Rejecting Yertle

“Every now and then I am tempted to audition them for a commercial so we can put the money into their college savings, but there’s just no way I’d do that.”

Wanda gave me a look.  “I hate to tell you, but your kids can’t be in a commercial.  They aren’t well enough behaved.  They’d get fired.”

I briefly imagined Benjamin knocking over cameras and lighting equipment, then running cackling from the child handler with Giraffie hanging out of his mouth.  “That’s not true.  Zachary can behave.”

“But he doesn’t have the personality for it,” she pointed out.

“Ah, so what we’d need is Benjamin’s gregariousness with Zachary’s willingness to do what he’s told.”  I felt like Dorothy, wondering if there is such a child.  There must be, because the commercials are lousy with kids.  Just not my kids, who lack the requisite combination of showmanship and obedience.

There are, however, things they are good at.  Very, very good at.  I won’t get into details here, because I am cautious with what I write about them, but suffice it to say that they are not without their abilities.  And I don’t just mean their obvious talent for complete and total mayhem.

When I wrote last week about Michael Jackson’s ruined life, I wasn’t just talking about child actors.  I was talking about the need to push children to accomplish things.  Whether it be getting into the gifted program or being the star of the soccer team, there is nothing more destructive than taking a child’s gift and turning it into fodder for the spotlight.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not at all opposed to gifted programs or chess camp or what have you.  Sometimes, a highly gifted child can only feel normal if she is among others like her.  I am all for helping kids find an environment in which they are comfortable and in which they can feel like they are among their peers.  However, I think there is a lot of push to make children stand out, be better than their peers.

We want all our children to be from Lake Wobegone.  I am here to argue that perhaps there is something to be said for allowing our children to be average and for teaching them that Cs are just fine sometimes.  Nothing is a greater gift for an unusual child than to find an environment that challenges her without making her feel like she must be number one.  Hell, all kids can use that.

What it comes down to is a societal worship of success, which is a kissing cousin of the societal worship of celebrity.  Even most of those who eschew monetary success or fame are determined to be the top of their game, whatever their game may be.  Whether it’s making millions or being the most selfless of the social workers or being the crunchiest mama on the block, we spend a lot of time trying to stand out.  I know a lot of my struggle lately has been disappointment that I am not remarkable.

Being remarkable didn’t make Michael Jackson happy, and pushing my kids to excel may be a disservice.  If they are on the swim team, I want them always to work to beat their own records, but there is a fine line between instilling that work ethic and pushing them to bring home the ribbons.  A talent should bring joy to the possessor and should be used to serve the community.  All too often, we instead use our talents to shove our way to the top, where we perch miserably looking out at our kingdom, before sometimes falling ignominiously into the mud.

So, no, you probably won’t be seeing my kids in a commercial anytime soon, and not just because Benjamin would pour coffee all over the director and Zachary would eat all the doughnuts.  J and I want them to grow up without the ethos we ourselves both have – the need to prove ourselves to some audience out there.  In the end?  Most of the audience is too busy trying to succeed to even notice.

28 responses to “Rejecting Yertle

  1. Beautifully put. I have tried to give my children a healthy desire to compete – emphasis on healthy – not to beat someone else but to stretch their own abilities. The phrase, “yes, but is it your best work? Are you proud of it” is used a lot in our family.

  2. Yes- part of my motivation to homeschool one child and my tentative plans to do so with the others.

  3. Good stuff. I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to figure out what the heck I am (and what I’m worth) if I’m not the hyper-successful kid I used to be. And my parents didn’t even push! I can’t imagine how I would have turned out if they had. *shudders*

    I heard a quote somewhere, on a TV show I think (ironically), that went something like, “It’s the American dream: you take something you love, something you’re good at, and you beat it and twist it and mangle it, trying to find a way to make money off of it. And in the end, you can’t remember what you loved about it or why you even wanted to do it in the first place.” I wish I could remember where I heard it, but (obviously) it stuck with me.

    But I think it’s related to what you’re talking about here: it’s important to know that you can do something just for the sheer love of doing it. You don’t have to be the best, the fastest, the most famous; you don’t have to make millions off of whatever it is. You can just do it because it’s fun. I think we tend to lose sight of that in our culture.

  4. This is one of the reasons I love the multi-grade classrooms at my sons’ school. From day one, it is clear that there is a range of talents and abilities (just as there is in single grade rooms, of course), and early on, kids really do learn that they are good at some things while other kids are good at other things. It is not shameful to be working on something you need to work on, just as there isn’t a need to brag about stuff you are good at. Certainly they recognize and, at times, appropriately celebrate kids’ strengths (which includes things like being a good friend) but the recognition that all students are different with different needs sets up this wonderful feeling, ethos, even language that the kids learn and embrace.

  5. Yes – Well said.

  6. Marste —
    The quote is from *Hope Floats.*

  7. Agreed. There’s always someone better at something, somewhere in the world, or sometime in the past, or will be in the future. If that’s the standard of a good life none of us can have it. The meaning of a life well lived has to be something else.

  8. mommywantsvodka

    See, now, there’s a line to walk between not pushing your kids ever and Dina Lohan. My parents were so laid back that they barely applauded when I graduated magna cum laude. Kind of hurt.

    But, I agree with you.

  9. *applauds*

    There’s a fine line between facilitating and forcing, and far too many people are quick to jump over that line. Maybe they don’t realize it, but the continuous push to be “the best” isn’t always just about what the kid wants or needs.

  10. as a commercial actress I have seen too many parents living out their “dreams” through their kids. HOrrendous. I could have put Phoebe into that world and decided early on, no way

  11. this is exactly it.

  12. I wouldn’t put my kids in commercials because it sounds like a lot of work for me. You have to take them somewhere, and sit around, and I imagine it’s a process. The same goes for a lot of activities they might do. I might be opposed to pushing my kids in principle (and I am) but really it’s the laziness that wins out.

  13. You are so very sane.

  14. I absolutely and completely agree.

  15. This was really great, Emily. The need to succeed and to be extraodinary can be crippling. I’m quite sure I could be a much more productive person if I didn’t fear producing mediocrity. Or if not more productive, at least happier.

    This is something I need to reflect upon more as a parent. Thanks for this.

  16. Wait till the baby is older. She’ll be your money maker. 😉

  17. This is lovely and true.

  18. The last line is so very very true.

  19. oh amen, sister. i have missed you.

  20. I’m standing and applauding, too.

    Well, sitting and applauding. 🙂

  21. Clapping for you right now. Completely.

    I want my kids to be as happy as possible. Just happy. Whatever they do with their lives as adults is their choice. But as kids, i want them to be kids.

  22. lots of people have told us we should get MQ into commercials, particularly with my (limited) experience… but we have been very firmly against it.

  23. Oh, we would be so happy if the boy gets C’s!!! As for the rest of his life, we expose him to all kinds of sports and music and let him choose what he likes best. Baseball, skiing and drums are what have stuck, and he’s a happy camper. No stress coming from his parents, just cheering him on.

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