It’s Not All Mary Poppins


“I think we’re both agreed that she’s quite bright.” The mother is leaning toward me, a confident smile on her face.

In fact, we agree on no such thing. I don’t think she’s stupid, but I’m not convinced she’s particularly bright. She has her strengths: her fine motor control is astonishing in a child her age, and her unquashable good humour is an inarguable strength.

But bright? Maybe. It’s young to know for sure, but if I were asked for an opinion — which I was not — I’d say she was average.

But you can’t say that to parents. Other people, unfortunates that they are, might be burdened with average children, but mine? Mine is exceptional!

You ask a hundred parents if their child is below average, average or above average, and I’m betting that 90 of them would say they had above-average kids. To say anything else, is, well, it’s insulting to the child!

Here’s news for you: that’s impossible. If everyone were exceptional … pause for a second to absorb that reality … ‘exceptional’ would be, by definition, ‘average’.

So, this lovely little girl is probably average. Most of us are. If we’re fortunate, we have areas of particular strength or ability that is possibly better/more than average, but, taken as a package, we’re average.

And you know what? That’s okay. You capitalize on your strengths, you work to ameliorate/minimize your weaknesses, and you become the best you can be.

Not everyone can be exceptional. But everyone, barring some unfortunate extremes, can be kind, considerate, polite. Everyone can do their best, can give and take, can contribute to their environment, their family, their society in some positive way.

And that? That is good enough.

January 20, 2010 - Posted by | individuality, parenting | , , , ,


  1. I don’t know what you’re talking about. My children are both definitely exceptional in every area!


    Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon is a similar land where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Huh, looking it up on Wikipedia to double-check the quote, I find out that this “illusory superiority” you’re talking about is also sometimes called “Lake Wobegon effect.”

    Boy, a laugh and a learning both on the same morning – and that’s why I love following you, Mary P.! 🙂

    Well, mine too, of course. (Right, guys??) “Lake Woebegon effect”. I like that!

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. Aw poor kid.

    But why?

    Comment by Suzi | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. Every where you go as a young parent people say, “your child is so smart!” It’s hard not to internalize it. I think average babies and toddlers are pretty amazing if you are not in contact with many because they are learning so quickly. It was a little bit of a shock when our son was evaluated for preK and it turned out he was perfectly average in all areas but gross motor. But then I already knew that since he can run several miles and jump and climb like a cat.

    Yes, babies are amazing. It is normal for them to learn like sponges — and it’s not surprising the inexperienced (most of us, the first time!) see that as exceptional. I guess this would be proof of my statement that if everyone is exceptional, exceptional becomes average! 🙂

    Comment by Rayne of terror | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. But some have to be above the average, right?
    *gazes lovingly at nose-picking offspring*

    You make me laugh. We can all harbour the private conviction…

    Comment by Mwa | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  5. Everyone wants to believe that their children are exceptional. My worry is that we teach them that being average is wrong. I’ve always believed that I was an intelligent woman, not the MOST intelligent by far but willing to work for what I desire. I hope to foster that desire in my kids instead of the idea that they are the best.

    Excellent point! I wish I’d made it in the post! You’re absolutely right, of course. Effort trumps brilliance 9 times out of 10. A good lesson to pass on to our children. Thanks for saying it here!

    Comment by Dani | January 21, 2010 | Reply

    • Really good point. I work with Cub Scouts and the motto is “do your best.” This works great because the idea is not be the best but do YOUR best.

      Comment by billarends | January 24, 2010 | Reply

    • Exactly! After two of the three of us kids got into “gifted” classes and the third did not…my mother put a quotation on the fridge that said “It’s not how much you know or how smart you are that counts. It’s what you DO with what you know that really matters.” Give me a kind, honest, hardworking “average” person ANY DAY over a genius who’s also a horse’s ass.

      Unfortunately, Mom also believed that A grades (at least before the university level) were within reach of anyone who worked hard enough, and was NOT amused when one of us came home and tried “but a C means AVERAGE — why can’t you just let me be an average person?”

      Comment by Carolie | February 10, 2010 | Reply

  6. Dani, I think you make a great point. We each have areas of exceptionality where things come to us easily- whether reading, running or painting. It is the desire to work harder in the other areas that really matters- the areas that are harder work and don’t provide instant gratification.

    More excellent points from Jill: putting the effort where things don’t come so readily, learning to work for delayed gratification, is also important. Thank you.

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  7. I know where I am…and I know where it’s gotten me. I’ll take average kids with high motivation any day over lazy and smart (me). What I want is nice kids.

    Nice, hard-working kids!

    Comment by Bridgett | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  8. No matter how spectacular a genius you are, you still get the same allotment of moments of mind-bending stupidity that are a part of the human condition.

    Well put! I had one such moment (which I do not intend to share) only this past Saturday. Sigh…

    Comment by Helen | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  9. In school they also use the term “exceptional” to label children with learning disabilities. It’s right there in Daughter’s IEP.

    So while the term “exceptional” might mean that children are above average, it’s also used as a term for kids who test below the norm.

    Welcome to the politically correct 21st Century.

    I love Helen’s comment, “…you still get the same allotment of moments of mind-bending stupidity that are a part of the human condition.”

    Well, that would be the dictionary definition, I’m betting: exceptional can be those things markedly above OR below the curve, though colloquially, we tend to mean ‘above’ when we use the term. And yes, Helen’s comment was terrific. Made me laugh. And wince. All at once. 😀

    Comment by Zayna | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  10. And then there are many who think they are below average and don’t achieve because of that conviction. Low self esteem is a blight that keeps people from even trying new things, it locks them often in unfortunate circumstances. So I tend to praise a lot, foster confidence. Not because I think my daughter is exceptional (I actually do think she’s average in the best sense of the word, but she’s still amazing in every way) but because I want her to be confident and try again even after she has failed.

    Comment by cartside | January 21, 2010 | Reply

    • Something interesting to consider…I grew up with a mother who praised me, teachers who praised me, peers who praised me. And I became dependent on that praise, seeking it as an adult, and dissatisfied with my work if I didn’t get that praise (or unwilling to work very hard unless I knew I’d get the recognition and “assurance of my value” from outsiders). Took me a long time to be able to “pat my own back” and work to please myself and my own work ethic, not just to please others.

      Now, many specialists are saying that it’s better NOT to praise children quite so much (“you’re so smart!” “What a fantastic painting!” “You’re so beautiful!” etc.) and instead offer things like “I bet you’re proud of your hard work” and “Don’t you feel proud that you did so well?” and “wow, I bet you’re pleased with this painting!”

      Comment by Carolie | February 10, 2010 | Reply

  11. Oh god, I have to find the reference. But the short version:

    They had college kids (18-19) all in the same class and basically the teacher took them each aside privately for a short chat. Half the kids were told “You are clearly very very bright, you will have no problems with this class” and the other half were told “This class is probably going to be a bit of a struggle for you, but if you work hard, you’ll do just fine”

    Across the board, the second half completely and utterly outperformed the first half. Bearing in mind the split was random, the message was not personal.

    I need to find the original reference but it was a real eye opener.

    Comment by Sylvia | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  12. I feel the need to quote Roald Dahl:

    “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think he or she is wonderful. Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius…
    …School teachers suffer a good deal from having to listen to this sort of twaddle from proud parents, but they usually get their own back when the time comes to write the end of term reports. If I were a teacher I would cook up some real scorchers for the children of doting parents. “Your son Maximillian,” I would write, “is a total wash-out. I hope you have a family business you can push him into when he leaves school because he sure as heck won’t get a job anywhere else.” Or if I were feeling lyrical that day I might write, “It is a curious truth that grasshoppers have their hearing-organs in the sides of the abdomen. Your daughter Vanessa, judging by what she’s learn this term, has no hearing organs at all.”

    Comment by ifbyyes | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  13. I think all kids have some areas of exceptionality (is that a word?). My son is especially good at math and exceptionally bad at motor skills. He was discussing cube roots in kindergarten, but he only learned to ride a bike at 10. I try to foster his love of learning, but also to push him a bit in sports. He swims on our neighborhood swim team, even though he is quite clearly slower than all the other kids in his age group (and than almost all 2-3 years younger). I figure it is a life skill though, and he needs to see that he can try hard and get a little better. Sports don’t come easily to him, just as academics don’t to others. If I had the choice, I might choose a bit more averageness all around. I think the best thing he’s got going for him is a cheerful, sunny disposition and a willingness to work at something. That will help more in the long run than his smarts.

    Comment by Katherine | January 22, 2010 | Reply

  14. For this, I like to use the phrase, “she’s doing just fine.” Meaning, don’t worry, everything’s normal, but it sounds like she’s coming along, so it makes for happy. Of course, I use it of my own kids, too, who are doing just fine. Not crazy brilliant but honestly, I more than okay with that, having seen some of those kids…

    Oh, I like that. I’m goiing to TRY to remember it! “She’s doing just fine.” Yes.

    Comment by kittenpie | January 26, 2010 | Reply

  15. […] And we can’t all be, can we? In fact, most of us aren’t the brightest. […]

    Pingback by Little Miss Echo « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | September 28, 2011 | Reply

  16. […] not the brightest crayon in the box — and that’s FINE! Popular opinion to the contrary, we are NOT all ‘exceptional’! It’s not an insult to be average. But then there are those moments where I’m almost […]

    Pingback by Does she or doesn’t she? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | July 6, 2012 | Reply

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