The Importance of Allowing Your Children to be Ordinary

I really like this piece, Pushing for Perfection–A Poor Choice in Parenting, sent to me by northTOmom, who often writes interesting comments here.

Pushing for Perfection–A Poor Choice in Parenting
The importance of allowing your children to be ordinary
by Joanne Kates

I was talking the other day to a woman who described herself as “Type A, a bit of a control freak” and said that she knows this infuses her parenting style.

I admitted to her that I play for that team too, and that it hasn’t been so hot for my parenting. She seemed shocked.

She then asked me: “Would you do it differently if you had it to do over again?”

I said yes. Which I think made her want to throw up, but she gained control over herself and asked me for details.

I told her that my biggest parenting mistake was schools. In order not to get sued, I shan’t mention specific names, but I will confess to pushing both my kids to go to high-performance academically rigorous schools. Which neither of them liked. What a surprise.

My kids are both super bright (we all think that) so I thought they’d benefit from high academic standards.

At least that’s what I told myself. And other people.

Because of the stories I get to hear from kids, thanks to my privileged position as a camp director, I knew girls were participating in oral sex at age 13, and kids were starting soon after that to smoke pot and drink alcohol. I was so scared of my daughter being influenced to join that party that I pushed her to go to a highly academic school where I thought the social agenda would be less aggressive.

Boys are different. When his turn came I was worried that he wouldn’t work hard enough, pay enough attention to his studies.

That’s why he got the pressure to go to a high-octane school.

Hindsight being 20/20, I have the same regret with both kids and it concerns control. Both my kids would have been happier at regular high schools.

The best gift I could have given them would have been permission to be ordinary — and I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

Something about being a Me Generation parent — the narcissism and specialness of our own selves — made me not even able to see how much pressure I was putting on my kids.

That they were both bright enough to perform just fine in those environments is not relevant. What matters more is that I chose their paths. They did not.

We all pretended that they got to choose, but the pressure I exerted was so pervasive that they both knew better than to disappoint me.

So if I had it to do over again, I would make more space for my kids to follow their own stars.

I would acknowledge that my own worries about their lives today and their lives tomorrow are just that — my worries. And I would fight (myself) tooth and nail to refuse to give in to my worries when making decisions about my children’s lives.

I would trust them more, knowing that we had raised them with great love and good values, and that they would be all right.

I would understand that permeating their child-rearing with my anxieties was a disservice to them.

I would work harder to control my desire for them to be special, and what would help me with that would be knowing (once again, thanks to hindsight) that the best way to acknowledge kids’ specialness is to love, support and respect them. That’s special enough.

It wasn’t necessary for me to make them special by growing them into great students or gymnasts or hockey players. They were already special enough.
The part I missed was that who they were was plenty good enough. Absence of pressure was a gift I would have loved to give them — if I only knew then what I know now.

15 thoughts on “The Importance of Allowing Your Children to be Ordinary

  1. I sometimes worry that I’m not exerting enough pressure because I continually pull back on the demands. No we’re not doing three birthday parties in one weekend. No we’re not doing playdates on each Saturday afternoon. No you can’t have a computer/DS/cellphone. No we don’t do ballet, soccer and swimming lessons.

    No school was missed due to illness, all year.
    No tears about homework ever.
    We eat dinner together most nights, at the table.
    She LOVES school…..


  2. PsychMom,

    I’m the same, often telling my daughters that they have to choose between activities, or events to attend. They are generally happier doing less, but sometimes I’m made to feel (by other parents) that I’m depriving my children of something essential by, for example, not exposing them to every team sport imaginable. (They don’t actually enjoy team sports.) Where I live, people tend to do things seasonally, for example skiing every weekend in the winter, soccer in spring and summer, etc. And I get very odd, perhaps pitying looks when I say, no we don’t ski. I don’t mention that the reason we don’t do it is that as a child my husband was dragged off every weekend morning in winter to a ski club, and he hated it–not the skiing itself, but being forced to go every weekend; after a hard week at school, he just wanted to relax and sleep in.

    Our school is public but it competes heavily with the “high-octane” schools mentioned in the article. The program my girls are in is very “high-octane,” and it does burn them out. It doesn’t help that the school will schedule a field trip (to a Blue Jays Game–curricular relevance??) in the day, and a Folk Dancing Festival (where kids from all different schools get together to dance the same folk dances) in the evening of the same day!. That schedule resulted in one of my daughters being sick the next day.

    Anyway, articles like the one above make me feel better about my attempts to ratchet things down for my daughters when I can.


  3. Hmm … I don’t like the way these choices are framed. I wouldn’t call my kids, or anybody’s kids, “ordinary” because they don’t go to a high-pressure school. I wouldn’t call the kids who go to a high-pressure school “special”, either.

    To me the choices are more between “relaxed” and “stressed out”. I know which one I choose.


  4. I just have to share this TED talk I saw today with Ken Robinson……What I don’t get is..he gets a standing ovation and people seem to really be getting what he says…and there’s at least 300 people in the room and who knows how many people around the world watching the video….but still we see so little change going on.


  5. You’re one step ahead of me, Psych! I got that in Facebook yesterday and immediately shared it on my wall. Then I saw it on The More Child. I love when Sir Ken begins, “as I was saying…” Did you catch the 2006 piece?


  6. Am I imagining things, or did Ken Robinson praise KIPP right at the end of the talk? I was surprised.

    Also, I agree with PsychMom. I feel this way about Alfie Kohn, too — he gives his speeches, everybody seems so impressed, and nothing changes.

    There’s an enormous gulf between these thinkers giving their presentations, and the day-to-day stresses of any actual school.


  7. I did hear the KIPP reference but I don’t know what KIPP is…will google it…

    Just to belabour the point…some people at our school will be just abuzz about Ken Robinson’s TED talk (and yes I saw the 2006 piece, at least half a dozen times…or whenever I’m depressed) but then I start talking about homework and how antiquated an idea it is and eyes glaze over…”but we have to get them ready for Middle School”…and then I know the TED talk did not get through. Like the worst of the old zombie movies.


  8. I looked up KIPP…and listened to his reference again. He’s sort of endorsing it, but I think he’s still saying it’s inadequate to serve the needs of today’s kids if we want to truly prepare them for the future.

    I think the message is that the idea of “schools R us” which exists in our culture today, just doesn’t serve us any longer. We don’t need to churn workers out to fill factories to provide stuff for world wars or the industrial age. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s public or private..the system and they way we’re educating is not right. We need to customize education for the individual and that can’t be done in a traditional classroom.


  9. Here’s an article about a mom, a professor, an author, who took this whole concept further and allowed her daughter to drop out of high school.

    “I’d sat with her many nights as she wept over her homework, struggling to complete work she just didn’t see the point in doing.”

    As flexible as I am, I can’t say I could bring myself to allow my daughter to drop out of high school. Still, I’m so aware of how school just doesn’t work for many kids. For a variety of reasons. Our children live in a fast paced world where school piles on more and more work, more and more deadlines, more juggling feats, and woe be it unto that child who simply cannot spin that fast. We have truly created a survival of the fittest school culture.

    I’m sympathetic to this girl. Her father’s death, her attentional issues which are no doubt greatly exacerbated by homework overload and insanely early high school start times, countless days lost to illness of one sort or another. And I’ll bet you stress and sleep deprivation wore down the girl’s defenses so she was susceptible.

    But…if you are in this boat, you don’t have to take such drastic measures. I hate to beat the homeschool drum again (no, I don’t. Why should I hate it? Thank heavens this option exists today in a way it has not before). Your child does not have to be a high school dropout. You can pull your child out and homeschool high school, This works just as well for the struggling student as the extremely advanced one.

    “I trust my daughter’s instincts, and I know that a path is not always linear.”

    This is very true. But non-linear can take its shape in a variety of forms. I like homeschooling (if you are in a position to do it) because you can tailor a curriculum and lifestyle uniquely suited to the needs of your child. And even the best schools can never do that.

    Having said that, I don’t believe any one of us is so spoiled here that we expect school to completely cater to all our whims, to the exclusion of all the other students. We’ve been accused of that here on this blog many times. What concerns me is when barely anyone’s needs seem to be met anymore. Has public school become last week’s dinner you didn’t have the heart to throw out? Rather rotten, unappetizing, boring and wilted.


  10. Wow, I never thought it would happen but I disagree with you HomeworkBlues….in the nicest possible way however..

    I think tailoring education to the indivdual child is the wave of the future and I don’t think it’s being “spoiled” when I expect schools to come up with individual learning plans for our children. The changes that are needed in our schooling system would facilitate a process whereby teachers had the time to do their jobs properly so that they could actually provide more support for each child to learn the things they need to learn. Not every child needs to learn the same things and they shouldn’t.

    I have thought very hard about whether I will send my child to high school. There are still a few years to go for us, and knowing her, she’ll just want to follow the rest of her crowd and do whatever they’re doing (ie going to school, doing homework) and it won’t be an issue. It doesn’t mean I won’t have expectations of her if she chooses not to go to school. Like the Mom in the article, I’d want her to have a job and be generally agreeable to live with if she’s not going to school. But I can live with her not having a high school diploma……

    Would I try the homeschooling approach rather than letting her dropout?…Absolutely. If she’d like to work while she’s doing it…all the better. But if she just wasn’t able to do it, then she’ll find her way. I liked the article very much and hope I have as level a head about high school when my daughter is ready for it.


  11. PsychMom, I think what HWB meant was that we don’t think the school should revolve around our children’s needs to the exclusion of the other children. I think she was trying to pre-empt this criticism from others.

    I think the issue is a red herring anyway. In my experience, a school is either serious about meeting the needs of every child, or it isn’t. If the gifted kids are alternately ignored or treated as achievement milk cows, I doubt that the average kids are being well-served either. (Oddly, in our district the sped kids may actually be getting a good deal, but that’s a whole different ball of wax.)

    PsychMom, in reference to your questions about high school, I can only pass along some useful advice that was given to me, which was “take it year by year”. There are so many variables, you’re lucky to get your present year worked out reasonably well. Who knows what the world will be like by the time your little one is in high school? In particular, what will the economy be like? There might not be any jobs available to her.


  12. Hi FedUpMom…I know what you’re saying, and I’m probably all wrapped up in my dream of what direction I think education should take, that being one in which every student has an individualized program that sometimes fits into a group format, but mostly fits within small groups or individualized work.

    The economy will be different in 6 years…I just hope one of our brilliant children will be able to figure out what to do about the Gulf of BP-hex-ico, someday. My heart breaks everytime I watch the news these days. We don’t hear of such things on the news here, but are there any relief agencies that are taking donations to help the people of the gulf States, or the wildlife?


  13. I think an improvement to the system as far as being able to individualize would be to have a shorter day really focused on core (maybe four hours), and then let the kids go home. But have other classes available for people who have different interested. Therefore, you could take as many or as few electives as you want. Of course, one of my biggest beefs with school is that they’re there all day and waste a lot of that time. My kids aren’t even in school yet, and I’m already thinking about all the things we wouldn’t have time to do if we don’t homeschool.


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  15. I looked up KIPP…and listened to his reference again. He’s sort of endorsing it, but I think he’s still saying it’s inadequate to serve the needs of today’s kids if we want to truly prepare them for the future.

    I think the message is that the idea of “schools R us” which exists in our culture today, just doesn’t serve us any longer. We don’t need to churn workers out to fill factories to provide stuff for world wars or the industrial age. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s public or private..the system and they way we’re educating is not right. We need to customize education for the individual and that can’t be done in a traditional classroom.


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