Average Is a Dirty Word

I remember when Kevin was little and people started telling us how bright he was.  He seemed to grasp concepts that were advanced for his age, he learned things easily and retained them, and he was a voracious reader by the time he was six.  People would often comment that talking to him was like conversing with a miniature adult.  I would beam with pride.  Not that I took credit for it – but I was a little in awe that this bright, accomplished boy came from me – that I was lucky enough to be his mom, and that, yes, because he shined, I got to shine vicariously.

It was more of the same with Joey.  We were actually convinced that Joey probably possessed a genius IQ when he was little.  He was crazy into numbers – like, he would memorize not only how many chapters one of Kevin’s chapter books had (I’m thinking of The Giver, in particular), but what page number each chapter began on – and this was before he could read.  He memorized people’s birthdays, the order of the songs on certain albums, and he could recite the alphabet backwards – fast! – when he was three.

All this apparent braininess led to visions of greatness in my mind.  My kids would do big, important things – how could they not?  They both were placed in GATE at school, and I was confident that their lives would follow a clear path to success.

Over the years, things have changed.   The older Kevin and Joey have gotten, the smaller fish they have become in a larger sea, and their so-called “genius” no longer stands out.  In high school, things don’t necessarily come so easily to Kevin – he’s had his share of academic struggles.  Now that he is entering his junior year of high school and I am coming to grips with the fact that he is a mere two years away from adulthood, I am realizing that that vision of greatness I had for him once upon a time was probably naive and unrealistic.  I am coming to terms with the fact that it is highly unlikely that he will graduate from high school and enter right into a four-year university program; based on finances and his academic resume, it’s far more likely that he will enroll in a community college after high school.  There is a part of me that feels guilty about that – is there anything we could have done to secure his future better?  Will he find a way to make his way in the world as an adult?  And yes, I will confess that there is a part of me that feels crappy about it in light of the fact that many of my friends will no doubt be sending their kids off to far-flung colleges where they will live in dorms.  Part of me wishes that I could give my kids what I never had in that regard – I never went to college.  As for Joey, well, he’s not the math wiz he was in first and second grades, and for the most part seems to have lost interest in numbers.  He doesn’t really like reading all that much.  He does well in school, but not stellar.  He’s not a superstar.

My own mindset about achievement has changed, too.  Part of it has to do with Finn – having a child with intellectual disabilities forces you to look at the world through a different lens.  Some parents of kids with Down syndrome remain persistent in their efforts to make sure their child reaches their “full potential.”  Some parents, like me, have begun to question the whole notion of potential and all its trappings: intelligence, success, achievement – and how society values people based on those factors.

What I’ve noticed lately is that average has become pathological – a dirty word in parent circles.  Nobody wants to have an average kid.  If you have a kid with Down syndrome, then “they need all the help they can get,” so you need to make sure to provide it so they can “reach their full potential” (whatever the hell that means – can anyone quantify potential?).  The unspoken message is “so they can be as high-functioning as possible,” although outwardly, most parents in the Down syndrome community claim to hate the categorizations of “high-functioning” and “low functioning.”  If you have a “typical” kid, you should be doing the hundreds of things available to give your kid a leg up – flashcards, tutors, coaches, enrichment programs, etc., etc.  The commonality is achievement, and it’s all in the name of laying the groundwork for our kids to become successful in life.

What does successful mean, though?  It seems as though in our society, we measure success monetarily, materially.  We measure success by what a person acquires – what kind of job (and therefore salary) they have, what kind of house they live in, what kind of car they drive, what kind of clothes they wear, what kind of vacations they take, what kind of toys and activities they provide for their kids.  When people talk about success, it seems like happiness and character and healthy relationships are rarely considered part of the equation.  Why do we not seem to value those things as much as we value achieving and acquiring?  Is someone considered “successful” if they have a high-paying job and a nice house but are an asshole?  (I’m being serious.)  Is someone not considered “successful” if they earn a modest wage, rent an apartment, and are content?

I don’t know.  I just know this is a subject I ponder a lot these days.  I came across this post recently on a blog I follow: Beyond a Waitress, and it got me thinking about the future I envision for each of my kids at this point in my parenting career.  Daisy and Annabelle have followed Kevin and Joey into the GATE program at school, but I put a lot less stock into it than I used to.  Of course I want – and expect – all of my kids (including Finn) to do their very best at whatever they undertake, but I no longer believe that being bright and putting forth one’s best effort means they will shine.  Or at least, maybe my definition of “shine” has evolved.  Maybe the “shining” is actually in the trying, the quiet but persistent display of character, rather than in the achievement.  Maybe the reward is the process itself, and not the end result – the house, the car, the vacation.

I often think of Joey and Little League.  He’s been passionate about baseball since he was six or seven years old, and there was a time when I think Michael and I thought that with his level of passion and effort, surely it would pay off one day and he would become a star player.  This past season, Joey struggled to keep up with some of the other boys in his division.  I think it became clear to us and to him that he’s just not going to be a standout player – but it doesn’t matter.  He loves the game as much as he ever did, he displays excellent sportsmanship and is supportive of his teammates no matter what.  He has character.  We love watching him play because he loves to play – not because he’s a stellar ballplayer.  There is a profound value in that.

So, Joey is never going to be a Major League Baseball player, and Kevin is probably never going to be a famous author or filmmaker.  I suspect that all of my kids will lead pretty average lives.  Average isn’t bad – average is just average.  What’s wrong with that?  As long as they are happy, compassionate, decent people, I will feel that I did my job well.  Right?

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18 Responses to Average Is a Dirty Word

  1. Mrs Odie 2 July 4, 2013 at 12:55 am #

    As a teacher, I have so much to say about this, but I’ll keep it brief. I have AP students and ELD (ESL) students. The parents I serve run the gamut from refugees fleeing war-torn countries like Syria and Egypt as well as local politicians whose kids drive $80,000 cars. I wish my parents were as concerned as you about effort and character. I wish that more students had perseverance. So many of them quit as soon as something gets hard. Or they cheat and help others cheat. I have had students who had straight As in all of their AP classes, a GPA of 5.0, and I know without a doubt they are going to fail out of college within two years. I was an average student in high school and went to community college. But once I found my passion, watching TV, there was no stopping me.

    Just don’t let them give up. Make them follow through. So much of success is just finishing what you start because it’s the right thing to do. I think that’s why so many employers value a college degree. It’s not that we’re so smart or so well-qualified. It shows that you can start something and finish it.

    • Lisa July 4, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      Yes, perseverance seems to be an endangered species nowadays, doesn’t it?

  2. Asha July 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    Really thought provoking post Lisa. I also admire your honesty. As our kids get older, our perspective changes so much, doesn’t it?
    Each of my kids has a baby book. In the baby book there is a page: “Letter from Mom, Letter from Dad”. As I sat there, few days or weeks post partum, I always wrote that all I want for them is happiness in their life, to feel free and happy and loved.
    I hated all the expectations that were placed on me and the feeling of guilt when I didn’t live up to them.
    Let’s face it, most of us are average. We are not politicians, stars, wealthy business owners. And that’s O.K!
    As long as my kids live a life they are happy with ( even if it has its struggles) , I will be happy for them and relieved.

  3. Cole July 4, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    I’m going to be redundant and put my response here in case their is a desire for conversation on it- This-“Maybe the “shining” is actually in the trying, the quiet but persistent display of character, rather than in the achievement.” Yes. Exactly.We’re a therapy family- and I guess what you say about why we do it for Abby is somewhat true- but it falls short with the basic intent behind it- or the reason why we want her to “reach her full potential”. For us we want all of the children to know that we believe they have a full potential- that what society has expected of them throughout history- or rather not expected, as people that are female and have an ID is not the ceiling they have to stop at- what we define as their full potential includes all of those characteristics you describe. We want them to know that we believe they are capable of being good caring responsible citizens. For me it comes from having grown up with an older sister that was denied any option of being taught to walk and talk because of her profound mental retardation. having witnessed so-called fucking expert neurologists ridicule my mom for trying to get Michelle help and ask why she bothers to even get her up each day since it doesn’t matter. And ultimately only being able to get help when if she is willing to place her daughter out of society. And now- 45 years later- entering the school system with a child who wears her difference on her face and in her paperwork feeling that same push against our expectations for her that she isn’t worth educating the same as any other child- and then looking down at our Abby and seeing her bright eyes, her eager expectation to do what we do, to do what her sisters do- to not be left out- but also seeing her realization when she knows that she can’t do something- she shuts down and turns away. She knows- people assume she isn’t capable because of the shape of her eyes- but she knows that she either does or doesn’t know how to do something- she just will learn how to do it differently and she waits for us to show her how. She’s always loved to learn new things- and once she learns- for her through a breakdown of steps and repetition- she’s got it. But I’m not trained in how to break down those steps- so I rely on ot/pt/slp/ei- ones who have proven to me and to Abby that we are on the same page to show us how to do that. I’m repeatedly amazed at home many steps go in to some act that appears so simple when I haven’t had to break it down and understand how to do it. Do you know David Hingsburger? This article- that’s how it is for Abby. And sadly- not too very long ago- these therapies that are offered- you couldn’t pay someone to offer them even as an option. Anyway- I know we differ in the view of therapy and the reason for it- and I respect that- but I do feel lumped in with a goal or an image that is not part of my core values or who I am when I read your assessment of this issue- and granted you aren’t talking to me specifically- but this time I felt the need to articulate why I do what I do, think what I think- just a bit more- hope you don’t mind xoxoxo http://davehingsburger.blogspot.com/2010/07/down-syndrome-off-clock.html

    • Lisa July 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

      I think I remember reading that article by Dave Hinsberg a while back, Nicole. I get it. And of course I want Finn to feel that sure of himself one day, and to actually be capable of doing things for himself and understanding his own abilities and limitations. The point of my post really wasn’t to put down therapy, though (although, yes, in our family, we’re not big fans) – it was meant more to talk about this mentality that seems to pervade our culture these days where every parent wants their kids to be superstars – Ds or not – and how very much we value achievement over fulfillment and character. Finn is only part of it for me.

  4. Melissa B July 4, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Thank you for this Lisa. I am a teacher at a well know elite women’s college and most of the time my students are focused on getting every little point on a paper or exam just to be perfect and not average. Average is a 4 letter word to them. None of them have EVER been AVERAGE. I am told that at least once a semester. And yet so many of them are burnt out and unhappy. They are 18-22 years old and already done and tired.

    I have students who are on the premed track not because they want to be but rather because that is what their parents will pay for. There is no question of happiness or desire for their own lives or career.

    I have had too many conversations with students that start about one thing – likely the class they are taking with me – and end up with – what makes you happy? What are you passionate about? What do you want from life?

    It took me a long time to be happy – I wish someone had sat me down a long time before I embarked upon the higher education track and asked me that question – what makes you happy and really enlightened me about what the choices were and what they meant personally and professionally. Would my 21 year old self have listened? I dont know.

    I am happy now in my non-tenure track position at a wonderful college. I have two beautiful little boys that I can spend good portions of my year with full time because I have a very flexible job. And yet so many people when they find out I am not on the tenure track frown and say – oh that’s too bad, why not? Well for one I made a choice about my life and my happiness and chose a career that allows me time in the classroom and lab AND at home with my kids. I did not have to choose career over family like so many women do in the sciences.

    There is nothing wrong with starting a college career in a community college and deciding whether a 4 year degree is something to seek later on. Happiness, respect, community are all important parts of leading a good life and we often forget that in our pursuit of monetary happiness.

  5. Deborah Mitchell July 4, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Right. You did your job well. Nothing is more important than feeling loved and accepted. Life is so fleeting.

  6. Michele R. July 4, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Husband is a teacher and have a 12th, 10th and 7th grader now and this is a conversation we have a lot in our house. In GA you get 85% or so of tuition paid for if you maintain a B. Called the Hope program. Does Not include the fees that are as much as the tuition or the living costs which are as much as the tuition. You lose this if you drop below a B. We have toured colleges here and since Eldest does not know what he wants to do, we are encouraging him to do 2 yr school and live a little first and then transfer in. That is a little tough for him since he has an above B avg and you can get into the two yr school with less than that but he doesnt have the study skills I think he needs–I think he needs a little more time and some real life living. We too believe that the degree shows an accomplishment and I seriously do not think it matters where that piece of paper is from.

    I am glad that our kids were in the gifted program as they are too only because it means the bad behavior is out of the classroom. My kids cannot stand how their non-gifted/advanced classes had kids who act up with the teacher and disrupt the whole class (middle and high school). Otherwise we are not too impressed with much of the teaching and opportunities. I agree too that the quest for the perfect grade is insane and it is a shame that education is so test-score focused. I feel the truly successful people are those who are well rounded and can converse. Unfortunately there is not a bubble sheet for that in school.

  7. Life After Grad School July 5, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    I probably have a very skewed perspective here as I spent 5 years teaching med students. However, my perspective is also shared by a friend who teaches freshman at a fairly expensive liberal arts college. The major problem with education in this country is that it is too test score driven. Our kids are learning to take tests – not how to think. 90% of the students I interacted with couldn’t take a lesson and apply it to the real world. The med students hated me when they had me because all of my test questions were “take this and show me how you’d apply it to this real world problem” questions. The 10% that could think – all non-traditional students – several of whom made a point of telling me that they had kids older than me!

    My advice- teach your kids how to take care of themselves (aka life skills: cooking, cleaning, laundry, balancing a checkbook). Then encourage them to THINK and let them figure problems out. Let them fail- sometimes you learn more from failure than success. The process is actually more important than getting the correct answer. Once they have the basics, they can apply themselves to any field that catches their interest!

    • Lisa July 5, 2013 at 4:26 am #

      I completely agree. Especially about letting them fail. I think too many parents are terrified of letting their kids fail at anything, and that teaches kids to be afraid of failure. There are lessons to be learned from failing once in a while, among them, humility.

  8. Cindy July 5, 2013 at 3:55 am #

    Lisa, I don’t think I have every commented before on your blog, I first want to say that I love your blog and Mrs., Odie’s blog. I don’t have to agree with everything you write, but I respect your opinion and thought our responses. I don’t even know if I will hit puglish on this, but I’m going to give you my two cents.

    I am now 55 years old. I started out in all of the academically gifted classes all through school. I was expected to get an A, if I got a B, I caught little remarks on why it wasn’t an A. The letter grade C was unacceptable. Went to college part time, worked full time and excelled to the top. ALso had 2 kids that I raised by myself after 10 years of marriage. By age 28, my staff would tell me they wanted to be just like me. When I asked what that meant, they would tell me that I was pretty, had a great job, beautiful car, exotic vacations, and two wonderful kids. I Just had to do it all, because that is what was expected of me. Started to have health problems in my 20’s, doctor claimed stress. “What stress, I would respond, this is life!” Fast forward to age 35, immune system started to play havoc, thyroid auto immune issues. Breast cancer at age 42. Not hormone related. Catch the drift.

    Left th world of whoever has the most in the end wins. Lisa, It’s all a bunch of bullshit. Grades are just grades, not practical sense. So many people I know are no where after years of college, yes, some are, but by no means all. Let your kids follow their dreams, teach them right from wrong, and let them make their own decisions. I had one kid that took a wayward path for a few years in his 20’s, he is now a proud home owner with a job he takes pride in working in a factory. (He has a degree in industrial design, that his Dad forced him to get, and doesn’t use it.) The other unfortunately has taken after me. He is now 36 years old and the signs and illnesses of stress are starting to effect him. If I could smack him upside his head and prove to him, that none of that material stuff matters I would.

    Long rant, Hope you catch the drift. Please just let them be them, not what you expect of them., They will find their way with your loving guidence. Remember, whoever has the most stuff in the end, doesn’t win,. They just end up dead like everyone else.

    • Cindy July 5, 2013 at 3:57 am #

      crap, it is late, and I am typing on a computer I spilled diet pepsi on. I am sorry about all of the typos! Oh well, perfection is not one of my strong suits anymore.

    • Lisa July 5, 2013 at 4:27 am #

      Completely agree with you, Cindy! That was pretty much the point I was trying to make. Thanks for hitting publish!

  9. Sue July 5, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    I chose the route of academic achievement, endless education, and a life in academia (which I happen to love, but I see that as just plain luck). I have friends who were smarter than me, but chose less education, and have wonderful, fulfilling careers. I have friends who weren’t as smart as me who went to an “average” college who are now doing very well financially. And then of course, I have seen every combination in between. My bottom line–no correlation between “smarts,” education level (or even, aside from maybe getting your first job after graduation, where you attended college), fulfilling career, remuneration, and happiness.

  10. Carolina July 5, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    Posts like this one give me so much to think. I’m very new to this parenthood thing and as much as I don’t want to make the same mistakes my parents made with me, I want always what is best for my son. It’s hard to find a happy medium. I want him to do great in life but I don’t want him to feel pressured by me or by the society I don’t want to measure his success by material things either. I want him to be happy, to be kind, I want him to be smart and to be able to make smart decisions in life but in this society we live happiness comes with a price. There is so much unhealthy competition out there; everyone wants to be the best, have the most and sadly I think with the years is going to get worst.

  11. lisa smifth July 6, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    We do things so different in Europe. High school ends at sixteen, but by then we’ve set up so many varied forms of occupations that the world is their oyster. They don’t have to attend a certan college to get ahead.

  12. jisun July 6, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    As someone who was expected to excel for the sake of excelling, accepting “average” has been such a work in progress for me. The thing that I have come to realize is that my being ok with “average” that doesn’t mean my life itself is mediocre. To the contrary, it just means I am trying to focus on being extraordinary in different ways, like happiness, compassion, and decency, just like you wrote. It is a work in progress though. I was the one who caught it for getting A minuses, and that stuff runs deep for me. Sigh.

  13. modernmessy February 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    This is a great post; I came over here after leaving a comment on one of your more recent posts. I love the perspective you share about your sons growing up and how your expectations didn’t come to fruition. My kids are still young, so it’s interesting to me to see this. I try not get too excited about my little voracious reader and scholar who is in elementary school. I am so proud of her and impressed by her, but what I love best about her is her character and maturity — she’s a very sweet yet strong girl and I hope that alone will help her stand out as she becomes a smaller and smaller fish in all those bigger ponds.

    I’d love to read more about how your views of parenting the older children changed as they grew. So few blogs out there by parents of older — teenage, adult, children — I know it’s partly because the children themselves own their stories, but just saying!

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