Raising Unexceptional Kids (It’s harder than you think!)

My daughter starts kindergarten in a couple of weeks and she still can’t read.

Claire's first day of 4K

Claire’s first day of 4K

Her cousin who is only four months older rapidly finishes chapter books and reads books out loud with great expressiveness while she only really knows her letters (and even U and Y still get switched as often as not.)

Both my husband and I are lifelong readers who remember knowing how to read in Kindergarten even though we, like my beloved Scout Finch, don’t ever remember really being taught to read. So I’ve been hoping my daughter would eventually just pick up on reading and run with it. I assumed she’d be reading by now, be one of the “smart” kids in her class and just continue to excel from there.

But it is time for me to recognize that she is simply ordinary.

If you don’t have kids right now, you might not realize how difficult it is to let your kids be ordinary. If you are a parent, you’ve probably already run into parents who are scheduling music, language, and athletic activities for their kids in hopes that their kids will find their “passion” or excel at something that will make them exceptional.

There are plenty of studies to show that kids are feeling immense pressure and stress to perform in all their activities. While many of the parents I meet bemoan the hectic schedule they maintain and wax rhapsodic about their own simple childhoods, all seem to feel powerless to do anything differently. I agree with Jeffrey Kluger who attributes the problem to  parents who are afraid of the “shame of having raised an ordinary child.”

Even though our decision not to push our children academically or enroll our children in activities is a conscious one–partly because of the cost (both in terms of money and time) and partly because of our parenting philosophy–I find myself having to convince myself to make the decision over and over almost every day. The pressure mounts as my children get older. I wonder if I’m losing some sort of unspoken arms race. I have to continually remember what I’m aiming for as a parent.

As school starts, I’ve been weakening, wondering if I ought to hurry up and cram some phonics training in. It is taking a lot of resolve to send my ordinary daughter off to school to learn, along with the rest of her peers, how to read. And then I read an anecdote about Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, that struck a chord with me.

As a child, Jeff wanted to convince his grandmother to quit smoking so he did some mental math to estimate just how much her habit was costing her and simply announced “You’ve taken nine years off your life!”

This caused his grandmother to burst into tears, a result he didn’t anticipate.

Here’s his speech from Princeton that tells the rest of the story:

I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Perhaps because I grew up as a kid who was frequently more clever than kind, that last line resonated deeply with me and has strengthened my resolve once more. I fear becoming a parent who is so focused on making my kids exceptionally clever that I forget to raise kids who know how to offer ordinary kindness.

I realize I don’t have to choose. Plenty of people are both clever AND kind, and I know many of them. However, this story reminded me that kindness is much harder to teach. The good news is, the best place to teach my daughter how to be kind is right here at home. She doesn’t need coaches or teams, teachers or classmates for that. My husband and I can model it, enforce it, praise it, and celebrate it right here at home. Jeff Bezos’ story reminded me what I’ve always believed: It’s more important for me to teach my daughter to be kind. The reading can wait.


4 thoughts on “Raising Unexceptional Kids (It’s harder than you think!)

  1. mommameesh says:

    As parents we want our children to be the top of the class, and have it come with ease. I am struggling with this. I didn’t have to work hard for my grades growing up. I would skip homework and still pull out good grades. My children are different – especially with reading. Although it frustrates me some days that they aren’t grasping things as easily as I did, I have to remember that they are kids. They will learn, some take longer, some you have to try new approaches with, but they will learn. I had the same frustration with potty training… and I am happy to report eventually they got the hang of that too 😉

  2. Luanne says:

    And while you may describe her as ordinary, and I understand why, she is so very far from ordinary. Thank you for not pushing her and for allowing her to be her creative, funny, happy, loving self.

    • I hesitated when I wrote this post because I really do believe she is extraordinary in so many ways, but in ways that are completely hers and have not been coached or trained or refined… yet. I’m so eager to see how she blossoms at school!

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