The Kiddy Pool: In Praise of Ordinary Children

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Intelligence in our children, whether normal or advanced, is in no way a virtue.

In last week’s The Atlantic, Olga Khazan related a research study about parents’ descriptions of their children; it turns out, unsurprisingly, that the way we describe our children reflects what we value in our respective cultures. As Khazan states: “Americans also seem preoccupied with their children’s smarts from an extremely young age” and “American parents were the only ones to consistently mention their children’s advanced intellect.” The American preoccupation with early academic enrichment provides fertile ground for an entire market of “baby genius” products designed to (over)stimulate the prodigy latent within all our offspring. One of the many problems with overemphasizing our children’s intellect is that we take the mind out of proportion and context with the body and spirit. We are also playing the fool; most of us are average, not geniuses, and our children are average too.

There was some behind-the-scenes debate about the terms used to describe children in the study. One of our CAPC contributors thought “regular”—a word choice designated by many European parents, referred to the consistency of a child’s bowel movements. I see no reason to underestimate the importance of that sort of childhood regularity, but I interpreted it to mean ordinary or average. You know, just a regular kid. It’s just that no one wants to be, or to produce, ordinary people. We cling to the belief that our children are exceptional because it makes us, their parents, exceptional too. So we over-praise, and tell them how special they are. We lose sight of the fact that their uniqueness and specialness in the context of our lives and families does not make them superior anywhere else. Nor is intelligence, average or advanced, in any way a virtue, but sometimes we pretend that it is.

As a college instructor who regularly teaches first-year students, I see what my profession calls “the snowflakes” all the time. A generation assured of their uniqueness since birth. Each one a special snowflake, but I can’t see for the blizzard. What happens next is the big fish/small pond syndrome, where, as children move into adulthood and into larger circles of the world, (like from high school to college), they start to realize that they are now surrounded by others who are used to being the best. There’s more competition and less room at the top, and it doesn’t stop with college. So what happens to the snowflakes groomed for a lifetime on their exceptionality? Superlatives are exclusive: only one person can be the smartest. But there is plenty of room for people who are persistent and kind. And really, who could argue that our world needs less goodness, less compassion?

When I look at the lists of characteristics to describe the children, it’s hard not to notice that “happy” didn’t make the cut for the American chart, but “intelligent,” “cognitively advanced,” “asks questions” (a trait admired by Americans and seen as needy by the Dutch), and “rebellious” did. What these graphs reveal are the universal belief that our culture (whatever one we happen to call home) knows the best way to rear children and the particular ways that cultures differ in parenting practices. We need to attain a critical distance, to step back and examine the values we impart to our children—not what we say, but what we model each day. Why those values? How do they reflect on us as parents, and for whose benefit are we perpetuating them? I know in my heart of hearts that if my child is a genius who does not love God, who feels no sense of vocation, no purpose to do good in this world, then I will have done her a disservice. A high IQ is not a requirement for serving or loving God. What happens if we see parenthood as the training of souls at least as much as the molding of minds? After all, God is not going to examine our children’s transcripts someday. He is going to examine their hearts—as well as ours.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • http://www.n4g.com Cathrin

    Conversely, I feel like we are in a world that throws around a lot of guilt and shame for smarties. As a couple of those precious snowflakes, my husband – whose memory is near eidetic – and I value wisdom over intelligence and still give thanks for the gift of intelligence. Not a virtue, but a gift. As the parents of a child identified as exceptionally gifted, her thirst for learning includes a thirst for the word, and her love of music extends to worship. These things are are not trappings or projections. We give thanks for her gifts, and pray for her to use them faithfully, because gifts do not exclude God, they are from Him.

  • http://thinkingthroughourfingers.blogspot.com/ Rosalyn

    Erin, I really love this. I’ve thought about this a lot–particularly as I feel like so much of my own identity growing up was “being smart” (an identity I kept pretty well until graduate school), and now I struggle with recognizing that I’m a lot more average than I’d like to admit! I don’t want my children to deal with the same thing: at our house, we spend a lot of time talking about how hard work trumps being smart. And I’d rather have happy, well-adjusted children than anything else.

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