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Raising kids in the Good Old Days

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about how to raise smart, well adjusted, healthy, and otherwise good kids. In all of the reading that I’ve been doing, there has been a common thread. It has to do with parents perceptions and expectations of kids. Every parent thinks that their kid is above average, if not absolutely brilliant. Teachers that I speak with tell of parents that are furious if their kid is not the best, smartest, whatever in the class. Parents of 6 years olds hire private coaches so that their kid will be the best on the team (soccer, T ball, whatever).

So my question is: How come parents really think that their kid should be the best at everything, and what does this do to the kid?

Sure, every parent wants their kids to do well, be succesful, have a happy life, and all that stuff. The problem is, many parents becomes so obsessed with this ideal that they cause more problems than they solve. Think about it. A parent makes sure that their kid is always the “best” by intervening every time the kid isn’t in the #1 position. What is this teaching the kid? First of all, it is making sure the kid knows that being first is the most important thing. Second, it makes the kid think that if they aren’t in the pole position, Mom or Dad will step in, and make sure that they are.  What is going to happen to this kid when they are suddenly faced with a situation where  they aren’t first, and the situation can’t be manipulated to make them first? Well, a normal well adjusted kid will deal, cope, get over it with whatever tools they have developed in their previous failures. But this kid isn’t normal. Mom and Dad have made sure the kid knows that (s)he is the best at everything. The kid has never failed, so the kid has no tools to deal with failure. I know this sounds outlandish, but I have dealt with people with exactly this syndrome at the University level. A kid takes a tough class, and can’t keep up. I have had students in my office in tears because no matter what they do, they cannot learn the material well enough to pass. I have actually had students insist that it is not possible for them to fail a class – and they really believed it. I’ve had the parents of 20 year old students call my dean in an effort to change a grade. The problem: the kids really think that they will always be able to change things to the way they want them to be, and their parents think so too.

When I experience this, or read about similar cases, I can’t help thinking about the Prairie Home Companion – the town where all of the children are “above average”. For some reason, this seems to be the actual expectation of many parents. The reality is that, by definition, most children are average. There isn’t anything wrong with that. Most kids will have at least one thing that they really shine in, many will have more than one. For every area of above average performance, a parent should be prepared for other areas of below average performance. Remember that whole “normal” thing? At some level, I think most parents understand this, but many seem to be very good at convincing themselves that their kid is the exception. After all, dad and mom are both highly successful profesionals, and the kid is being given every tool possible to make them excel, so why shouldn’t the parents expect the kid to be a super genius? The parents have confused the difference between opportunity and mastery. A child given the opportunity to excel at something may do so. Then again, the kid may not. In fact, chances are pretty good that during the course of the kids childhood, it will develop mastery of things that the parents have done everything they can imagine to prevent (think about it: swearing and lying in young kids, sex and drugs in older kids).

So what is a parent to do?  Accept the fact that your kids are going to be good at some things, and not so good at others. It is very possible that your child will decide to follow a life path that is not what you have planned, expect, or (in drastic cases) demand. I have had undergraduate students studying a major that they have absolutely no interest in because their parents insisted on it. After mom and dad drop a hundred grand on putting their kid through University, the kid gets the degree, and gets a job flipping burgers, fixing cars, or driving a truck.

I had a graduate student majoring in Neurobiology who got her degree, then got a job as a receptionist. The entire time she was in graduate school, she was miserable, She did OK, but her priority was to have a family not a career. After she left University, we had a number of conversations about how her parents dealt with her refusal to continue on the life path they had set for her (both of her parents were scientists, and she was expected to continue in their footsteps as a researcher). She did eventually find a husband and have a family, and (of course) her parents hated the guy she hooked up with….

Parents should remember that having a child is not an opportunity to meet the parents goals (unless those goals are to raise a happy healthy kid). Having a child is creating an individual. That individual may or may not grow into an adult that has the same life goals for itself that the parent has for it. A good parent will accept the fact that a child is an individual with its own life ahead of it – and behave accordingly. This does not mean that a parent shouldn’t influence a child – parents teach ethics, behavior, and a host of other life skills and values – that’s part of what being a parent means. However, any parent that insists that thier child be enrolled in the right preschool because “it will increase their chances of getting into Harvard” is living in a fantasy world that will scar their child for life. Lighten up. Get to know your child – the real child, not your fantasy. Once you know your child, you can make rational decisions about what is best for that child. And you won’t go ballistic when the child’s second grade teacher tells you that your child is not the best artist, mathematician, reader, soccer player or whatever. Instead, you and your child will be able to enjoy things together without the stress of “perform, perform, perform”.

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2 Responses

  1. Oh, THIS is beautiful. I was JUST having this conversation with Bowyer (whom you know, by the way) about this. The conversation developed via the talking about grades we’ve been doing. I have two daughters. He has two sons. We recognize that none of these kids is exactly like the other and none of these kids is going to be good at EVERYTHING (in fact, Bowyer contends that his younger son is going to struggle with MOST things and, perhaps, will excel at nothing). We’re OKAY with this. We WANT them to struggle with some things, and to recognize that they don’t HAVE to do it all.

    This is behavior that I not only encourage, but model in my own life – I can’t figure tips in my head and, just yesterday, I measured my trunk and assured my husbnad that the framed print we were going to pick up would fit (silly man, for not checking my math! He should TOTALLY know better!) It didn’t fit – big surprise – and my daughters, in the back seat, got to sit cross-legged on the way home while holding the frame stable because MOMMY SUCKS AT MATH. Does that make Mommy a bad person? A failure? NO, it does not. Mommy knows how to compensate and how to improvise and HOW TO ASK FOR HELP WHEN SHE NEEDS IT! THAT’S the skill they really need; knowing where to get the information that they can’t spontaneously generate. Why do you think I have so many smart friends?

  2. Thanks mrschili! that is EXACTLY the message: Its OK if mommy sucks at math – and its OK for the kids to know that. Especially if the kids can observe mommy figuring out ways to DEAL with math on a day to day basis…..

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