If you ask most little kids what they want to be when they grow up, you may be able to guess their answer. They want to be ballerinas, sports stars, and superheroes. Older kids will seemingly cast off those childhood dreams and, when asked by an adult, they’ll typically mention something a little more practical. That makes me a little sad. Mostly because I want my kids – and all kids – to dream big dreams.

But given the opportunity to dig a little deeper, you may discover that pre-teens and teenagers are still very much dreaming big dreams. The problem is they don’t really want to express it out loud. Maybe their dreams are hard to put into words. Maybe they’re afraid of adult judgment or even ridicule. Parents – encumbered by our realistic life perspective – can easily dash the dreams of our gifted and talented kids with a single word or expression. It’s also very likely those starry-eyed young people are still working out the details in their mind and are not ready to be quizzed on their next steps.

My experience tells me that most maturing kids have one or two secret ambitions they won’t tell anyone but their closest friends. It could be a secret dream they’ve had for years or a recent self-discovery. Your fifth-grader may come across a vicarious career choice in a book or movie but feel too timid to share that dream. Your high schooler may be considering an unconventional college major but be afraid to speak it out loud because of what family and friends might say.

Be warned, this dream career may be a bit outside the box. Not impossible, just unusual. You know it may be a stretch – or nearly impossible – but don’t you want your child to reach for the stars?

William Shakespeare wrote, “It is a wise father who knows his own child.” Knowledge of the gifts, talents, hopes and dreams of your child is the first step to following through on the direction of Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (NASB).

Dad, if you can somehow figure out that secret ambition and nurture it, you will gain new hero status. Don’t interrogate them. Don’t read their diary. Be more subtle. Make note of what they’re reading, what they write about in English class, and the private friend-to-friend conversations happening in the backseat of your SUV.

Create plenty of opportunities to expose them to different facets of their secret goals. Offer unexpected access to resources and tools that help them develop a range of gifts and strengths related to that dream. If they realize what you’re doing, that’s okay. Go easy. Empower and encourage. Don’t push. They may not say it, but they appreciate your partnership.

Think of it this way, Dad. Your job is to help them open the door to their secret dreams. Yes, you can walk alongside for their first few steps, then get the heck out of the way. From just a few feet away, you might get a chance to watch them do great and unexpected things. They’ll thank you every day for the rest of their lives.

By the way. On the topic of secret ambitions … if you have any of your own, it’s not too late. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, “It’s a wise man who knows himself.”

Jay Payleitner is a long-time friend National Center for Fathering, a national speaker and best-selling author. His books include 52 Things Kids Need from a Dad, What If God Wrote Your Bucket List?, and The Jesus Dare. More about Jay.