Over the weekend my daughter and her friends formed a band and wrote a song to audition for the annual school talent quest. Their group features one girl playing keyboard, two on flute and one singing a sweet lament to a blue moon.
It's quite a catchy song and they look and sound gorgeous. I recognise that I'm biased because I'm a doting parent and a world-class sook, but they think they are going to be discovered. Made famous. Featured on television and, better still, Youtube. I don't know how to tell them they may not even make it into the actual quest. The year four competition is tough.
We all want to be special. To stand out. To be acknowledged as unique. But of course, the truth is only a few of us actually are. And yet, we insist on telling our children they are special and require the school to do the same. Most primary schools give out weekly assembly certificates for things like 'a great talk about your soft toy Super Mario' or 'contributing to your class happiness'. I adore the year one kids as they stand straight on stage, holding up their scratch and sniff certificate like it's the Pulitzer Prize. But it only takes a year for most to work out that these certificates come on rotation.
It's the honour awards or end-of-year medals that are the real accolades. I admit it slightly pains me when my kids profess disappointment for missing out on one of these yet again. But I also realise that, in doing so, they are getting a valuable lesson. Those who work hard get reward. I offer my kids help if they want to improve and, shock horror, actually do their homework. But, mostly, they decide they'd rather stay average.
Yet I admit I do pump up their self-esteem in other ways. I tell them they're amazing at what they are moderately good at. I tell my son that he's a brilliant drummer (he has rhythm) and my daughter that she's incredible at netball (she's tall). Perhaps I go too far. But I see the need to balance their knowledge that they struggle in certain areas with some positivity. My ego inflating is moderated by the fact that one of them struggled for years, needing a lot of extra help and so for us, average is actually a massive achievement.
Kids know when we are pumping them up artificially. They can even twist our concern for their self-esteem to self-advantage. Even my son who is usually rather uncomplicated shows form. When he was four we were driving past a shopping centre and he asked for a toy. I told him no. A few minutes later he started sobbing. "I'm ugly I know I'm ugly. It's this face. It's all so wrong. I hate it". I was totally bewildered and upset. I told him he was handsome, beautiful and gorgeous but he was inconsolable. A few minutes later as I considered therapy or complaining to the pre-school teacher about 'beauty bullying' I reached to pat his leg. He lifted his tear stained face and said "you know I wouldn't feel so bad about being ugly if you bought me that toy". I had to pull over I was laughing so much. That's a piece of work worth a certificate.
Of course, I think my son is beautiful but I don't want him to think he's stunning or entitled to success. When he leaves his little closeted childhood for the big wide world he'll need to know he's not. I once had a friend who was so beautiful, tall and gorgeous he was told he was special and fabulous all his life. As he approached thirty he struggled to realise he was not special enough. Before that he seemed to assume that he'd be tapped him on shoulder to be Prime Minister. Middle-age can be crushing if you were always predicted for bigger things.
In the United States last year an English teacher at Wellesley High tried to let his kids down early, but not gently. David McCullough Jr told the graduating students "You're not special, you are not exceptional". Wellesley is a good public school with a high academic standard and famous former alumni including Sylvia Plath, members of Saturday night live, actors, musicians, lawyers and journalists. In telling his students they were 'cossetted' and feted' he reminded them that even if they were one in a million, that meant that on a planet of 6.8 billion there were nearly 7000 people just like them. The English teacher didn't want to just burst their bubble but also pop the American "love of accolades more than genuine achievement". He was also pointing to the cheapening effect of making everything special while bemoaning selfishness and self-focus.
I once asked our deputy principal if she could tell which kids would do great things or be successful. Despite the Jesuit motto 'Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man' she admitted she usually couldn't. That's what's exciting about childhood - you never know what each kid will become. Not really. That's why all have to be acknowledged as important but not 'special'. They should be taught as if they hold a unique spark within.
Every year our primary school has a year 6 play. All the students are involved and tickets are sold out weeks before as many, including my nine year-old daughter, view the event as the highlight of the school year. Last week we watched more than a hundred kids as they acted and danced their hearts out and lifted their voices in unison.
As usual, I began to cry. I cry because each performing child is so happy and so filled with hope, joy and excitement for the future. I cry because they glow with the togetherness that develops in their last year at primary school. I cry, because as they shine, I feel like a parent to each and every one of them. As they sing their hearts out on that stage I see that each is actually average in some ways and yet so truly unique in others. I cry in the knowledge that each deserves to be loved like they are special, but with the knowledge that they are one of many.