My 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.