In Praise of Mediocrity

April 3, 2009

I have a confession: It is my goal to raise mediocre children.

That being said, I have to give a disclaimer: I want my children to excel in relationships, in virtue, in kindness, in faith, hope and charity. But I’m not going to push them to be the best in sports, music, school, or anything else. I will nurture their natural passions, encourage a very strong work ethic, help them sample a broad variety of scholastic, musical, and athletic experiences, but I will most likely not produce a Nobel Peace winning scientist, a music virtuoso, or an Olympic athlete.

And that’s okay, right?

I subscribe to a magazine I love called Brain, Child. One of the article this issue is called “Endgame,” written by Hilary Meyerson. The subtitle of the article is “If your kids aren’t the best, should they even bother?” and she tells the tale of her mediocre children who play violin, do gymnastics, play soccer. And none of it excellently. She recounts a moment of confusion that she experienced when another mom asked her what her “endgame” was for her son’s violin playing. Does there have to be an “endgame?” She concludes the article with this realization: “I want my kids to take time away from the responsibilities of daily living, to do something that they really enjoy without worrying if they will be the best at it, or will receive recognition or kudos for it.”

This makes a lot of sense to me, and I read this article with relief, because it echoed and clarified what my own thoughts have been on this subject. I see plenty of parents who are picking something for their child to be the best at, and they give up so much time and energy and money for lessons, practices, supplies. I spoke with a woman yesterday who explained to me that she had enrolled her son in swimming lessons three times a week so that when he gets old enough, he can excel on the swim team.

This little boy just turned two years old. I am not joking about this.

I hear other parents talk about their elementary-aged kids “baseball careers.” This kind of thinking is rampant, and insidious. Our children can become superstars, if only we provide the right context and pressure. I have had moments of near-panic when I worry that my children aren’t playing team sports (aside from a mediocre foray into one season of tee ball and one season of soccer, two years ago). They aren’t taking structured music lessons (although I’m going to enroll our middle daughter in piano soon). They aren’t “specializing” in anything. I worry that my children aren’t driven enough, aren’t competitive enough, aren’t sporty enough.

But, as Meyerson expresses, “I think it is monumental hubris to assume we can mold our kids to be superstars at anything…how many of us can say we’ve reached the pinnacle in some discipline, or even come close?”

This sounds like common sense to me. I am a dedicated parent. But most afternoons don’t see us running around to lessons. One Brownie meeting every other week for Phoebe. One horse-back riding lesson a week for Lucy. Gymnastics on Saturday mornings for Phoebe and Bridget. Even all that sounds like a lot, because I like being home, cooking dinner. I like knowing that my children are playing outside after having a leisurely after-school snack. I like for them to have neighbors and friends over. I even like to hear them fighting, knowing that they are building conflict-resolution skills that will help them all their lives long. (Although this perspective is not usually the one I embrace in the moment of hearing them bicker.) Heck, I don’t even mind them playing American Girl games on the computer.

If I can raise mediocre kids who can enjoy their lives, explore their God-given talents, find their place in His Created Order, I think I’ll be pretty satisfied. And if one of them shocks us and suddenly becomes extremely driven to pursue a specific goal or skill, Dave and I will figure out how to support and encourage them. And I will amend this blog post.

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7 Responses to “In Praise of Mediocrity”

  1. Mel said

    Hi Leanne,
    I think you have a very healthy perspective…that story about the 2 year old swimmer is very sad, mainly b/c I think there ARE a lot of parents out there doing that exact thing. Kids should be kids and be able to explore the interests they have…if they enjoy it, great…if not, at least they tried it…no matter how good/bad they are. If/when I ever have kids, I hope I maintain the same stance as you!

  2. Leanne said

    Thanks Mel! Kind words. I miss you, friend!

  3. Jeanie said

    I have “lurked” around your blog for a couple months, off and on, but never responded. I have to respond to this. My children are now 17 (girl) and 13 (boy). I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts and you expressed them so eloquently.
    My 17 year old plays volleyball (both school team and club) and has done fairly well in that sport. Unfortunately due to the faulty genetics of her unathletic parents, she is a “measly” 5 ft. 8 inches tall. You’d think this is a character flaw according to the responses we’ve heard from other parents on various teams. “Oh, do you think she’ll grow any more?” (said in an ominous whisper). Of course she won’t. She quit growing over a year ago. We think she’s perfect even though 5’8″ is pretty short for an outside hitter.
    Even if she never makes her college team, never plays the sport again…we’ve had so much fun just watching her ENJOY herself and play on a team. That’s supposed to be the FOCUS isn’t it? We are always amazed at all the parents of 13 and 14 year old players who are worried that their child won’t be seen by a college scout. They are 13!!! Who knows what they will be like in 5 more years? Where they will want to go to college?
    My 13 year old has tried his hand at soccer and baseball. He likes baseball but it’s not his passion. I don’t even know that he has a passion yet. He loves Science.
    When I was growing up I took piano lessons (hated them) and played a few sports. I didn’t end up doing anything even related to piano or sports.
    My husband played a little football and was involved in no other extra-curricular activies (too big of a family and too little money) and he is one of the smartest people I know and has excelled both professionally and personally.
    I believe that children that grow up with options and lots of love and encouragement are well rounded adults. The one thing I know now that I wish I had realized when my kids were little is that they are who THEY are. They are individuals with their own temperaments and strengths and it’s important to nurture who THEY are…not who I might want them to be.
    Sorry this is long and rambling…guess it just struck a chord.

    • Leanne said

      Jeanie, Thanks so much for commenting (especially since you agree with me). πŸ™‚ I hear ya! It seems like parents “objectify” their children too much, and want to have them as “possessions” that they can flaunt, instead of people they can enjoy. I love your enjoyment of watching your daughter, and your acceptance of both your children. We reality-loving parents have to stick together! Thanks again…

  4. L said

    How lovely to read this . My children are grown up (26 and 22) but I have often been made to feel guilty that I didn’t put them in training for dance/swimming/whatever. My son took up karate, I let him;he gave up, I let him. Ditto for my daughter and dance.
    I remember my growing years when all evenings were spent leaning on a lamppost in my garden, watching the spectacular sunsets. I think I grew up only during those periods of doing nothing.

    • Leanne said

      L, thanks so much for commenting. This really “struck a chord” with a lot of people, I guess! I just read last night in Raising Great Kids by Henry Cloud and John Townsend this statement in a list of possible goals parents may have for their children: “Teach children to be competent. This is the hallmark of our era. To provide their children with a good background, “soccer moms and dads” exhaust themselves with sports, arts activities, and social events. Every Saturday is dedicated to a kid’s games and tournaments. While kids learn valuable skills, teamwork, and socialization, they may miss out on other areas of life such as intimacy, home responsibilities, and spiritual values.” That’s validating!

  5. Laura Lee said

    This is great Leanne. I agree that we should encourage our kids to do things they enjoy and support their talents if/when they emerge. I definitely think this is a healthy perspective and way less pressure for our children (and us!).
    I’ve met your girls and they are LOVELY PEOPLE. You are doing an amazing job.
    This is good for me to remember since as a virgo I have issues with a drive for perfection and overachievement, which has caused me such greif in life. I dont’ want want to put this on my own children.
    I dothink Bubs may be headed to a career in competitive EATING, but it’s really early still to determine that outcome. πŸ™‚

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