• Tue, Jan 15 2013

I Don’t Care If My Child Is Average

child geniusMy cousin and his wife are both high achievers — the kind who pack flash cards with the diaper bag. Their child genius son showed signs of early intelligence. I remember his communicating with real words sometime around his first birthday. Another relative read to her son every day since he was born, and if I have my facts straight, he spoke 80 words by the time he was 15 months. My own baby is now 13 months old, and she seems pretty normal to me. Doting grandparents, friends and sometimes my husband love to infer things about her intelligence that I’m certain are coincidental, like the night daddy asked her if she was sleepy and she nodded and pointed to the clock. All right, sometimes I’m guilty of inflating her intelligence a bit, too. I have twice retold that clock story with a proud parental sparkle in my eye.

But whatever her level of intelligence is, she’s developing it with very little help from me. Being a SAHM puts a weird fog in my brain, and most of the time I’m so flustered I can barely get her high chair cleaned off before the next meal, let alone read to her every day. The quality time I do spend with her usually involves stroller rides, chasing her around the children’s library, nursing, or lying exhausted on the floor with my husband while she hands us various found objects.

Whatever intentions I had during my child-free days of raising world-conscious, multilingual virtuosos, these intentions quietly saw their way to the door when I met my first child. Maybe I was just never meant to be a Tiger Mom (for lack of a better term), but I’m realizing that I don’t care if my daughter turns out to be average.

My generation was raised to believe we were all exceptional, and to my dismay, I don’t see that culture of grandiosity slowing down anytime soon. Look at all the internet video sensations getting their 15 minutes of fame, or every live action show on the Disney channel, in which every character is either famous or aspiring to be famous. Then there’s reality TV, the zenith of modern navel gazery, where the only qualification for instant celebrity is having a strange hobby or a lot of babies or a sort of funny-looking family. Thank god reality TV wasn’t a big thing when I was a kid, or I’d be even more of an insufferable narcissist than I am already.

Which leads me to a confession: At times, I was an exceptional child. When I wasn’t, people still told me I was. I did some things that were probably remarkable (walking at nine months, reading early, writing something that resembled a novel at age 12). But most of what I did, like playing piano well, becoming proficient at movie editing before it was a “thing” and earning advanced placement credits in calculus and English senior year of high school, were things that plenty of other kids were doing, too. But because of all the praise I got from friends and family, I had an extremely inflated sense of awesomeness, making it that much more painful when I graduated high school and realized maybe I wasn’t so special after all.

So when I look at my little baby, whose only job right now is to be cute, I wonder, what’s the rush? And moreover, could I actually be hurting her throughout childhood by encouraging her to excel in a variety of things? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be proud of my daughter for bringing home a report card full of Cs and maybe an A or B in her favorite subject? Just writing the sentence makes the overachiever in me die a little, but it really shouldn’t. If my daughter takes an interest in science and the other subjects take a hit as a result, maybe this isn’t so bad. It does seem like kids who are encouraged to excel at everything sometimes wind up stretched so thin they never find their passion.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praising my little one just for being herself. I’d be hard pressed not to tell her how adorable and funny and quirky she is. But who she is isn’t the same as what she does. Mediocre grades are just that: grades. Same with mediocre test scores, sports skills and looks (even though my daughter is the beacon of baby perfection, of course). But a report card isn’t a reflection of my child’s character or potential. And, just as importantly, it isn’t a reflection of my merit as a mother.

(photo: Christopher Sista / Shutterstock)

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  • Justme

    As a middle school teacher and coach in a high-income area, I see the effects of this pressure put on children. It can create anxiety, stress and a lifetime of resentment in the child.

    I think the key is to see your child without those rose-colored glasses for who they are and what they are truly capable of achieving. For some students….that is a C in Math while for others it is an A+. For some athletes they are just thankful to be placed on the Division III team while other kids will always be a starter on the Division I. But all the time I hear from parents (NOT the children) about wanting to be placed in an AP class, or inquiring about what they should do on the weekends to boost their child to the higher level team.

    I want to tell these parents to JUST RELAX because while you’re pushing and striving for your child to do more and be more, they are getting lost in the shuffle and are left feeling like they just aren’t ever going to be good enough.

    I say this as a 4.0 college student and athlete – if my daughter is on the lowest level team or not in AP/GT classes, I will STILL be proud of her as long as she is working hard and putting forth her best effort.

    • Sara

      I think what you say is really true. My parents had a very healthy outlook–we were required to do our best. But not in a pandering, head-patting “Well, honey, I guess you tried and that’s all that matters”–no, if we were capable of excellence in a given area, we were required to achieve excellence. Example: I have always been very strong in verbal areas (reading, writing and subjects like history and English), so in those subjects I was expected to take honors and AP classes and get A’s. Nothing less was acceptable. However, in areas such as math and science, where my natural abilities were significantly lower largely owing to a learning disability, as long as I truly tried my hardest, whatever grade I brought home was good enough for them.
      My sophomore year of high school, I took honors chemistry, which completely kicked my ass. I did all the work, any extra credit that was offered, went in for extra help at lunch (fortunately, I had a very difficult teacher who was happy to give me that extra help), you name it. The fruits of all that hard work? I scored an 18%–yes, you read that right–on the final exam and barely passed the class, and that only because my teacher allowed me to re-take the test. My parents were satisfied with this because they truly understood that in this case, a 70% (my high school didn’t give D’s, so any grade lower than 70 was failing) was actually and legitimately the best I could do. Somehow it didn’t stop me from getting into a good college and going to graduate school, and actually I probably have that class to thank. It taught me to work harder than I’d ever worked for anything in my life.

  • C.J.

    I always tell my kids that if they did their best then I am proud of them. It’s not the grade that is important just that you know you got the most you could out of it. I never pressure my kids about grades. If they ask for help I help them. I didn’t pressure them to learn to speak, read, write, etc early. I jst followed what they wanted to learn when they were toddlers. My oldest didn’t even want to learn to write her name before starting Junior Kindergarten (we live in Canada, kids start JK at 4). The teacher said not to worry, she was on the young side because she didn’t turn 4 until October. She learned it within a week at school. Both my kids do well in school but if there is a subject they struggle with chances are they aren’t going to follow a career path focusing on that subject. I don’t think all this pressure for kids to be the best is good for them. Kids put enough pressure on themselves without us adding to it. My mom has a friend that works at a Montesorri school and she says she wishes parents would stop pressuring their kids so much. When they are little they will likely learn whatever you put in front of them, they are little sponges. Then as they get older they even out to wherever they would be anyway and the parents don’t take it well.

  • AP

    I agree with you, but I disagree with the graphic. “C” is no longer an average grade, unless you are in one of those states that sets D at 40 so everyone can pass the state graduation exam. In a rigorous environment, B- is an average grade. In a less challenging one, it’s B+. A 3.0 (B) GPA from college is a resume requirement for a lot of employers.

    I spent a lot of time in those pressure-cooker environments, and they’re not healthy. But I also know people who achieved below average in school, and found many doors closed for them when they graduated and just wanted a “normal” job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

      I’m in that boat :(

    • Alexandra

      I was thinking the same thing. Maybe in programs like law, medicine and engineering your grades don’t matter since you will always be in demand for jobs, but I’m doing an undergrad in biology and if I don’t get a 3.5 gpa at least, I won’t get a good masters and my degree is basically useless.

    • Sara

      I think there needs to be a balance between putting crazy amounts of pressure on your children, and being realistic about the level of work that’s involved in becoming competitive for careers in certain fields. No, it’s not healthy to hold your child to impossible standards, and children should always feel that their best is acceptable and that their parents love them for who they are, not what they do.
      But at the same time, we live in an increasingly competitive society where “average” is no longer good enough for many careers and in fields such as medicine and engineering, you’re going to be competing for jobs against a highly accomplished set of colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with being honest and realistic with kids–if you want to be a surgeon, getting C’s in science and math aren’t going to cut it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad kid and your parents think less of you if you get average grades, but the simple fact is that in order to be competitive in many fields, you have to work hard and, yes, academic achievement is a big part of it.

    • Alexandra

      Unfortunately, if you want to be surgeon, B+ isn’t gonna cut it either.

  • Blueathena623

    I read about an interesting study that kids want to work harder if you praise the work they put into something vs. praising them for being smart. They gave kids puzzles to do, and the kids who were told they were smart for solving a puzzle didn’t want to do any harder puzzles, because if they failed, the praise would go away. Those that were praised for working hard took on the harder puzzles, because even if they failed to solve it, they would still get praise for working hard.

    • Sara

      Yes. The same study also found that kids who were praised for inherent qualities like their intelligence, when they encountered difficulty or failed for the first time, were much more likely to give up than those who were praised for their hard work. The latter group was more likely to take on a challenge and work through difficulty, even if it meant failing the first time around.

    • SusannahJoy

      That was me. I’m smart. Not crazy genius level smart, but above average. I realized very early that it only took me a quarter of the work to get the same results as my peers, and that I’d get praised for them. So since the result was the same, I completely stopped trying at anything. I don’t blame my parents for this, in my case it was all coming from my schools and teachers. I did have one teacher (physics) who gave me a B and flat out told me that I didn’t deserve it, and that if she could, she would have failed me because I didn’t learn anything, I rarely did homework, and barely paid attention in class. I laughed and said ok. I’m 29 now and trying to teach myself how to work hard, because that’s
      something I’ve never done before, and just being smart doesn’t get you
      anywhere. But hey, learning a new skill at 29 is better than never learning it, right? Even if it’s one that most people learn as children….

  • workingMOM

    i brought in a mandarin tutor for my little one when she was almost seven months old (i don’t speak the language but feel that it will be beneficial for her later in life), and caught a lot of flack for it from people accusing me of putting too much pressure on her.
    i would have to explain that, according to my research (thanks, Internet) between the ages of six and eight months is when kids “absorb” different language patterns.
    my objective was to have her tutor come in and just talk about anything – read a book, talk about the weather, show her objects and say their Mandarin name, whatever, but all with the intention of her being able to hear the phonetics of the language so that they imprinted on her and, later in life, should she choose to study the language, she’ll have somewhat of a basis.
    i’m also the parent that does the alphabet and number flash cards, as well as the math program and music program.
    by no means am i pushing the info on her, but exposing her to it.
    there have been days when she’ll sit through three run-throughs of the alphabet flashcards, wanting more, and others when we get to E and she’s watching the cat with much more interest. when that happens, i stop and we move onto something else that doesn’t require her focused attention.
    first off, i hate that people judge me and keep saying “let her be a child!”. so does that mean that i should let her eat dirt and play with socks and say “oh ha ha, what a nice simple life you have as a baby!”, or, based on my analysis of her intellectual and learning capability, should i encourage her to learn new things?
    if parents FORCE their young ones to do things that they are, clearly, not enjoying, then i think we have an issue, but what’s the difference in exposing them to Sesame Street on the tv and having someone show them objects while speaking a different language?
    i want to give my child every opportunity in life by exposing her to as much as i possibly can. if she decides to take something on, it’s important that she learns the value of commitment and how she should stick with it if she agreed to do it.
    the problem with the world today is that there is a complete and utter lack of integrity, where people try to scam others and back out of things just because they “don’t feel like it any more”.
    as many of the other posters are stating, it’s important to emphasize that the child does their best, whether that’s a grade of a C or an A+, and if you know your child, you’ll know their capabilities.

    • Justme

      There is a huge difference between hiring a Mandarin tutor for your seven month old and letting your child eat dirt. I would venture to guess that most rational and reasonable parents lie somewhere in the middle.

    • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

      If you think hearing a person speak in a language for a couple of hours every day, for a couple months, means they’ll pick it up easier when they’re adults, you’re flat out wrong.

  • CrazyFor Kate

    There is a fine line between pressuring your kids and encouraging them, for sure. I hope my kids will be well-educated – I will expose them to good art and literature, “educational” activites, and different languages and encourage them to keep learning for the rest of their lives. But when it comes to grades? Well, I was a “gifted kid” with huge expectations and it was hell, and I’m still dealing with the ramifications today. I will encourage my kids to do their best and hope that it’s enough.

  • Rachel

    Thank you for this article. My husband and I are both of above-average intelligence, but it’s way too soon to predict if our baby will have similar natural inclinations. Of course, we’re below average in other aspects, such as height. We’ve had discussions before about how our standards for our baby will be based on issues over which he can actually exercise control, such as demonstrating kindness and trying his best. We were both praised for being smart as children and teenagers, and we had a very lazy work ethic in high school, probably as a result.

    People often like to pretend that putting intellect on a pedestal is somehow not as shallow as doing the same with beauty/attractiveness, but it isn’t. Parents desperate for their child to be a “genius” are no more “deep” than parents pining for their children to have supermodel good looks. They’re both completely out of the child’s control. Yes, education can be enhanced, but natural intellect cannot. I hope more parents put emphasis on valuing children for who they are and for trying to reach their full potential, regardless of what sort of potential it is.

  • Lindsey

    My daughter does very well in school BUT her father and I also have the “do your best” mentality. When she was in early elementary school she struggled with spelling and I was perfectly happy with a C in spelling because I knew she was trying really hard. In 6th grade she had all As and Bs and her teacher had the nerve to tell me that she should be getting all As and that she would not do so until I “made it a priority.” I had to let her know that I was much more concerned with raising a happy, kind, decent human being than trying to pressure her into raising her already good grades.

  • K.

    I’m a teacher (G/T, MS & HS; college), and I gotta say that in all my years of teaching ALL of my students are pretty much ‘average.’ Yes, there’s a grade-spread every year, but honestly, you’re either Einstein or your Forrest Gump or you are everyone else in my book. And there was one kid who was performing cancer research in a university lab over the summers starting when he was eleven (he went to college at 15); other than that, everyone else was…everyone else.

    I don’t teach elementary grades, but I’ve got plenty of friends who do and they always get panicked parents who talk about their kids learning Farsi at age two (seriously) and knowing 200 animals and 20 colors and their ABCs (written and spoken) before pre-K and they all say the same thing: STOP. Young children should learn through play. And Kindergarten is about catching ALL students up so they can start 1st grade at the same level–if your child is the one who knows how to spell and count and read and speak Farsi and French, then they run the risk of getting bored and losing interest in school altogether. Before the first grade! So ‘average’ is fine.

    Having said that, as a MS/HS teacher, I agree with you that a report card is in no way a reflection of character or potential, but it is an assessment (at least in my class) of a student’s work ethic. School isn’t about acquiring knowledge, it’s about acquiring skills and intellectual development by exercising the mind. That means doing the work. So I’m not disagreeing with you; I just point out that it’s a tricky line parents must walk: you don’t want to equate your child’s sense of self-worth with a letter or number, but you do want them to understand the value of the work and you do want them to realize how fantastically, awesomely capable they are when they DO put their minds to something. That’s such a powerful gift and such a luxury for students–or anyone, really–to be able to see that their ideas, their contributions, MATTER. The majority of people in this world never get that chance. Great teachers can get students to do that, and it’s what I strive to do as a teacher, but I always think that parental involvement is of vital importance that way.

    So my advice is that when your child is older (NOT at 13 months!), let them know that you expect great things of them–not great grades per se, but that you expect that they find something that matters to them, whether it be writing an essay, entering the science fair, being in the school play, playing volleyball–whatever they participate in, that they give it their all and make them matter to it. It’s not about achievement so much as students gaining amazing confidence in themselves when they see just how far they can stretch.

  • Bluebelle

    What a humbling and honest post. So good. I’ll tell you this: my parents were very hands off. They both had taxing jobs and even when my mother was a SAHM she was working toward her MBA full-time. They never pushed us in the traditional sense of pushing, but they absolutely led by example. We (my brothers and I) saw the happiness they derived from their accomplishments and saw the happiness they felt in seeing us achieve things we loved, too (even the times we were merely singing trees in the middle school musical). They were always honest about the things they were good at and the things they were terrible at and let us know that you can’t be wonderful at everything and to never expect it. Embrace what you’re good at and give everything your all, but be not afraid to admit defeat and move on to the next thing. I assure you that we all turned out just fine. I always sucked at math/science but excelled in grammar and writing. They nurtured and celebrated this skill and I went on to teach writing at a rash of high schools, colleges and universities around the world. Sometimes when I read posts like this I wonder what I’d be doing if my parents were hell-bent on rounded perfection.

    Like you’ve said, we are all pretty much average… which is really just the mean of our strengths and weaknesses :) Celebrate the successes, work through the struggles. Think of all the people who have missed their callings because they were too busy trying to fit into someone else’s idea of accomplishment.

  • Simone

    Yeah. My son’s academically average. But he’s a nice kid, with a killer sense of humour. That’ll do.