Celebrating our ordinary kids. Mandy Nolan tells us why.
There are lots of great benefits of having an ordinary kid. For one, you don’t have to drive them to sporting or dance events every weekend. You won’t spend empty hours in your car, sitting at the wheel in pitch black, wondering what the hell happened to your life while your super kid kicks a silly ball around a fluorescent cone.
There’s nothing like a high-achieving kid to make you look like an amazing parent. I accidentally sat with the parents of kids receiving awards at an end-of-school assembly. I thought it was general seating so I took a chair right up the front. It was humiliating. One by one, their children got up to receive certificates or trophies for academic or sporting excellence. I wondered how everyone in my row seemed to be so bloody remarkable. Some of the kids had that many awards they could hardly walk back to their seats. I looked at my kid and raised my eyebrows. “You sat in the wrong seat, Mum,” she whispered. Even though none of my kids have yet had the honour, it was nice to think, even for half an hour, that people thought I was an amazing parent too, instead of the idiot in the wrong chair.
Why don’t we celebrate our ordinary kids? Why do we still spend so much time focusing on excellence? Why are all our measures of achievement about winning or being better than everyone else? Why must a whole school full of ordinary children be reminded of how unremarkable and unimpressive they are at regular ‘guess who didn’t win anything’ assemblies? I’m not a fan of awards. I think they honour a small group of worryingly compliant and often-anxiety-ridden perfectionistic overachievers and dismiss the value of our easygoing, very social and happy underachievers—aka ordinary kids.
My middle daughter didn’t do that well in her HSC. Well, at least not as well as she could have. It wasn’t from lack of ability—more from a lack of interest. It was clear to me she was hitting the bong more than the books. Of course she never admitted it. But as a pot-smoking uni student of years gone by, I knew all the signs. The Bob Marley posters, the dubstep, the random piles of tobacco and the increasingly difficult task of locating scissors anywhere in the house except her bedroom, where we would often find five pairs. She did still make it through HSC with an ATAR just high enough to get her into uni, just not the one she wanted to go to. She did her HSC on THC, and I think that should have got her at least another ten points—just finishing, alone, was extraordinary. Where was her award for that? I bet those other super-achieving kids weren’t handicapped by weed.
There are lots of great benefits of having an ordinary kid. For one, you don’t have to drive them to sporting or dance events every weekend. You won’t spend empty hours in your car, sitting at the wheel in pitch black, wondering what the hell happened to your life while your super kid kicks a silly ball around a fluorescent cone. They’re probably at home pulling cones.
Everyone wants their kid to be brilliant and there’s no point having a high-achieving kid if you don’t tell parents of ordinary kids whenever you get the chance. One of my kids had a mental-health issue during her adolescence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a parent bleat on about their kid’s successes—how they’re up for school captain, or they’ve got early entry to uni—and they’ve paused for a minute and then asked about my daughter and I’ve responded with: “Good. She hasn’t wanted to kill herself for at least a month now.” They go quiet and leave. Quickly.
Ordinary kids spend most of their time on the bench at sports events. At the school concert, they’re the ones dressed as a tree while Little Miss Exceptional plays the lead. Your ordinary kid gets all their ticks in the ‘satisfactory’ or ‘consolidating’ section of their report card. Naplan, while it claims to be assessing educational levels around the country, is a nationwide Cinderella search for a genius. The kids know this and it just further reinforces how incredibly ordinary and unexceptional they are. I thought that’s what school assemblies were for.
There are special classes for kids who have learning difficulties. There are classes for kids who are gifted. There isn’t much for kids in the middle. These are our ordinary kids who will grow up to live ordinary lives that we all depend on but don’t really value. You never hear a parent boast, “Jonah is a plumber! We’re so proud.” But they should be. Plumbers are bloody awesome. Spend one day with your toilet not working and you’ll know that. Our ordinary kids aren’t doctors or lawyers: they become nurses and cabbies, retail assistants, teachers, beauticians, hairdressers, mechanics, cleaners, aged-care workers, tilers, builders, concreters, mothers, fathers … Ordinary kids grow into perfectly ordinary, unexceptional people, but as human beings they have equal value to any surgeon or geophysicist. In fact, I know who I’d rather sit next to on the bus. (That’s how ordinary people get from point A to point B.)
My eight-year-old came third in her race in the swimming carnival last year. She was so proud of her ribbon that we put it on the fridge. A friend came over and laughed, “Did you put Ivy’s third-place ribbon on the fridge?” Their kids only ever get blue ribbons. Ivy’s only ever won one ribbon. So, yes, I did put it on the fridge. Because sometimes coming third is worth celebrating.
There are many wonderful, ordinary characteristics—empathy, kindness, loyalty, compassion, bravery—that can be celebrated in our ordinary kids. Not just achievement. We are all so much more than that. Time to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.