It’s Not All Mary Poppins

“Average” is not an insult

Lily is a chatterbox. A sponge for language. She absorbs new words — and spews them back out again — at a tremendous rate. Today’s new one? “Catapult.” “Cah-pull.” She doesn’t know what it means, but she sure does like the way it rolls around in her mouth.

“Rory. Those chick peas are for eating, and you’re not a catapult.” (In case you were wondering.)

“Cah-pull, cah-pull!”

It’s very cute. A friend comments, “She’s very good with language! I believe every child has their area of excellence.”


Know what? I don’t.

Lily is a chatterbox, and she certainly has an affinity for language. Her vocabulary is about 50 times greater than Rory’s (a pretty standard boy-girl variation at this age), but also than Grace’s (but then, Grace is processing two languages simultaneously). But is this ‘excellence’?

Nope. She’s good with words, but not extraordinarily so. Lily falls solidly within the parameters of ‘normal’. As do Rory and Grace. ‘Normal’ is a pretty broad field. Most of us fall into it. (Which is, after all, what makes it ‘normal’.)

Think about it. If we were all “above average”, then that would be, by definition, “average”. You can’t escape the laws of statistics.

A child who has been told since birth that they’re exceptional for their perfectly standard accomplishments will have very little motivation to strive hard to excel. Why would they, when just chattering up a storm, stacking four blocks, tying your shoes, singing the alphabet, is sufficient to have people marvelling at your ‘excellence’?

Take pleasure in your child’s accomplishments. Expect them to work hard to excel within their capabilities. But to expect exceptionality? Totally unfair. I think it’s arguable that everyone has areas of particular competence, but true ‘excellence’? I doubt it.

“I think mummy… at work.” Lily declares.

Wait, now. A five-word sentence… at 21 (22?) months old…


I guess, by that same law of averages, some kids really are exceptional, right?

December 7, 2010 - Posted by | Developmental stuff, Lily | , , ,


  1. This is a pet issue for me. People looking for the exceptional-ness in their children, or in children in general. Children deserve to have their accomplishments met with excitement and support whatever they are, whenever they happen.

    I have no issue saying my son is average. I think he is gorgeous and wonderful, but I do not think he is going to be in the top 5% of anything. If he is, that will be fine. If he tries to be because he wants it that is fine. I certainly do not expect it of him.

    The flip side of this, which is not good for our children, is that you have a whole lot of perfectly ordinary young people thinking they’re exceptional, and, when they discover, on leaving the cushion of home and family that they’re (gasp!) normal, they either become insulted (read: entitlement) or profoundly discouraged (read: give up entirely). How does that help them? Instead of cooing over their every breath, teach them that with persistent effort, they can achieve their best — whatever that is — and you give them true self-esteem, for it comes out of things they can do, rather than the capricious blessing of fate.

    The idea that you get anything of value/lasting satisfaction without working for it is foolish. Much of the pleasure in life comes from striving for something and achieving it. A brilliant musician, athlete, scholar probably has that little extra that the rest of us lack, but without years of practice and persistence, they’d be no better at their area of excellence than anyone else. Even true excellence is not enough on its own, but focus, persistence and determination can make up for a whole lot of supposed ‘lack’.

    Goodness. I think I’m formulating a post here… 🙂

    Comment by Megan | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  2. A 5 word sentence with “I think” included at that age? Regardless as to whether or not she’s above average that’s definitely something to get excited over! 🙂

    And we did!

    Comment by megan | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  3. Maybe it’s not an area of “excellence” per se, but kids are usually good at one thing to the expense of something else. My best talker can’t climb steps with two feet or jump off the ground. Her friend doesn’t say much, but leaps and jumps circles around her. I think it’s okay to say you’re best at one thing, but other people are way better than you at something else. 🙂 As long as you don’t think you’re exceptional in all areas, you know?

    “Best” as compared to yourself, as in “my strength is [whatever]”, sure. Just so long as you don’t think you’re “the” best, as compared to everyone else. Lily is a good talker, and she can also scale the stairs much faster than Rory, though Rory is much more active than her generally. It’s interesting to see the various strengths and weaknesses in children — in people of any age — but to call all strengths ‘exceptional’… that’s an exaggeration that does no one any good.

    Comment by daycare girl | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  4. I like the term strengths, and yet sometimes it’s not even that. Take my nephew who is a great talker, was able to identify and name numbers up to 20 at 15 months, a chatterbox at 2, able to quote the alphabet backwards (and forwards) at two as well, not so good climbing (compared to my daughter who is 11 weeks younger). Now he’s as good a climber and the chatterbox is my daughter. His language is still a bit ahead but my daughter has almost caught up. He was early to develop linguistically in comparison to his peers, but that doesn’t mean he’ll forever have this advantage.
    They all development differently and it’s a joy to observe!

    Good point! Just because they pick up a certain skill early doesn’t mean they will be ahead in that area their whole lives. “First” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”, and sometimes a child will sort of pause in one area of development while they surge ahead in another; it’s all part of the ebb and flow of development.

    One of my current parent’s favourite adjectives is “amazing!!!” He’s a lovely, generous man, and “amazing!!” is applied to all manner of things, not just his son’s activities and achievement. And you know what? He’s right! Your child’s development, no matter how ordinary it is… it’s still amazing. From two cells to an entire human being: just because it happens untold thousands of times a day around the world doesn’t make it any less miraculous!

    Comment by cartside | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  5. I wholeheartedly agree!

    At our daycare, prior to parent – teacher conferences, we have to fill out a sheet with various questions, one of which is, ‘tell us something special or unique about your child’. I have the hardest time with this because they’re just kids! Special or unique? I can’t come up with much, and that makes me feel like a horrible mom!

    What a dilemma! The school’s expectation (which is not grounded in reality) makes you feel inadequate, when in fact what you are is realistic. You can love your child to bits without thinking they are extraordinary in any particular way. I mean, I *looooved* to watch my babies breathe as they slept, but breathing is hardly an accomplishment! So I guess what you do is crow a bit about some of your child’s strengths, even if you don’t think yours is the first and only child in the world to have them! 🙂

    Comment by Nico | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  6. Of course, people forget what “average” means. If I got a 95% and then a 40% on a test, my “average” would be 67.5. In this case, one of my tests was above average, and one below. This is how life works.

    When I was a kid my class went through the “IOWA” exams, which then regurgitated information comparing each of us to the “average” american child. I was in the 95th percentile in language. I was in the 40th percentile in math. Does this make me gifted? Nope. Delayed? Nope. I was above average in one area and below average in another, making me a pretty normal kid.

    In THIS way, I could see saying “every kid has his area of excellence”, because unless a kid is very unusual, he will be better at some things and worse at others, averaging out to being a normal kid.

    Look at mine – above average strength, below average size. But mothers notice the above average stuff and forget about the below average stuff. Hence, every one’s child is above average in their minds…

    Terrific comment! I agree with every point you’ve made, and your comment about your scores in the exams sums it up perfectly: above average + below average = average.

    Now me, I prefer the term “strength” over “excellence”, because ‘strength’ seems to me to be to imply the child is being compared against themselves — good at this, not so good at that — whereas ‘excellence’ implies the child is being compared against all other children, and very few of us achieve true ‘excellence’ in that sense. (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be ‘excellence’…)

    Comment by IfByYes | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  7. Christopher is gifted (and oh, how I hate that word). He’s ridiculously intelligent but only this year has he performed really well in school. Why? Because he worked at it. All the brains in the world aren’t going to help you at all if you don’t apply them to the task at hand. My favorite quote: If everyone is special, no one is.

    Two of my three kids tested gifted. I didn’t have the third tested. Why? Because I wanted her in French immersion, to get French, rather than in a class of gifted kids. Not that I had any complaints with the gifted classes: my kids, particularly my eldest flourished in them in a way she simply hadn’t in regular classes. But both my eldest kids regretted their lack of a second language, so I made sure my youngest got it. As you (and Christopher) have discovered, there is more to success in life than carrying a flattering label.

    Comment by Candace | December 8, 2010 | Reply

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