In Defence of Kindness, Not the Snowflake

When I was sitting at my graduation in Grade 13 (remember the days when there was still such a thing?), I knew even then that I had completed a truly  meaningful era of my life.  My high school experience was more full of intellectual challenge, emotional growth, and lasting friendships than I would receive during my upcoming university education at one of Canada’s top institutions.

And if during my commencement, I had to listen toa middle-aged man smugly spouting platitudes about leading “unique” and “extraordinary” lives while telling me I’m not “special”, I’d have been very glad to have a few ripe tomatoes on hand.

I have no contention with the entitlement argument; how could I?  In my late 20s, and wanting more creativity in my life, I went on a couple of dates with a 35 year old artistic type who quit working lucrative contracts in animation because they were boring and used only 5% of his potential.  He was now stretching his wings as a film director.  What had he directed, or what was he working on?  Well, nothing – but it was just a matter of time.  Until then, how did he pay for his himself and his spacious apartment?  His aging, immigrant Chinese parents helped out as needed with savings from their former convenience store, although they were rather a nuisance, not understanding his need for creative expression and all.  Hot, no?

At the same time, David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement speech bothered me.  How does purposely embarrassing a large group of people celebrating a key milestone further the cause against the special snowflake?  Those students are people, not all of whom are obnoxious, lazy, and talent-less.  It seemed to me an example of how it’s acceptable to treat young people with less respect than other people.  I couldn’t help thinking that the commencement speech was less about trying to inspire nobler sentiments in young adults than it was about someone trying to make a distinctive speech, basically at the expense of a silenced group of people who could not do much about it.  And there seemed more than a little irony that this missive was coming from the school  system which, with its standardized tests, and rewards and punishments for a pre-determined, inflexible curriculum, is probably not especially conducive to nurturing creative and independent individuals.

Whatever useful message lies in that speech needs to be given to parents, educators, and the villages that are raising children to over-inflate themselves while under-achieving.  The answer can’t be to mock them once our own shortcomings in raising them start to take form.

I watched both the video clips on view for this month’s At Issue topic.  I laughed at the comedic sketch because, well, it was funny.  But there were real people on the end of that commencement speech, at least some of whom will better our world in more and less obvious ways, and I can’t help feel like they deserved more kindness than they received.

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So, What Did I Learn?

There is no denying that raising children is hard work.  Parents often find themselves walking a thin, wire line and toppling too far over on either side is the equivalent of sentencing your child to a lifetime on a therapist’s couch.

My problem is that I have a hard time walking a straight line.

For many of us, how we parent is influenced, for better or worse, by how we were parented.  Certain mantras from my childhood still ring loud and clear for me.

“If it doesn’t fit in your carry-on it’s not coming.”

“If you brought it, you carry it.”

“Always have cash with you.”

“There will always be someone smarter, prettier, richer than you.  Someone will always do it better.”

It may sound as though my parents weren’t willing to cue the brass section and trumpet my accomplishments but nothing could be further from the truth.  Less interested in how I compared with others my parents held me accountable to the highest level – one not dictated by the Board of Education or what the Joneses were doing.  The standard they set was simple: Do your best and nothing less.

In actuality there could be no higher standard to hold myself to.  There was no statute that could measure up against the self-imposed gold standard that I set for myself.

And so it was after a grueling few weeks of studying, tutoring and seeking extra help that I came home from high school with a test paper clutched in my hands, depressed and defeated.  My tower of hard-earned straight A’s came tumbling down with that red-letter F.

I was inconsolable.  It was the first time that my tenacity did not pay off.  It was the first time that I wasn’t “perfect”.

After a night of hosting my own pity party, I came downstairs to see my test posted with a magnet on the fridge door.  My failure was there for me to see.  There was no escaping it.

My dad had put it there long after I had retreated to my bedroom.  In the morning he told me that failure was nothing to be afraid of and that it was a genuine part of learning.

So what did I learn?

There are few lessons from my childhood that are etched in my mind with such clarity and that have shaped how I parent my boys.

Everyday whether it is through example or discussion I aim to teach my boys that while striving for mediocrity is not okay being average is, because perfection takes all forms.

I do a few things well, maybe one really well, many things horribly and most things just okay.

Don’t ask me to parallel park or make a soufflé.  I can’t carry a tune and taking lessons from now until my dying day won’t make me a threat to Celine Dion.  Just because I tried doesn’t mean that I deserve a gold star.  Trying means that you tried, not that you are number one.

There is great humility in recognizing greatness in others and to celebrate such greatness devoid of jealousy is an act of selflessness that brings a surprising feeling of . . . greatness.

Parenting is not convenient.  Teaching lessons of morality do not fit nicely into hour-long session blocks.   It may be easier to jump from the helicopter and save our child from failure and heartbreak but if Aesop’s fables have taught us anything, it is that the quicker path is not always the best course.

I still don’t know a neutron from a proton from an ion and I don’t pretend to.  The words of my parents echo in my head.

“There will always be someone smarter, prettier, richer than you.  Someone will always do it better.”

There is no sense in pretense.  I am what I am complete with failures and successes. It is those failures that connect me and ground me. I am a mother now and once again the bar has risen.

If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think what else you do well matters very much.” – Jackie Kennedy

image source: Science Daily.com