The Perilous Comforts of Being Average

Twenty-two years ago when my fiancé and I wrote our wedding vows, we agreed to incorporate particular words and phrases. Of course, “love” and “respect” were there, but I felt it important to include “extraordinary life.” That word, “extraordinary,” is something of an oxymoron, in that, the meaning is understood as “exceptional” and/or “special,” not “extra” “ordinary,” where “extra” is used to show the heightened level of ordinariness.

So, of course, when we had children, I’d naively thought that they too would, by some sort of familial default, be “extraordinary” children. Maybe they were from time to time, but on the whole, not really “extraordinary” at all. Just your pretty average, ordinary children. None of them excelled at school. They did what they needed to do to for their teachers to feel comfortable promoting them to the next grade from kindergarten to seventh grade. Once at their charter school (for grades 7-12) they needed to show “competency” to move to the next level of learning. Our two older children were each “held back” until their teachers were shown said competency; the next two will likely have similar delays. We don’t argue with their school. So long as our children finish on time with their peers, my spouse and I have no complaints.

Our two older children are/will be attending state (public) universities. Could they have been Ivy League students? I don’t know. I think if we had been “tiger parents”–insisting on violin, Russian Math, Mandarin, Eagle Scouting, maybe regular plasma donation–maybe. But we didn’t force any of those pursuits. Somehow, we fell into the mindset of “children should be free to pursue what they like.” Our children liked going to the library (for a time) and playing soccer (though practices were a drag) and riding bikes (often without helmets). We tried to encourage the idea of “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” This idiom hasn’t been fully adopted by them, and that’s alright. They’re still figuring it out at (almost) 14, 16, 18, and 20.

Recently, I came to the humbling conclusion that there’s not much I can do to change their trajectories. The opportunity to mold and cajole came and went. Perhaps this happened as early as failing to enroll them in a Montessori school we couldn’t afford; perhaps we should have invested in headphones that could be stretched over an in utero future baby. But even then, I thought that the world would be noisy enough for their entire post utero lives and leaving the fetus unmolested by Bach was wise. Perhaps this was the critical error? Doubt it as there have been so, so many since then.

We knew that we didn’t have a budding musician when we were told that the trumpet was chosen for “the fewest number of buttons to push.” We knew that athletics were not going to garner any NCAA Div I, full rides when cheers would erupt upon the cancellation of practice, and games. We knew that we didn’t have polyglots when each of them refused to learn “even a little bit” of a language so that we’d have fewer miscommunications while traveling. “English is spoken everywhere,” they assured us and promptly pulled our their cell phones to download Google Translate.

Average children. Average teenagers. Likely on a middle-of-the-road path to an average adulthood.

How to reconcile this with the aspirations of years ago? For me, the reconciliation comes in the realization that we, as parents, didn’t really role model the benefits of commitment to one single sport or the pleasures of mastering an instrument or the world-expanding merit of speaking more than one’s native tongue.

But can average be enough? It’s going to have to be because, I believe, we, as parents, are also fairly average. We like to think that we’re important and influential and changers of the world. But our children have taken notes all along. At the onset of the pandemic, I suggested that our family write a three-act play with six parts, one for each of us. They laughed. And instead, we watched TIGER KING. Riveted. So, you be the judge. Average people do these sorts of average things. Our children saw right through our weak attempts to convince them to “do as we say, not as we do.”

For my entire childhood, my parents told me that these laudable goals, “world changing,” et al, were attainable. I know that they said it to inspire me and endorse my capacity. And at 50 years old, seemingly, I’ve failed (so far) to live up to those great expectations. And, I’m fine with that, though it’s taken some time to accept it.

For those of you, my peers, who lose sleep at night wondering whether your children are going to “achieve” and “excel” and “stand out,” maybe allowing them to be average is alright. Or maybe, it’s just too late to change the direction they’re headed, i.e., to a life, likely not unlike yours, which if you’re reading this is likely a pretty good life, no matter how “extra” ordinary it might feel.

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