What if we bowed out of the parenting rat race and found a way to accept that our children are going to lead wonderfully average lives? They won’t end up in jail, but they also probably won’t end up with a Wikipedia page either.
The “rat race” in this context is defined as the modern American parenting model that fills a child’s schedule with sports, tutoring, classes, prep courses, and camps. Soon it will be about logging hours spent on Khan academy, Coursera, and writing reports on Ted talks. Jennifer Senior points out in her (phenomenal) book All Joy and No Fun that parents used to prepare their children to be a blacksmith, a farmer, a baker. Within the past 75 years there has been a fundamental shift when it comes to thinking about what our children can become, and the possibilities are presented as endless. How are we supposed to determine the best preparation for our offspring if we don’t know what we are preparing them for?
A few months ago I made a note about developing this idea into a post, but the thought wasn’t mature enough to write it out here. A recent Slate article titled “Practice Does Not Make Perfect” has renewed my interest in the topic. If you aren’t going to read the Slate article yourself I’ll give you a quick glossing. After Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers made a splash* popular thinking shifted toward the idea that everyone could be successful if they put in their 10,000 hours. I think this idea drives the Tiger Mom/Helicopter Parent culture that we see in America today, with parents devoting more time than ever before to setting up a successful foundation for their children. The Slate article highlights some recent studies which move the thinking away from the “effort theory,” toward a combination of genetics and dedication. This approach is especially important when we are thinking about how to address social inequality; for many/most people their circumstances are not due to a lack of effort. For me the most striking point in the piece was the suggestion that instead of testing for IQ and then promoting those who are advanced into the best schools, we should be identifying those who are struggling the most and funnel them into the best learning environment possible in order to give them the kind of boost that their higher-IQ peers got from their genetic makeup.
When my kids were younger I had a sort of a Harvard-bound mentality. I wanted them to dream up unbelievable goals and put in their 10,000 hours to achieve them. I blamed my own average achievement level on a lack of resources and information due to a sort of birth-location lottery. My parents don’t deserve any harsh words for this, they did the best with what they had in a small farming town before the Internetz. I wondered what I would have achieved if my childhood had happened 20 years later, in a 10,000 hours focused household operating during the Information Age.
Now though, I don’t think I want to set my kids up to think that they can do absolutely anything they set their mind to. The last few years as I’ve had all good choices opened up to me I’ve found myself frequently mourning the paths not taken. I get caught in these sad little whirlwinds of negative thinking and I forget to focus on the many ways that things are going right for me, and the myriad of opportunities I have**. This is one of the drawbacks of telling people that every good choice is theirs for the taking. It’s a good thing I’m thinking about these things now, while my kids are really young. That should give me enough time to fine-tune these qualities in myself so I can teach by deed, and not just by word.
Last year I heard an NPR report about a family who had decided to structure their family life around baseball, detailing the time commitment it took to keep their kids excelling in both school and sports. The kids weren’t just playing baseball, they were aiming for the majors with each and every swing. As the audio streamed I felt overwhelmed by their schedule and I’m not even the one who is living with the commitments they have! I don’t want to structure my life that way, and I’m not sure that I want either of my kids pinning their life on such slim possibilities. At T1′s last end-of-school concert the graduating kindergartners all stood up and named what they wanted to be when they grew up. When the third or fourth child named their goal as being “doctor and president” the crowd responded in a rather dramatic fashion. The following kids quickly realized that if they wanted a similar reaction they needed to name something over-the-top as well. If a child hears that over and over I wonder it must be like to one day realize that the best they personally can hope for is something that no one would ever receive applause for at their kindergarten graduation?
Instead of telling my kids to dream impossible dreams or make them think that I value the Ivy League and career/monetary success over all else, I’d like them to think about values. I want them to have a strong work ethic, to have integrity, to be self-aware and pragmatic about their potential, to view their own potential in a straight-forward way that isn’t blurred by the potential and opportunities that their peers are able to grasp. I don’t want them to encounter the parenting “rhetoric-reality gap” and think that I say I want them to be kind, but mean that I want them to be successful. I think praising our kids for their effort instead of their results/intelligence is the first step we are taking in encouraging this mindset. It’s a little bit scary to think about walking that line though, because telling them they have to aim for the stars means they will at least reach the moon. What if I don’t tell them to build a spaceship, and they one day grow up feeling, like I sometimes feel, that everyone around them is learning to fly and their mother never showed them how to spread their wings?
*Someday I will post about how reading Outliers was a springboard for my departure from Mormonism. Reading it was a pivotal paradigm-shift moment in my life
**Many of which are completely unattainable for those in different circumstances