My kids are not extraordinary*

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Over the weekend my daughter and her friends formed a band and wrote a song to audition for the annual school talent quest. Their group features one girl playing keyboard, two on flute and one singing a sweet lament to a blue moon. 

It’s quite a catchy song and they look and sound gorgeous. I recognise that I’m biased because I’m a doting parent and a world-class sook, but they think they are going to be discovered.  Made famous.  Featured on television and, better still, Youtube. I don’t know how to tell them they may not even make it into the actual quest. The year four competition is tough. 

We all want to be special. To stand out. To be acknowledged as unique. But of course, the truth is only a few of us actually are.  And yet, we insist on telling our children they are special and require the school to do the same.  Most primary schools give out weekly assembly certificates for things like ‘a great talk about your soft toy Super Mario’ or ‘contributing to your class happiness’.  I adore the Kindy kids as they stand straight on stage, holding up their scratch and sniff certificate like it’s the Pulitzer Prize.  But it only takes a year for most to work out that these certificates come on rotation. 

"Over the weekend my daughter and her friends formed a band and wrote a song to audition for the annual school talent quest."

"Over the weekend my daughter and her friends formed a band and wrote a song to audition for the annual school talent quest."

It’s the honour awards or end of year medals that are the real accolades. I admit it slightly pains me when my kids profess disappointment for missing out on one of these yet again.  But I also realise that, in doing so, they are getting a valuable lesson. Those who work hard get reward.  I offer my kids help if they want to improve and, shock horror, actually do their homework. But, mostly, they decide they’d rather stay average.

Yet I admit I do pump up their self-esteem in other ways. I tell them they’re amazing at what they are moderately good at.  I tell my son that he’s a brilliant drummer (he has rhythm) and my daughter that she’s incredible at netball (she’s tall). Perhaps I go too far.  But I see the need to balance their knowledge that they struggle in certain areas with some positivity.   My ego inflating is moderated by the fact that one of them struggled for years, needing a lot of extra help and so for us, average is actually a massive achievement.  

Kids know when we are pumping them up artificially.  They can even twist our concern for their self-esteem to self-advantage.  Even my son who is usually rather uncomplicated shows form.  When he was four we were driving past a shopping centre and he asked for a toy. I told him no.  A few minutes later he started sobbing. “I’m ugly I know I’m ugly. It’s this face. It’s all so wrong. I hate it”.  I was totally bewildered and upset.  I told him he was handsome, beautiful and gorgeous but he was inconsolable.  A few minutes later as I considered therapy or complaining to the pre-school teacher about ‘beauty bullying’ I reached to pat his leg.  He lifted his tear stained face and said “you know I wouldn’t feel so bad about being ugly if you bought me that toy”.  I had to pull over I was laughing so much.  That’s a piece of work worth a certificate.   

Of course, I think my son is beautiful but I don’t want him to think he’s stunning or entitled to success.  When he leaves his little closeted childhood for the big wide world he’ll need to know he’s not. I once had a friend who was so beautiful, tall and gorgeous he was told he was special and fabulous all his life.  As he approached thirty he struggled to realise he was not special enough.  Before that he seemed to assume that he’d be tapped him on shoulder to be Prime Minister. Middle age can be crushing if you were always predicted for bigger things.  

In the United States last year an English teacher at Wellesley High tried to let his kids down early, but not gently.  David McCullough Jr told the graduating students “You’re not special, you are not exceptional”. Wellesley is a good public school with a high academic standard and famous former alumni including Sylvia Plath, members of Saturday night live, actors, musicians, lawyers and journalists.  In telling his students they were ‘cossetted’ and feted’ he reminded them that even if they were one in a million, that meant that on a planet of 6.8 billion there were nearly 7000 people just like them.  The English teacher didn’t want to just burst their bubble but also pop the American “love of accolades more than genuine achievement”.  He was also pointing to the cheapening effect of making everything special while bemoaning selfishness and self-focus.

I once asked our Deputy Primary Principal if she could tell which kids would do great things or be successful.  Despite the Jesuit motto ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ she admitted she usually couldn’t.  That’s what’s exciting about childhood – you never know what each kid will become.  Not really.  That’s why all have to be acknowledged as important but not ‘special’. They should be taught as if they hold a unique spark within.

Every year our primary school has a year 6 play.  All the students are involved and tickets are sold out weeks before as many, including my nine year-old daughter, view the event as the highlight of the school year.  Last week we watched more than a hundred kids as they acted and danced their hearts out and lifted their voices in unison.  As usual, I began to cry. I cry because each performing child is so happy and so filled with hope, joy and excitement for the future.  I cry because they glow with the togetherness that develops in their last year at primary school.  I cry, because as they shine, I feel like a parent to each and every one of them.  As they sing their hearts out on that stage I see that each is actually average in some ways and yet so truly unique in others.  I cry in the knowledge that each deserves to be loved like they are special, but with the knowledge that they are one of many.

12 comments

  • Lovely!! And if you end up average and happy, how have you missed out exactly?

    Commenter
    chichi
    Location
    richmond
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 10:42AM
    • That was beautiful and so true. Thank you for writing such a lovely piece.

      Commenter
      A mum in QLD
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 10:44AM
      • “you know I wouldn’t feel so bad about being ugly if you bought me that toy”

        Oh thank God, my kid isn't the only one who tries that kind of thing on!

        Commenter
        Chatty
        Date and time
        November 20, 2012, 11:20AM
        • It's not just Mum's they try it on. It's Aunts too.

          I know this because my 6yo niece somehow managed to get me to buy her a rabbit the other day. I am still not entirely sure how she did it. But did it she did; she now is the proud owner of one cream and brown lop eared dwarf baby rabbit.

          My sister is still not talking to me. My brother-in-law is waiting for me to build a cage - he's trying to call my feminist bluff & is being smug that I will need his help to do it. He's going to fail. I own a cordless drill. It's just bits of wood and wire. I can build a stupid cage..... but I digress.

          I always tell my nieces and nephews that if they can make someone smile, then they are the most valuable people on the planet. If they can make them laugh, there is no greater achievement. And I mean it.

          So we walk around the streets/shops trying to get people we meet to smile and laugh.
          And every one can do it. No special skills required.

          Commenter
          SonyaB
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          November 20, 2012, 4:24PM
      • Beautiful article. I once heard something along the lines of 'one should be proud to be a good, average person because there is honour in that'. I think your article explained this perfectly.

        Commenter
        Mellah
        Date and time
        November 20, 2012, 11:32AM
        • That's the nicest thing I've heard all day. Thank you and thanks, Sarah McDonald :)

          Commenter
          Red Pony
          Date and time
          November 20, 2012, 2:03PM
      • Reading your last paragraph, I cried along with you - beautifully emotive writing - thank you.

        Commenter
        Another Lotus
        Location
        NSW
        Date and time
        November 20, 2012, 12:56PM
        • I recently has to explain to my teenage daughter the important difference between DOING YOUR best and BEING THE best. I expect her to do her best, but the fact is that most of the time in this world someone somewhere is going to be better than you at it - whether its singing, acting, maths or English. And that's okay.
          My stepson's mother told him all his life that he would be the next Heath Ledger. When he didn't make the second round of auditions for a tertiary acting course (after being "the best" high school drama student) his sense of self collapsed.
          Parents and teachers need to encourage children but ensure they remain grounded in reality.

          Commenter
          ReadyForReign
          Date and time
          November 20, 2012, 1:20PM
          • A great piece, Sarah. I went to primary school with a number of "feted for success" types - usually jazz ballet or singing lessons were involved - and I think they really struggled with it as they got older and realised they were probably less exceptional than they'd been told. There's nothing wrong with not getting a ribbon or an elephant stamp, in my case I think it made me work harder - or, when it came to school sports, give up completely and focus on other achievements! ;)

            Commenter
            Clem Bastow
            Date and time
            November 20, 2012, 1:35PM
            • what a great article. I don't have kids but I'm a very proud uncle and even more proud of my sister for doing such a great job raising her two daughters with my brother in law.

              they are always quick to reward and praise effort, but try to avoid praise for superficial things such as "you're the most beautiful".

              now I am sure the girls have probably been told by their mother and father occasionally that they are beautiful (because they are) but they don't make it the focal point. My nieces don't strive for validation to be told that they are the prettiest or the smartest.

              instead they seek validation for doing their best because they get the most praise when they put in a good effort. I can't wait to see how they grow up because I'm sure they will both be amazing.

              Commenter
              Adrian
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              November 20, 2012, 4:04PM

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