Why I'm Not Trying To Raise An 'Exceptional' Child

by Courtney Patterson
gifted child
mei 9 / Skitterphoto

A few weeks ago, I was reading through a few posts on a parenting forum where a conversation had sprung up from a parent who was completely delirious and devastated that her child doesn’t seem to have a future as a “gifted” child. What kind of prospects could she possibly ever expect to have? What kind of life and future could she really obtain if she has to live her life as an “average” child?

Um…WTF. Seriously?

When my daughter was born, did I have dreams for her that she would one day be an astronaut or the president, or that she would find a cure for cancer? Absolutely. I think we all do as parents. We all want to think that our child is the next gift to mankind. But then reality sets in, and as they grow, you start to discover their strengths, their weaknesses, their talents, and their propensity for certain abilities. You begin to discover your child’s aptitudes, and in doing so, you realize that those lofty goals and expectations you had in mind for your child are, well, just that—lofty. And they aren’t even your child’s goals or dreams. They’re yours.

But aside from all of this, when did we decide that the only way our children can have a great life is if they are above average? Whatever happened to actually appreciating average? To respecting our children’s abilities and to help them flourish as much as possible within said abilities? Maybe my daughter will cure cancer. Maybe she will discover the next solar system. Maybe she’ll be the leader of a great nation or movement, or discover the next life-changing invention, thought, or idea. Maybe she’ll win a Nobel Peace Prize or an Oscar. Maybe she’ll be a governor or a world-famous musician or a famous artist. Maybe she’ll be the next big fashion designer with all the celebrities clamoring for her pieces.

Or maybe she won’t.

Maybe she’ll do OK in school and graduate from a decent college with a degree that she may or may not use, and let’s be honest, chances are she won’t use it. Most of us don’t. Maybe she’ll go on to have a steady 9-to-5 with a family, a mortgage, and a minivan. Maybe she’ll spend her Saturday mornings fulfilling the role of soccer mom and volunteer for the PTA during the week. Maybe she won’t have kids at all and will decide to travel the world or go to cosmetology school. She will never make millions or be famous, but she’ll have a comfortable, peaceful, and good life that’s just considered average. And you know what?

That’s OK. All of these things are OK.

As parents, we always want what’s best for our children. We want them to have a better life than we did and hear me when I say, yes, I agree with all of that, but somewhere along the way, wanting the best for our children in today’s world hideously morphed into sucking our children dry, demanding their souls, and not giving a shit whether or not they have it in them to give or even want to give. Somewhere along the way, normal expectations turned into a dangerous game of getting the one-up on the next kid for fear of embarrassment and ridicule. That the only way you can truly be proud of your child is if they are in an Ivy League School and dominating the world.

Terms like “gifted” and “exceptional” have never impressed me, and truth be told, all this pressure we put on our kids to be “the best” is probably why our nation struggles with burned-out and overtaxed kids who end up hating school and life, and as a result, grow into adults who hate life. Do we ever stop to think of the kids who commit suicide because they felt like they just couldn’t measure up and were a disappointment in their parents’ eyes? While parents are demanding excellence, being the best at everything, and doing anything but being average, do they stop to think about the inner voice they’re cultivating in their child’s head that will stay with them forever?

Does this mean that I think we should lower our standards and not expect anything from our children? No. What I do think is that we need to start respecting our children, their abilities, their boundaries, and their own interests, and get a healthy grip on reality. Isn’t the ultimate goal in raising any child supposed to be about happiness, love, and unconditional support? Don’t we all just want our kids to be happy regardless of what that happiness looks like, even if it’s simply average by today’s standards?

I would hope so.