to realize every dream. But if children were really this responsible, would they not lose a small part of their charm? Wouldn't many of the "complications of adulthood" then already be mastered? Some of the most charming dreams and desires of children are unrealistic and potentially destructive. These dreams and desires can be charming because the children who have them are protected by adults who ensure that potentially threatening consequences of their foolishness are never realized.

Such scenes of potential destruction are fairly common is my house, where my younger brother, eight years old, enacts regular gunfights with cowboys on the television screen, with the bodies of myself and the rest of my family, or simply with combatants brought to life from thin air by his imagination. He has seen such gunfights in movies and on old television reruns so many times that they are now definitely part of his reality, and he wants nothing more passionately than to grow up to be a gun fighting cowboy. What is not part of his reality, of course, is the blood that any similar gunfight would draw in real life. He doesn't associate his games with real injury or death. His games are endearing and he is charming because his guns are not real. He doesn't yet understand that the lifestyle he desires is dangerous and that, since most of the movies he knows are set in a time and place far removed from his modern Seattle suburb, it is also impossible.

Of course he will grow out of this cowboy fantasy. And since we all know that he will grow out of it, many will say, along with Harry Truman, that the best thing for now is to encourage him to do what he wants to do. Encourage him to be a cowboy for as long as he wants to be a cowboy. His dream is impossible and so it is harmless, these people might say, and he may even develop some skills that will be useful to him later in life while seeking this impossible dream.

This permissive point of view is attractive, but ultimately dangerous and an abdication of adult responsibility. While my parents may indulge my brother's imaginative cowboy play, they must also help him to understand the difference between imagination and reality. As adults, it is their role to ensure that his games do not go too far, that he does not ever wield a real gun as he wields his imaginary ones, and that he learns to accept that his world of school and piano lessons does not function like the Wild West he so adores. I agree that my brother has an innate sense of what he wants to do, but I do not agree that he can be trusted to know what he should do.

Dreams are important for a child, maybe as important as anything else, including homework and music lessons. They help a child to develop a sense of hope, of possibility, and of confidence. I would be the last to discourage dreams. I am the first, though, to encourage safe and realistic dreams. In a child's mind, anything is possible. Each child deserves the guidance, though, that will teach him or her that anything is possible even within the real world, and even in a safe manner.