When Your Child Can’t Compete
By Nicole Matos
Those bumper stickers that read, “My karate star can beat up your honors student”? Those sometimes make me cry. I’ve got neither a karate star nor an honors student. At the moment, my son—quirky, funny, enthusiastic, endlessly beloved by my husband and I—is something I don’t hear many parents in today’s culture talk about.
He’s not especially good at anything.
This isn’t just my perception, but an actual diagnostic category. His official diagnosis has shifted around over the last few years, but one possibility is what is termed PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified). In favorable company, I like to re-letter this as PDD-WTF?, since it essentially stands for behind the average in multiple areas for reasons unknown. Jack of all trades—and until I had a child who struggled to learn, it had escaped me how many “trades” the average day involves—master of none.
The very nature of my son’s disability, at least at the moment, means that he can’t compete favorably—not academically, not athletically, not socially or emotionally—with other children his age. But it doesn’t rescue him from the need to: from the clarion call of a competitive, capitalist society, or the inner drive, so natural and human, to look at others and compare.
And, perhaps most problematic, it doesn’t rescue me from my own displaced competitive drives, from my own desire to be an achiever who produces other gold-star achievers, from the universal temptation to read my son as a synecdoche of self.
“Everyone has a talent,” we are told. But such a thing, were we to quantify it, would not be mathematically possible. I’ve become well-versed in the language of percentiles, of subscores and cohorts, and as of now, my child falls between the 3rd and the 18th percentile of every area in which he has been tested.
Sure, he might be underperforming—perhaps with time and with therapies, these numbers will change. “Someone‘s got to be in the 11th percentile,” my husband says, well-meaning, as my eyes welled up over yet another less-than-stellar, less than even average, report. “The 11th percentile is normal, it is someone’s normal.” Yes: it is our normal, Alex’s normal. I just never knew—nothing every prepared me for—how that would feel.
I think of it as Average Privilege—something like White or Male Privilege, the invisible-to-its-hosts constellation of unacknowledged benefits that accrue to parents when their children are, well, at least average: the middle of the pack. We can all image what it is like to envy the honors student, the music star, the wrestling champion. But to the parent of a child with a mild disability, every city is in fact Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above (your) average.
Parents with Average Privilege receive social credit for and are positively reinforced for the clear cause-and-effect of their efforts and sacrifices. “Reading already!” the elderly lady beams, to the mother and child sounding out words ahead of me at the drugstore. The mother replies, eyes shining, “I read to him every night.” I also read to my son every night, but he is not reading yet, and I don’t know when he will.
Parents with Average Privilege receive compliments on their children that are both believable and bankable; that is, they represent a legitimate area of competitive ability, and they are a talent they can envision their child cashing in on, building into some sort of productive future. “Sarah is such a graceful dancer;” “Nevaeh might be a mathematician someday;” “Jorge is quite a writer—way to go!”
What I’ve heard is “Alex tries so hard.” And though I do not dismiss the honor and integrity in the compliment—I cling to its promise of persistence, more than you know—I’ve heard it way too often, because it is too often the first obvious “good” thing there is to say.
Parents with Average Privilege can walk up to a bulletin board without fear. Even if their child’s art is not the absolute best, they can unconsciously trust it is likely not to stand out. I never walk up to a bulletin board without girding my loins; the chance is good that my child will be the contrast that adds gilt to your Lily—not once or twice, but each and every time.
And parents with Average Privilege never need to hide these competitive feelings—admittedly self-centered, damaging to all if not critically examined—or to worry that they will be seen as some sort of monster, cold-eyed, unloving, if they admit these feelings are there.
In the end, there’s lots about my son that is exceptional that isn’t captured in testing. But more to the point, there’s lots that is important about him, valuable, meaningful and precious, that might not ever be, necessarily, exceptional. That’s a value system that isn’t espoused enough, even and perhaps especially, in the world of children. When supposedly public school systems stratify students by selective enrollment, and when bad parenting is assumed to be the evil behind a child’s social and behavioral difficulties, families like mine are only the first to feel the pain.
Because, all else aside, my husband is right: there’s always someone, 49% of us to be exact, making the best out of something less than average, and we deserve some measure of privilege too.
Nicole Matos is a Chicago-based writer, professor, roller derby girl, and special needs mom. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Classical, The Rumpus, theNewerYork, The Atticus Review, Full Grown People, and others. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_matos2.
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