There’s an article from Boston magazine making the internet rounds right now titled “In Praise of Mediocre Kids.” In it, Julie Suratt describes how her son Finn was interested in playing the French horn, so they got him the instrument and signed him up for the school music program, only to find out that he wasn’t that good.
The school music director suggested they pay for a private tutor. Like any good parents, the Suratts looked into it. The music program already cost $150, and to rent the French horn was another $42 a month. Add the cost of private lessons on top of that, and once everything was tallied, Suratt was left wondering why they originally got into this whole “playing an instrument” thing. It wasn’t for Finn to play in the London symphony (do they have French horns in the London symphony?). It was so he could try out an instrument and see if he enjoyed the experience.
But her initial reaction to do everything she could to make sure her son was the best at the French horn, even if it cost a great deal of money, is relatable to me, and I assume it is to anyone with children.
A few years ago my daughter, who was 5 at the time, wanted to try ballet. We got her the leotard and the lessons and the cute shoes. I drove her to every practice and every recital, and as I did, I imagined her as a professional dancer. This graceful ballerina, prancing along the stage, wowing fans. The strange thing is, though, I don’t even like ballet. I’ve seen The Nutcracker a couple times, and I was never enthralled. And yet, the moment my daughter showed interest in something, I wanted her to be the best at it.
My notions of her devoting her life to ballet got quashed pretty quickly however. After about six months, it was everything I could do to get her to put on the tights. She hated it, so I ended up forcing her to do something that she didn’t like, with the hope that she would make me proud someday by becoming a prima ballerina — again, an art form I don’t even appreciate.
Like Suratt, I eventually took a step back and had to examine why I got her into this whole dancing gig in the first place, and the reasoning was to see if she’d enjoy it. Not for her to become some accomplished ballerina. Like really, what are the odds?
Often as parents, we get lost in competition. We expect our children to be the best at everything, all while forgetting that turning them into upstanding adults with passions and good values is actually a pretty lofty goal all by itself.
But for some reason, parents in 2017 are fearful of mediocrity. Now, keep in mind, this is often a middle- to upper-class problem. You have to have enough money to pay for those extracurricular activities, along with the extra gear and lessons, plus the time to schlep your kid from place to place. I grew up with a single mother. We didn’t have money for that kind of thing, and she certainly didn’t have the time or resources to be shuttling me all over town each day.
We make enough money for my son to play soccer and for my daughter to attend gymnastics lessons (her new adventure). We don’t make enough money to devote our lives to the cause, but we wouldn’t want to anyway. Our kids are enjoying themselves and learning new skills, and we are happy with that.
I happen to work in a Division 1 athletics program. My job is to help make sure college athletes do their homework (I’m pretty popular, trust me). I will be the first to admit, I’ve seen student athletes who are so driven to excel at everything they do that I have to take a step back to truly appreciate how amazing they are. But on the flip side, I’ve also seen the downside of pushing a child to be the best their whole life: When they do fail, and they will because everyone does, it crushes them. This can be tragic.
In the past two years, two student athletes I worked with have died by suicide — one after he lost eligibility, the other when she was cut from the team. Those two students were bright and capable, and yet they had built up their sport to be so important, so valuable, that when it was taken away from them, they felt like they had nothing left to live for. But the fact is, they both had a hell of a lot of life left to live. They were smart and motivated. They could have had promising careers and families. They were good people, and their whole lives still lay ahead of them.
But they couldn’t see that.
Now, this isn’t going to be the case for all children who have been pushed to excel their entire lives, but we shouldn’t ignore the impact this has on our children’s mental and emotional well-being either.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a mediocre child. There is nothing wrong with being a B or even a C student. It’s not that you shouldn’t encourage children to do their best and challenge themselves. But pushing them to be the absolute best and demanding they excel at everything from soccer to the French horn to their class ranking might not be the best way for them to truly enjoy their childhood. That’s a lot of freaking pressure. And from my observations, it can, in fact, have tragic consequences.
Ultimately, that’s what Suratt concludes in her article: “It’s not easy to ignore societal pressure to push, push, push […]. Our parents didn’t sign us up for all the extras […]. They were more concerned with whether we ate our vegetables than how many goals we scored […]. 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.”
We need to teach our children that failure is a part of life and that we still love them even if they are not the best at this or that, because on the whole, they are the best children we have. Everyone has their talents and their struggles, and that’s part of life. While my daughter will never become a famous ballerina, that’s okay. As long as she becomes a kind, self-sufficient, caring person, I will be incredibly proud of her.
And I have to assume all of you loving parents reading this article feel the same. So let’s make sure our kids know that. Let’s take the pressure off them a little. Let’s not worry about pushing our children to be the best, and instead, like Surratt, embrace mediocrity.