What’s Wrong With Average?
Clearly, I was born in the wrong generation.
My parents, bless them, were of the ‘kids-as-part-of-the-family’ era, rather than the ‘kids-as-rock-stars-bow-down-before-us’ era in which I now find myself entrenched. As children, my brother and I tagged along, rather than setting the agenda.
I have often observed that parents of my generation are dazzled, moth-like, by the bright light our progeny radiate, flinging ourselves headlong at their every endeavor, and judging our own worth by our kids’ varied and frequent triumphs.
As a child, I remember being heartily encouraged to participate in calisthenics, debating, jazz ballet, Venturers… You name it, the world was my oyster. But my folks dropped me off at all of these pursuits before heading off to do their own thing. They were interested to hear how my recorder lesson had gone but didn’t feel the need to sit through it, peering earnestly over my shoulder dutifully turning the pages of my sheet music thereby ensuring not a single note was missed, and then gloating smugly to their friends how beautifully I was now playing Beethoven (I wasn’t).
Similarly, my parents supported me during my school years, occasionally checking in to see if I’d finished my homework (yes, I had – swotty girl) but they never installed a double desk in the living room from which we could toil cheek-by-jowl, together nutting out the best adjective to describe Mt Vesuvius. Their delight was effusive and genuine when I proudly came home with an A for my poetry composition, and they happily sat through my (possibly tedious) oratories.
I never once heard them bragging about me to their friends and I was certainly never under the impression that their world would crumble if I failed to triumph in each and every endeavor I turned my fickle hand to.
So I am a little befuddled by the fact that practically every parent I know gleefully bombards me with reports of Tamsyn being awarded an uber-distinction in the University of NSW Maths Competition and, as the result of her ground-breaking methodology, Pythagoras’ theorem is now being re-written. Or Rupert flying to Ireland to represent Australia in Gaelic Football. Or Olive’s solo French horn performance at the Opera House.
It is quite surprising to me the number of parents who eagerly seize every opportunity to smugly confide that “Imogen has been identified as gifted”. I hear it so often, that I now secretly refer to it as ‘dropping the G-bomb’.
But are there really no mediocre kids out there at all? And if mine do fall within that middling (or, dare I say it, below-average) category, have I somehow failed them?
I suspect I’ve been duped. For years I’ve listened to other parents bang on about how, really, all they wanted was for their kids to be happy. It seems I missed the parentheses that sat at the end of that unfinished sentence which contained something like: (Provided they’re performing at an outstanding level at anything they care to undertake, for which we’ll happily fork out for tutors, coaches, and other assorted professionals to ensure that happens).
But why is average so distasteful? Doesn’t it just mean typical, common, the norm? Statistically, aren’t the majority of children just that? Aren’t most children unexceptional?
In this age of over-praising, surely it’s folly to tell your kid he’s brilliant, talented, and without peer or equal, when in truth, and statistically speaking, he simply isn’t. It’s disingenuous and sets him up for a great big fall when, inevitably, the big wide world will ensure that he is well aware that in fact, he is, erm, ordinary. Surely the important message that he needs to hear is that he’s loved, that you’re proud of his efforts, not that he’s a genius.
And I will admit that, despite my best efforts, when I hear of how little Henrietta is the youngest child ever to be offered a Harvard scholarship, comparisons are inevitable. I do find myself swallowing down just the tiniest of bitter, green pills when I consider that my strapping 14-year-old boy hasn’t quite achieved anything at an international standard as yet.
That disagreeable little pill seems to grow and become even greener when I turn my mind to my beautiful 12-year-old daughter, who has special needs, and for whom ‘average’ would be a stupendous outcome.
I know I am being overly sensitive when I allow the constant barrage of G-bombs to serve as a painful reminder of all of the things my daughter will never do. She will never win a maths competition. She will never fly to a distant land to represent her country in Gaelic Football. She will never play French horn.
Her biggest feats this year have been spelling four-letter-words and learning to say “llama”. In all sincerity, our parental-pride-meters have just about blown a pfooffer-valve over these wonderful conquests.
Her successes rank on an entirely different scale, and over the past 12 years, we have learned to be OK with that. Our son would probably agree that we sometimes celebrate her tiny victories even more than we celebrate his bigger ones, knowing that her mountains are higher, her rivers are wider and the effort required to inch forward is just so much greater for her than for kids who are, well, average.
Indeed, if the past 12 years have taught us anything, it’s that to have a child whose abilities are average, typical, common is a privilege. All children have strengths. All have weaknesses. But not all in equal measure.
My husband works in the disability sector and is on a personal mission to rebadge “disability” as “diffability”, simply because each and every one of us have entirely different abilities. My daughter can’t speak. My son can’t sing. (And, for the record, my husband is a danger to himself and others when handed a power tool.) Despite the rhetoric, not all of us will find something that we excel at. And isn’t that absolutely OK too?
Are we all so judgemental and insecure that we are afraid to shine a light on what our kids can’t do? Isn’t failure also part of life? As the parent of a child with a disability, I can assure you that admitting your kid is not perfect is far less terrifying than it may seem. In fact, it’s honest and liberating.
Do my children have to be gifted or ambitious or successful for me to be proud of them and the job I’ve done raising them? Am I setting the bar too low just hoping that they’re happy? Thankful? Fulfilled? Kind? I certainly hope not.
And I can promise you one thing – I’ll never be the one to lob a G-bomb in your direction.