i’d say he’s average

I could see the penalty shoot out, but only just. Five balls in the back of the net and you win a prize! My two sons were standing in line, waiting, kicking up the dirt together in anticipation. It was the older one I couldn’t bear to watch. If I looked closely, I knew what I would find: determination etched into his face like warpaint. Desperation too. I would remember the times in the past he had crumpled under the inability to meet his own towering standards. I would get that queasy feeling in my gut, the one he of my four kids stirs up most regularly. This child, my first child, has never taken failure lightly.

And fail he did. Not a single shot in. At seven and a half, he was able to hold it together long enough to find me and stuff his face into my armpit before starting to cry. We walked away from the field slowly, closely, which somehow made getting to the heart of the matter easier. ‘I’m rubbish at football!’ he said, between sobs, a declaration but maybe in some small way a question. Could his mother, by the sheer power of her answer, make him better at something than he really was? ‘It was hard,’ I conceded, ‘the goalie was big.’ ‘Yeah, but Gabe scored twice.’ We are well past the age when they are oblivious to how their strengths and weaknesses stack up against their friends’.

‘Keep practicing,’ I offer, but the kid practices all the time. He’s out in the back garden after school kicking the ball around for hours, some nights I have to drag him inside flailing in protest. Effort is not the missing ingredient. Talent very well might be. ‘You’re not going to be good at everything,’ I say, and he hiccups a little though he’s heard these words before. It’s a standard line in our house, something I tell my kids almost as often as I cheer them on. And I cheer them on a lot.

The truth is that I don’t know how good Oliver is at football. Other things he does are more quantifiable to me. I know, for instance, at what level he reads. I know that when he was younger he was spectacularly bad at drawing. I know that he can sing sweetly and in tune and that he can’t run very fast for his age. I don’t know how good he is at football, but I can make an educated guess. I’d say he’s average.

The dreaded ‘a’ word. The ugly step-sister of that other ‘a’ word, the one thrown around in playgroups and parks with a frequency that belies its meaning: ‘advanced.’ Or if not advanced, then at least above average. It feels like every other child I know has been described to me as advanced or above average in some respect. Sure enough, a handful of them are. But the rest? The bell curve of life tells us they can’t be. The issue is not the kids, who are no doubt each uniquely wonderful (I mean that). It’s the moms and the dads and the stunning lack of objectivity that seems to go hand in hand with parenting these days.

We start out exaggerating wildly about them when they are tiny – ‘The cutest baby in the whole world!‘ – because we think the pitch of our language should match the ferocity of our love. Then they become toddlers and we see everywhere in their ordinary achievements signs of genius because we are bewitched by the magic of milestones. Finally they go to school where teachers and testing and teams reveal they aren’t as perfectly well-rounded as we imagined, but we continue to applaud them indiscriminately just the same. This time because we are convinced it is the way to re-boost their self-assurance. It’s an American phenomenon, this party of praise, says Christine Gross-Loh in Parenting Without Borders. It’s also a relatively recent one.

I wasn’t raised like that. If telling it like it is were an Olympic sport, my mom would medal in it. Her matter-of-factness didn’t always make me feel warm and gooey, but it did give me a realistic perspective on myself. It helped me to appreciate what I was actually good at. And it encouraged me to work damn hard at what I wasn’t. I never felt like my mom supported me any less in her candor: she was my biggest advocate. What I felt, rather, is that she saw me more for who I was and grounded me, as a result, in that vision.

Which is what I hope to do for my own children. Being honest with them about their deficits as well as their gifts is a choice, personal and deliberate. I can’t watch my kid miss five out of five penalty shots and think he did a ‘Great job!’. I won’t tell him he did, either. I don’t want him to expect success around every corner just because he turns it. What I want for him is to learn how to find enjoyment in the things he loves but doesn’t excel at. To grow as a person by striving for what doesn’t come naturally. Most of all what I want for him is to see himself clearly and to take pride in the picture nonetheless.

True confidence stems as much from self-awareness as it does from self-esteem.

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This post is part of a ‘blogging carnival’ about cultural attitudes toward self-esteem and praise, inspired by the book Parenting Without Borders. Read the other participants’ thoughts at the links below:

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “i’d say he’s average

  1. Erica Heller

    Thank you for this. I’m still working on understanding how to help my oldest manage the gap between his expectations of perfection and the reality of his 4yo skill set. What worries me is his tendency to give up or not even try — though I “praise the effort, not the outcome” and all that jazz.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Erica. I actually think this issue is trickier when they are younger: both because praising them for everything they put their hands to feels natural (and so much of what they do IS amazing, from a milestone point of view), but also because their skills, as you say, are still developing. Giving up in the face of struggle (or lack of perfection) is normal. The trick seems to be to encourage confidence while not over-inflating it, but, alas, that is a hard balance to strike! Hope to see you here again.

  2. I think it’s about, as you said, being honest with our kids. And helping them understand that they won’t excel at everything {no one does!} but helping them find their talents and passions.

  3. Pingback: "I Can't Stop Praising My Kid!": An Unfortunate Update - School of Smock

  4. I love this, Lauren! I was raised this way too. (Your mom and my mom would have gotten along very well.) Isn’t this what it’s all about? I want my son to be able to see himself clearly too. He’ll have strengths and weaknesses, but I want him to work hard to do his best.

  5. Arum Park

    I love and agree wholeheartedly with this. Thanks for the great post!

  6. I love this and your writing is so good. Very descriptive and clear. I love the warpaint line and your description of your mother. I don’t know what to think about all this praise and the lack of objectivity. I think my kids are the bees’ knees, but I won’t bullshit them because they deserve better than that. I have no answers but I like thinking about it. Great piece.

  7. Richard Apfel

    Does Oliver get any coaching? Practicing is one thing, practicing the right techniques is another.

    Love,

    Dad

    Sent from my iPad

  8. You and I are definitely on the same page, Lauren. I also have a very sensitive oldest child who takes failure and disappointment very hard. I found myself nodding along with your reaction to your son, and the words you chose to comfort/bolster him without giving him a false sense of his abilities. Great perspective here.

  9. Wow, just wow. So beautifully written. I could feel my own stomach knotting. The line that hit me hardest was: “What I felt, rather, is that she saw me more for who I was and grounded me, as a result, in that vision.”

    What more can any of ask for than to be seen for who we are? What a gift. I hope some day my son says that about me.

    Ok, that’s it for my morning cry. 🙂

  10. Imagine me here in the coffee shop doing that slow, loud clap of approval. I love this line to say as I say thing similar “You’re not going to be good at everything.” I honestly think some parents would gasp at this comment. I mentioned at Sarah’s site how often I hear random shouts from parents in the baseball stands who say “great hit” to a kid who has just been walked and so on. It doesn’t help a kid to get false praise. AND, they can still play that sport or do whatever activity even if they’re not #1. But they better learn to do it just for fun. It’s a good skill to have as we’re not all experts in a field, etc. I don’t think I was overly praised either. Maybe it’s why I don’t mind having a modest blog instead of a HUGE one.

  11. Pingback: Self-Esteem isn't Selfish - Left Brain Buddha

  12. Obviously no dice for a chat this morning despite my being optimistic.

    Really enjoyed this piece too. Much more personal. I also wonder how much Oliver’s love of the game impacts his desire to be good at it. We also have to teach kids that sometimes we can derive as much enjoyment from being a spectator of those who are above average. I think parents often get this by watching their kids, which is also maybe why they push them. I am amazed at how much I love watching other people ski, Matt sail, etc. in that respect.

  13. Justin

    Anyone in an Arsenal kit is by definition above average!

  14. “The issue is not the kids, who are no doubt each uniquely wonderful (I mean that). It’s the moms and the dads and the stunning lack of objectivity that seems to go hand in hand with parenting these days.” You speak the truth.

  15. Jen

    Really enjoyed this post! (and your blog!) I can totally relate. I have to say it makes me smile that your Dad replies to your posts. It’s so sweet. Take care.

  16. Hey I know this iis off topic but I was wondering iff
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    this for quite some tie and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something
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    • In WordPress, there is a Twitter widget in the ‘Appearance’ category (in the ‘Widgets’ sub category), which lists your latest tweets on the sidebar. That’s what I use!

  17. Pingback: Don't Let Your Kid Become An Arrogant A-hole - WhenCrazyMeetsExhaustion

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