When my daughter Rebecca was two I was a nervous wreck. The only words she said weren’t even words—they were animal sounds. She called a dog “woof woof”. She called a cat “meow”. She could do a mean barnyard pig. But she couldn’t say “want juice”. I had been so proud when she was the first in my little moms’ group to walk, but now she was letting me down. I wanted her to be exceptional, and she was, well, ordinary.
If we can produce a child who is exceptional, we figure that reflects well on us. Our kids become our measuring sticks, and that puts a lot of pressure on them to excel. Yet I think most of this pressure is misguided. After all, in the long run, does it matter who was toilet trained first, or who first mastered writing their name? Statistically some of us will give birth to geniuses, but most of us will not. Some of us will have musical prodigies, or sports prodigies, but most of us will have those who may be able to hum a tune or kick a ball, but that’s about it.
All kids have one or two things they do really well, and identifying these skills and giving our kids the chance to develop them can give a sense of pride and accomplishment. But nobody has to do everything really well. In fact, maybe we should change our expectations. Maybe being wonderfully, delightfully middle of the pack should be perfectly fine.
Besides, in our desire to raise brilliant kids, we may push them in the wrong direction. Lots of smart people with arts degrees are waiting tables, because a university degree is no guarantee of anything anymore. If I had a child who wasn’t strong in book learning, I would push them into a trade so fast it would make your head spin. You can outsource lots of intellectual work, but you can’t outsource plumbing, mechanical work, or contracting. When your toilet is plugged, you need a plumber, pure and simple. And they make pretty good money, too. It may not be glamorous, but it pays the bills.
We need to keep an eye on the long haul, rather than on today’s pressures. After all, the things that matter most in childhood rarely matter much in adulthood. I can’t hit a volleyball worth beans, and I remember being petrified on the soccer field that the ball might actually come my way and I’d have to make contact. Any kind of sport made my stomach turn. That’s why I used to fake sick during public school gym class. But one of the greatest things about being an adult is that no one can force me to play volleyball. I can laugh in their face, and walk off. Once you’re all grown up, it’s like that for many things. If math isn’t our thing, we can still find careers that are satisfying and fulfilling. If music wasn’t our thing, no one can force us to try to learn the tuba ever again.
Instead, we can devote our energies to the things that do matter: having a good marriage; making good friendships; raising kids you love and enjoy who love and respect you back; even finding a good job that can provide for your family. And these things can all be done by perfectly ordinary people. In fact, they might even be done better by perfectly ordinary people, because such people aren’t as self-absorbed as those who think they are exceptional. It doesn’t matter if our kids’ IQ’s aren’t astronomical, if they aren’t sports stars, if they will always eat barbecued hot dogs and wear Wal-Mart clothes and take vacations only when they can borrow someone else’s cottage, as long as they make the world a better place. Character, faith and love will outlast designer clothes, professionally landscaped lawns, and catered cocktail parties.
We don’t need exceptional kids as much as we need exceptional love and support within our families. I’m tired of comparing my kids to other people’s kids, and I wish we could stop all that, and just say “I love my child, even if she is beautifully ordinary.” After all, most of us are ordinary, too, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.