With graduation festivities underway for three of my kids (high school, middle school and fifth grade), I’m hearing and reading a lot about exceptional kids. Countless awards ceremonies honor those with impeccable grades, sky-high test scores, super-human athletic skills, artistic and musical talent, big ideas for saving the planet and indefatigable drive.
My brood won’t revel in the spotlight this week.
Now, let me assure you that this post will not taste of sour grapes, nor will it serve as an apology for my parenting skills (or lack thereof). It’s simply an acknowledgement that my kids are not considered superstars, and that’s okay. They are going to do just fine in life and I love them dearly.
An early clue came when one of my sons, back in second or third grade, needed to make a puppet based on a book he had read. He chose Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and completed the project without my involvement.
A few weeks later, during a school event, I noticed the puppets displayed outside my son’s classroom. The creations were truly amazing: intricate marionettes, papier-mâché characters, wood creations with working joints, dolls wearing machine-stitched costumes and elaborate felt-and-google-eyed creatures. I was stunned by the parents’, I mean the kids’, assignments.
Then I spotted my own son’s creation: a tube sock with Sharpie-drawn “details” and an orange, construction-paper beak. His work definitely stood out.
Back at home, I asked my son about the project.
“How did you feel about your work?”
“Did you think your work was the same caliber as your classmates’?”
“Did you do the best you could?”
“Yes, Mom, I always do.”
And that’s when I knew for sure that I was raising “good-enough” kids.
A few months back, Parent Map magazine asked me to write about kids who aren’t super-driven or hyper-focused. Experts asserted that it’s okay for children to dabble in a variety of activities when they’re young; they said it’s actually harmful for kids to concentrate on just one sport or activity, unless they exhibit preternatural talent at an early age.
Less than one percent of them will use their athletic or artistic abilities for college scholarships and professional careers, I learned.
However, while researching the article, I ran across that oft-quoted statistic: 85 percent of parents believe their children are above average. (Do the math…)
I think we’re all predisposed to believe our kids are amazing. We witness their development from tiny, rapidly dividing eggs to fully developed humans with toenails and eyelashes. And then, under our tutelage, they begin to smile, roll over, sit up, take their first steps and process language. They are incredible!
We watch them learn to ride two-wheelers, swim across pools, ski black-diamond slopes and perhaps dance in toe shoes, make jump-shots or hit home-runs.
And then, in school, our children memorize math formulas, sections of the Gettysburg Address, rules for subjunctive verbs and the Periodic Table. We marvel at their minds, because we remember when they couldn’t even speak.
The danger arises when we believe we’re responsible for their abilities and achievements. A good friend advised me many years ago: “If you don’t take too much credit for your kids’ successes, you won’t have to take the blame for their failures.” I have definitely had occasion to appreciate that advice.
In my opinion, the kids who are truly spectacular have something extra inside, a certain je ne sais quoi propelling them. Parents can push all they want, but the kid who’s going to play for the Yankees, compete in the Olympics, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cure cancer or bring drinking water to the Sahara is probably exceptional from the get-go.
Some of the best baseball and basketball players honed their skills on playgrounds, without private coaches, athletic trainers and $150 shoes. Some of you may recall that Zola Budd made it to the Olympics without super-cushioned Nikes; she ran barefoot. As an Ivy League basketball recruiter I met on a plane once explained, “I try to stay away from communities with three-car garages. I look for the kids who walked to the park every day for scrappy pickup games.”
That being said, truly extraordinary kids definitely benefit from strong emotional support, mentors and financial backing. After all, someone had to give Taylor Swift a guitar, sew sequins on Brian Boitano’s figure-skating outfits and pay for Justin Bieber’s haircuts.
My kids may be capable of greatness in the future; they started life with sharp minds, strong bodies, attractive faces, natural charm, stable families and supportive communities. If and when they set their sights on success, they may soar.
For now, I am content with four “above average” kids who get good, not perfect, grades, who participate in, but don’t star on, sports teams, and who will all move on to the next grade in the fall.
Perhaps most important, my children are happy. They have plenty of friends and the resources to participate in activities they enjoy. They smile more than they frown, make people laugh, work and play hard, demonstrate empathy, take pleasure in good deeds and tell me they love me every day.
So, while my kids won’t win any awards this week, they’ll always be superstars in my heart. To paraphrase The Who: My kids are alright.
– Linda Williams Rorem, 6 June 2011