K-12 Education

In Praise of Mediocre Kids

Not every child is destined to be an Olympic athlete, a music virtuoso, or a Rhodes Scholar…why can’t we just accept that?
in praise of mediocre kids

Photograph by Ken Richardson

Last year, my son Finn came home from school and announced that he wanted to play the French horn. Naturally, I signed him up. A few weeks later, we got an email from the music director politely letting us know that Finn would benefit greatly from a tutor: The French horn is a tricky instrument, and it’s difficult to match the correct tone of the instrument to the notes.

No kidding. We’d had to endure the sounds of a drowning elephant coming from our living room almost daily. So although I’d already paid $150 for the music program and rented the instrument for $42 a month, I agreed to look into a tutor.

Turns out, tutors charge between $12 and $25 for half-hour lessons. That seemed like a lot of money to invest in an activity Finn had just started. But if we didn’t hire a tutor, would we be depriving him of an opportunity to achieve true musical greatness?

My husband and I went back and forth about what to do and eventually decided that we weren’t looking for our kid to become a prodigy; we just wanted him to try out an instrument and see if he liked it. Besides, it was already a struggle to persuade him to practice; getting him to a tutor every week would be another battle, and I worried it might make him lose interest altogether. So we said no.

But the whole experience got me wondering: Why are we pushing our kids to excel at just about everything? It’s no longer enough just to play town soccer; elementary schoolers also have to be on a year-round club team and receive private coaching. Your daughter’s getting As in math class? Time for an afterschool enrichment program to learn more-complex concepts—and might as well throw in tutors for reading, science, foreign languages, and dance for good measure. Every time I decide to let my 11-year-old twin boys and eight-year-old daughter find their own way, like my parents did when I was a kid, I get sucked back into thinking that I need to help them get ahead. No one wants her kid to be average anymore—at anything.

But to what end? Not every child is going to get into an honors class, or make the select team, or earn a spot in the ensemble—no matter how much money a parent throws at the situation. Is this endless quest for success contributing to our kids’ growing anxiety in ways that will affect them for years to come? Looking around at the children in Wayland, where I live, and the surrounding towns, I’m worried we’re headed in that direction—and I’m not alone.

 

Kate’s son Thomas (not their real names) was two years old when she signed him up for skating lessons to channel some of his energy. By age five, he’d joined a MetroWest hockey league, which practiced twice a week, with games monthly. Kate was happy with his progress—that is, until she spoke with other hockey parents. They encouraged her to enroll Thomas in another program that would help him advance to a select team—one with two practices and as many as two games every week. Another mother she befriended at the rink was already thinking ahead to college scholarships. Toward that goal, she’d signed her two kids up for skills classes focusing on agility and stick handling, in addition to the demanding elite-team schedule.

Did I mention they were only three and six years old?

“What if they decide they don’t want to play hockey? Or if they get hurt?” asks Kate, who ultimately decided she wanted her son to simply enjoy playing the game. College “is 12 years from now. They’re too young to be this intense—about anything!”

I’ve seen firsthand what that pressure can do to a kid. My friends’ son once loved the game of lacrosse. All of his parents’ time and resources went into the sport: They signed the teenager up for private trainers, club teams, and travel tournaments—to the exclusion of sleepovers, ski trips, and hanging out with friends. When he didn’t make the varsity team as a freshman, they pulled him from his public school and sent him to a private one, where he started on the team all four years. He’s now at a Division III college having the time of his life—but no longer playing lacrosse. After so many stressful years, he dropped it like a bad habit. It was just too much.

Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist at Northeastern University and Boston University, says he observes plenty of college-level players who are on the team “out of obligation, not passion.” They’ve trained for a sport most of their lives, and by the time they get to college they’re just going through the motions. Naylor thinks part of the problem is that children are specializing too soon—and not just with sports. “We’re overdosing our kids on everything,” he says. “The general thought is: The sooner you start something, the sooner you peak.”

But how soon is too soon? Like many mothers of my generation, I confess to plunking my six-month-old boys in front of Baby Mozart videos on the off-chance it might enhance their cognitive development. (They’re still a pair of knuckleheads, if you ask me.) And there are countless tutoring centers to help your toddler get a leg up on his or her peers. The nation’s largest chain, Kumon, assists preschoolers ages three to five with vocabulary, reading, and math. Kindergartners at the Russian School of Mathematics, a popular enrichment program with 15 branches in Massachusetts, are taught algebraic elements. Some see these early-education initiatives as a way to give kids a jump-start, while others, including one former middle school teacher who wished to remain anonymous, think they’re simply a waste of money. “There’s nothing a three-year-old should be doing academically,” she says. “That makes kids hate learning. A love of learning is what makes them successful.”

When students reach middle and high school, a striking number use private tutors to move from average to honors-level classes, or to help them stay afloat under their heavy AP course loads, according to numerous teachers and parents I spoke with. Interestingly, there’s no stigma attached to having a tutor the way there was when I was young. To these kids, it’s just another extracurricular. That concerns Dori Hutchinson, the director of services at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. When one of her sons was in middle school, Hutchinson remembers another mother asking if she had tutors lined up for next year. She was taken aback: Her son was doing well in school, so why would he need extra help? “Well, it’s so hard to get As,” the mother replied.

“I was not going to get him a tutor to go from a B to an A,” Hutchinson recalls. She worries about the message that sends to kids—that a B isn’t good enough. “There’s this thought that we need private lessons to get better,” she says. “Instead, we need to show our kids that it’s okay not to be the best at everything.”

 

What’s so wrong with wanting our kids to succeed, anyway? Nothing, technically, but nearly half of all college students are struggling with anxiety and depression in pursuit of perfection, Hutchinson tells me: “They’re incredibly driven…but not all that happy.” While she says there’s no direct causal link, she definitely thinks this “high-performance, high-productivity culture” is contributing to their fragile states of mind. Kids nowadays have worked so hard to get to where they are that they’re burned out by the time they reach college. Rather than thriving, they’re merely surviving. They’re anxious, depressed, not sleeping, abusing substances, dropping out of school, battling eating disorders, or worse. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 2013–2014 academic year, three Newton high school students took their own lives within four months. In April of this year, a Lexington High School senior committed suicide. The stress levels are palpable in hallways.

Hutchinson points to teenagers’ lack of resilience—the ability to face and overcome challenges. The issue is that “we’re not allowing our kids to make mistakes and learn from them,” she explains, giving the hypothetical example of well-meaning parents who hire a math tutor for their son throughout high school. As a result, he gets As. When it’s time for him to take the SATs, they again get him a tutor and he scores 700 on the math section. “But then the kid goes off to college on his own and is devastated when he gets a D in Calculus 101,” Hutchinson says. “He hasn’t had the chance to recognize that maybe math isn’t his strength.” Nor his passion. “You need to make sure your kid is there because he or she loves it—not because it’s a résumé-building line,” she adds.

Hutchinson understands parents’ motivation: “It’s coming from a place of love…and anxiety. You hate to watch your child struggle.” The problem is, “We’re trying to develop kids who have no deficits,” she says. “We all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities—that’s part of being human.”

Naylor, the sports psychologist, sees the same thing happening on the playing field: “As parents, we’re great at supporting our kids; we’re bad at letting them feel challenged.” If a child doesn’t get playing time, or if she has to sit on the sidelines, “that’s okay,” he says. Tears of frustration indicate passion—and intrinsic motivation. Look at Michael Jordan, who was cut from the varsity basketball team during his sophomore year of high school. He managed to turn out just fine.

 

We jump through hoops to make sure our children succeed for many reasons. Obviously, it’s because we want them to be happy and healthy…and we don’t want to close doors to opportunity prematurely. And maybe we’re also hoping for a competitive edge to get them into college (and some help paying for it, too) when acceptance rates are at an all-time low and tuitions are skyrocketing.

But might our own egos have something to do with it? A Westwood mother of three whom I’ll call Jill tells the story of a mom who arrived visibly upset to a fifth-grade graduation party. When everyone asked what was wrong, she told them her son hadn’t placed into the honors math class for middle school. She began to cry and said that her “biggest fear was that her kids would be average,” Jill explains. “She said, ‘My kids are a reflection of me—out there for the world to see what kind of mother I was.’”

I was shocked she’d say that—until I realized that thought has probably crossed all of our minds at some point, however fleetingly. When our kids shine, we take credit. Every time I go on Facebook I see one parent or another trumpeting their kid’s most recent achievement—whether it’s winning a ribbon at a swim meet or getting first place in the spelling bee. No wonder we feel pressure to help our kids excel. It’s no longer about keeping up with the Joneses—it’s about keeping up with their children. Still, it’s important to remember that our children are not extensions of ourselves. They are freethinking beings with their own interests. We can’t mold them into mini-me’s, nor can we live out our dreams vicariously through them.

A friend recently sent me a New York Times article in which college admissions officers shared advice they give their own kids. A quote from MIT dean of admissions Stuart Schmill resonated: “If you couldn’t write about this on your college application, would you still do it? If the answer is ‘no,’ then you shouldn’t be doing it.”

How freeing would it be if we actually followed his advice? If we backed off and gave our kids space to figure out what they enjoy doing—not what we think they should do, or what their friends are doing? If we stopped overscheduling them? If we let “good” be good enough and didn’t rush to hire tutors and private coaches at the first hint of interest or glimmer of talent?

A former competitive college athlete, Jill says it took her 13 years of motherhood to learn what she calls the magic words of parenting: “I want to do that.” She’d always struggled to get her eldest son to participate in soccer, band, baseball—you name it, he dragged his feet. Then one day he announced he wanted to try fencing, a sport that wasn’t even on her radar. From day one, “he had his bag packed and ready to go,” she says. It was her awakening: “I’d put in no time, energy, money, or volunteer hours. I didn’t even know the rules.” And yet her son was good at it—and actually enjoyed it. “I finally learned that mothering is easier and requires less effort when the kid drives an activity,” she says.

It’s not easy to ignore societal pressure to push, push, push; to trust that our children will find their own way without our stepping in to be their street sweeper, snowplow, Zamboni, or whatever you want to call it. But here’s some perspective: Our parents didn’t sign us up for all the extras—in fact, they didn’t sign us up for much at all, instead booting us outside to make our own fun in the neighborhood. They were more concerned with whether we ate our vegetables than how many goals we scored (at a game they likely didn’t attend). And look how well we turned out. We don’t owe our success to private coaching and tutoring; we owe it to our intrinsic desire to be our best self. That’s what we need to focus on with our children: building their self-esteem; creating a safe environment where it’s okay to fail and okay to try again; and encouraging them to be nice, honest, and loyal. And, perhaps most important of all, embracing mediocrity.




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