By Hilary Meyerson
I am a conscientious parent. To prove it, I’m setting my kids firmly on the path to mediocrity. I want them to strive for the goal of fair-to-middling in a wide range of activities. I want them to be spectacularly average.
This can be problematic for me, trying to raise children who are not the best at anything. My six-year-old daughter, Harper, just finished kindergarten, and is still in that golden age when anything is possible. She has art and music and playtime and fun every day. But my eight-year-old son, Henry, like his second-grade classmates, has already begun to identify at what he is “good” and “bad,” and the bad is to be shunned at all costs.
If you’re “bad” at reading, by all means, give that up. Is math hard in second grade? Write it off, you’ll never be good at it. Art? Music? Writing? It’s the same. If you’re not excelling at it by six, it’s probably too late. As for a working definition of what it means to be “bad” at something, just ask any kid: It means that someone else is much better.
Still, good parent that I am, I shuttle my kids after school to various enriching activities: swim lessons, music, soccer. At these extra-curricular endeavors, I can see the weeding out has begun, as kids begin to improve exponentially at their chosen activity.
Henry plays violin. He asked for lessons when he was four. One day in preschool, the father of a classmate came into class and played for the class. Not a professional musician, but rather a fifth-grade teacher who played for fun in the evenings. My son was enthralled. After this musical introduction, he insisted he wanted to take lessons. I found this hard to believe, not having one musical impulse myself, but almost a year later he was still talking about it. I found him a teacher. I tried to be casual about his lessons, but secretly I was envisioning him as an adult, headlining famous music halls, thanking me for nurturing his early passion, as I sat teary-eyed in the front row. I like to think all parents have this insanity with their eldest.
Fast forward three years. Suffice it to say, Henry is no Itzhak Perlman. After several years of listening to his performances, informal monthly affairs in his teacher’s tiny living room, I’m pretty sure we should not count on music scholarships for college. There is usually one student who dazzles the audience, who is so lost in the music I feel I am intruding on a private moment just by listening. Then there are those miserable souls who stand up and saw away at their tiny instruments, torturing the slimmest of tunes, while looking miserably into their parent’s video cameras, their eyes pleading for a swift death.
Henry is neither. He usually volunteers to go first, probably to get it over with, though he isn’t particularly nervous. He does a serviceable job at his piece, accepts his accolades with a smile, and eagerly heads for the cookies and juice. He helps the little ones set up their stands, offers encouragement on their renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and is slightly in awe of the teenagers who play after him.
He practices most mornings for about twenty minutes. He enjoys his lessons, probably because his teacher is one of those rare individuals who really gets kids, and knows that learning a difficult instrument is about more than music. Some days he gripes throughout his practice when he has a hard piece to practice; occasionally, he’ll ask me to buy him the sheet music to a song he heard somewhere or sang in school. I buy it and hand it to him without comment, and he learns it for fun. Last Christmas, it was “Frosty the Snowman,” and he played it every day for weeks until we begged him to play something else. He has never asked to quit.
Recently, another mother asked me what my endgame was for Henry’s violin playing. That was the word she used—endgame. I was stymied. I babbled some nonsense about the value of learning an instrument, but it wasn’t until later that I really thought about it. It’s clear he’s not going to be a famous soloist—the old joke about practice and Carnegie Hall is inapplicable. I never thought of an endgame. I’ve heard that our local high school and middle schools have decent music programs, and I’m pretty sure he’d enjoy playing in an orchestra.
“But what if he gives it up after high school?” the endgame mother asked me. “Wouldn’t that bother you? All that money for lessons down the drain? All those years?”
After high school? I can’t possibly think that far ahead. What about the now?
My daughter, Harper, took gymnastic classes when she was in preschool. She loved it all, the leotards and tumbling, but the zenith of the class was trampoline time. I have a photo of her in mid-bounce, her hair flying up around her, the look of sheer joy and delight on her face that makes those childhood photo ops priceless.
Then, when she was four, she was invited to join the “developmental team,” the very first rung of the competitive gymnastics ladder, a six-hour-a-week commitment.
Much has been said in the media of this specialization of kids, particularly in sports. No longer do kids play with a neighborhood soccer team in the fall, community center basketball in the winter, Little League in the spring. The pressure is to pick a sport and excel at it—kids work with baseball coaches and trainers all year in preparation for the all-important spring season.
The gymnastics coach looked over Harper’s small form critically, saying it was late to be joining, but there was still potential. Barring injuries, she could peak at fourteen. We signed her up for soccer instead. Where, I am proud to report, she is a very mediocre soccer player. But she is the best daisy picker on the field, and is having a great time.
When I express my opinions on mediocrity, I invariably get the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” argument. Wouldn’t you rather have your kid be really good at one thing, than decent at many? But what makes anyone think we have a choice?
I think it is monumental hubris to assume we can mold our kids to be superstars at anything. It’s not like we get a form to fill out when we enroll them in school, as nice as that would be. Imagine the discussion: “Honey? Has Junior had his chicken pox booster? Check. Do we want full-day or half-day kindergarten? Full. Do we want him to excel at one subject, or be competent at many? What’s that? One subject? OK. Which box should we check – there’s math, science, reading, art, sports … wait, the list is on page two, we can only pick one …” It doesn’t work that way. Our job isn’t to make them a résumé; it is to make them happy, well-adjusted people who can choose their own callings.
I also think it is galling when parents expect far more of their kids than of themselves or their own peers. It is a gift to excel at one particular thing. But how many of us can say we’ve reached the pinnacle in some discipline, or even come close? How many can say they have a passion that they pursue to the exclusion of all others? Sure, there are those who identify so closely with a hobby or pursuit that it encompasses much of their lives. And this is a gift indeed, to be an avid rock climber or quilter or Scrabble player or cyclist and to have the time and resources to pursue it outside of your breadwinning life. But think of your twenty closest adult friends. How many can be summed up in one word? How many would want to be?
This past weekend, my husband and I performed one of those duties I consider part of toiling in the trenches of parenting: attending the spring dance recital. Our daughter takes beginning tap and ballet. For this experience, we pay the (hefty) class fee. To participate in the recital, we pay another (large) fee, for the costume and program. Finally, we must purchase (expensive) tickets to watch our daughter in her three-minute routine, and then sit for another hour to watch the rest of the dancers. The dance studio is popular, and has ten shows over one weekend, twelve acts per show. Dancers and parents file in and out of a high school auditorium like so many sheep.
The shows, like the class schedules, are dominated by the younger dancers. There is class after class of three- and four-year-olds participating in something optimistically called “Creative Pre-Ballet.” The littlest dancers perform (and I use the term loosely) with their instructor on stage with them, modeling the routine.
One step up is my daughter’s age group, able to perform alone on stage, but with their eyes focused on stage left, where their instructor dances the routine with exaggerated movements in the wings to cue them. Harper tap-tap-tapped her way through “You Can’t Hurry Love” with her classmates, all of their eyes riveted to the wings where we could see the occasional foot or hand of her instructor, dancing behind the curtain. We cheered and clapped as our daughter took her bow, and resignedly settled in to sit through eleven more acts of other people’s children.
After the little ones were done, the intermediate classes took the stage: a smaller number of awkward middle schoolers cringing their way through their routine, looking anywhere but the audience. Then the lithe and graceful high schoolers, those few girls who had specialized in this endeavor for their childhood years, performing an intricate dance they had choreographed themselves, their careful blank expressions perfect imitations of every supermodel in every magazine as they gazed out at some unknown point in the distance. Finally, after creeping increments of years in the ages of the dancers, at least a twenty year gap: The Beginning Adult Tap class was brought to the stage.
The MC of the show, a dancer’s father pressed into service after years in the audience, had been doing a fair job—until this act came on. He seemed flummoxed as to how to introduce this unusual group. It was quite a different demographic, following wave after wave of tiny tots in dance shoes the size of Milano cookies. His introduction went something like, “Let’s give the next act extra applause, because, well, they are going to need it! This is, um, Beginning Adult Tap. Can you believe it—how nervous must they be?”
Despite the painful introduction, or perhaps because of it, I was intrigued. When the curtain opened, there were twelve fully grown adults, eleven women and one man, dressed simply in red shirts and black pants. The music was cued. They began to dance.
I recognized at least three of the women, other mothers I knew from the playground or school activities. Of all the acts, this was the only one that was fully engaged with the audience. Eyes forward, big smiles, contagious enthusiasm. Their number began slow, their music a classic rock song we all knew from the pre-kids days. It picked up, the dancers gaining speed, as most of the audience unwittingly mouthed the words.
As I watched them tap in perfect unison, I thought about these dancers. They all have jobs, families, car payments, grocery shopping like the rest of us. They’ve all obviously done something else with their lives before taking this tap class. But for whatever reason, six months ago or so, they went and signed up for a beginning tap class and showed up the first week with a brand new pair of clackety shoes. Then they showed up for class once a week, despite the demands of jobs and children and other responsibilities, and practiced. Then they performed for an auditorium full of parents, people deciding whether their little dancer should go to the next level or perhaps try karate. Just because it would be fun.
As their dance led up to a thundering finale, a wild, exuberant finish that brought down the house, I recognized the look on every one of the dancers’ faces, damp with perspiration. It was the same one Harper had in midair above the trampoline, in that long-ago gymnastics classes—sheer happiness. They were enjoying that moment.
And suddenly I had an answer for the mother who wanted to know the point of all those violin lessons. This is what I want for my kids. I want them 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. I want my son to take out his violin every Christmas, as his own kids groan, to play “Frosty the Snowman” yet again, because it’s tradition. And maybe take it to his kid’s preschool and play for a delighted bunch of four-year-olds.
Author’s Note: Here’s the final irony about those tap dancers: They were fantastic. This ought to be a heartwarming story about the middle-aged women (and man) who had the guts to flub their way through a few dance steps, enjoying themselves despite their obvious shortcomings. But it didn’t turn out that way. They were good. Really, really good. For those brief moments on stage, they were not moms or dads or doctors or firefighters or whatever they did offstage. They were dancers, in perfect unison, dazzling the audience, their joy evident for anyone to see. Maybe they were hoping to just become mediocre, but in truth, they were nothing short of magnificent.
About the Author: Hilary Meyerson is a Seattle-based writer and editor. She is the editor and social media strategist for Outdoors NW magazine, a regional outdoor recreation publication. You can find more of her writing at hilarymeyerson.com. She’s pleased to report that her kids are turning out happily average, but more than average happy.
Brain, Child (Spring 2009)