Everyone I know, it seems, has gifted children--children for whom the regular school curriculum is boring; children who play tennis like miniature Steffi Grafs; children whose musical talents pit them against the ghost of young Mozart. These are not kids who just do things--they do things exceedingly well.
My children, on the other hand, define the word ordinary. They get mostly B's (and a few C's) and read at grade level; they play sports for fun, since neither is particularly competitive; they listen to music rather than make it. They are, compared to the gifted and talented, pretty average kids. And I consider their ordinariness a gift.
I didn't always. As part of a generation that is highly motivated and extremely competitive, I got sucked into the belief that being the best counts, that being ordinary is dull. When Max, our first child, was born, I was quite certain that with two high-achieving parents it was only a matter of time until his natural talents emerged. Would he be a great soccer player? Would he excel in school? I wondered the same with Sarah. As both of them developed and demonstrated no outstanding gifts, I couldn't figure out where I--or they--had gone wrong.
Surrounded by friends whose kids displayed impressive intellect or true artistic talent, I found myself embarrassed when the topic of achievements came up. After one mom mentioned a highly selective academic program her daughter had been accepted into and another told of her son's baseball prowess, I made feeble jokes about my kids' "achievements." "Max was sent to the principal's office three times in one week." "Sarah found a new way to braid Barbie's hair."
As these moms talked, though, I came to realize that they were kept plenty busy nurturing their children's gifts; transporting them to extra lessons, out-of-town tournaments, night-time rehearsals, and the like. I'm sure I would have done the same had my kids demonstrated special talents, but I'll admit I didn't miss the sacrifice of my time and energy. Just taking care of normal activities--like soccer, Brownie meetings, and orthodontist appointments--is enough for me.
I also did not miss having kids so driven to succeed that they drive themselves nuts. True, not all gifted kids are neurotic or maladjusted, but in my 20 years as a teacher I've seen many who made themselves miserable with their perfectionism. I'll never forget one of my students, a brilliant girl who suffered from chronic stomachaches. If she received less than an A or came in second on a test, she berated herself. At age 16, she was diagnosed with an ulcer.
Last term, Sarah came home clutching her fourth-grade interim report card. "Guess what, Mom," she said, beaming. "I got a B-minus in writing!"
"Only a B-minus? How come?" I asked. Instantly, I regretted my words.
"Well, I thought it was going to be a C," she said, angrily snatching the card away from me. "This is pretty good!"
When I went to the parent-teacher conference to discuss Sarah's progress, I asked if my daughter was working up to her potential. "I think she is," her teacher replied. I must have looked chagrined, because she added (having also taught Max), "Both of your kids have a fabulous sense of humor; both are sensitive to their classmates; they both listen and learn from what's going on around them. Those qualities will get them as far in life as straight A's."
The teacher's words left me wondering if I had a blind spot the size of the Rockies when it came to my kids' strengths. An incident at my son's school a few weeks later made her message even clearer.
Max had come home from the sixth grade extremely agitated. He spoke very little, and when I pressed him, he said only, "Some kids can be really mean." I assumed someone had been picking on him, but I was wrong.
Later, when he was ready to talk, he told me about an incident he'd witnessed in the hall that afternoon. A teacher, whose arms were filled with books and supplies, had dropped a stapler and asked a boy near her if he'd pick it up. Instead, he kicked it farther down the hall. Max, who returned it to her, was appalled that anyone would behave that way, especially to a teacher.
My eyes filled with tears as I hugged him. He hadn't been concerned about his own hurt feelings, but rather about the teacher's. And in the face of peer pressure, he'd done the right thing.
We live in a time when we tend to gauge our worth by the number of our achievements, not by the number of right things we do or by how happy we are within ourselves. But, as my kids have shown me, a person's character cannot be measured by his rank in class, but by kindness, a sense of humor, and the ability to see what's needed and do it. Maybe these aren't qualities that will get my kids into Harvard or garner them any awards. But in the long run, I feel they're as valuable as a high IQ, athletic prowess, or musical talent.
My own mother chastises me for calling her grandchildren ordinary. "I think they'll surprise you one day," she tells me. "I think there's more going on in those heads than you see." Naturally, I hope she's right. But I also remind myself that what I really want is for them to like who they are. If they can do that throughout their lives, they will have achieved a great deal.