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Don’t Settle For ‘Average’ Kids

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I’ve recently been introducing my kids to American history. With my oldest two in school now, I figured the time was right, so we’ve worked our way through a History Channel miniseries, “America: The Story of Us.” It’s been incredibly fun to watch this with my kids, and we’ve had some memorable conversations about what it really means to be an American.

The series is a bit Disneyfied, understandably. After all, they’re condensing three eventful centuries into 12 40-minute episodes. But how could I not melt at the sight of my kids literally jumping up and down through the Battle of Bunker Hill, yelling, “I hope we win! I hope the Patriots win!” After watching the first installment, my kindergartener spent the whole next day fretting that he wasn’t sure we had what it took to beat the Redcoats. Those guys really have it together, you know?

As we worked through more episodes, you could see his attitude changing. Of course we can win some wars. We can do all kinds of things. America is amazing.

Amazing America

From ten thousand feet, it really is. Our history is a sight to behold. We have our warts, obviously. But you have to love that can-do American spirit that surges through those early centuries. Win the war! Settle the West! Dig the Erie Canal! Invent the cotton gin! Build the railroads! Go, go, go, go, go!

Our forebears were constantly pushing to be better and do more.

It wasn’t a fairy tale. People suffered and died, and their compatriots didn’t form a committee or fret about microaggression. Our forebears were constantly pushing to be better and do more. They wanted much more than to “make the grade.” That continual striving made America great.

When did we lose that? Can we get it back?

Since they are Americans and Catholics, I want my children to see excellence as their heritage. I want them to be anxious to live up to that legacy. I don’t want them to grow up believing that “average” is good enough.

The Harvard Hang-Up

Many people today are uncomfortable with this kind of talk. I say, “My kids aren’t allowed to be average” and they assume I’m like those Upper East Side moms who allegedly hire private tutors to teach their three-year-olds how to play, while politicking for a spot in the elite pre-school.

If that world even exists, I’m nowhere within sight or scent. Not one of my four kids has ever had a private, well, anything except underwear. They don’t have college funds, either. When we go to their pediatric appointments, I’m always scratching my head through the “has your kid reached these milestones” segment. (Seriously, when you have four small boys in perpetual motion, it’s very hard to remember whether you’ve seen this or that one stack at least three blocks.)

Sadly, our culture reflexively associates ‘pursuit of excellence’ with ‘joining the rat race.’

I’m not an obsessive kid-promoter. My concern about their grades takes a distant second to my concern about their souls. But it’s precisely as a tender of their souls that I care so intensely about the pursuit of excellence. Few things are as poisonous to moral development as a willingness to settle for mediocrity. As our American forbears demonstrate, all sorts of obstacles become surmountable if you’re prepared to try, fail, and try again, always striving to be the best version of yourself.

Sadly, our culture reflexively associates “pursuit of excellence” with “joining the rat race.” If you admit you want your kids to be zealous for the good, people launch into their lecture about how “Not everyone needs to go to Harvard.” Umm, friend? You’re the one who assumed that Harvard equals the good. I would never have drawn such a preposterous equivalence.

Quite a lot of people seem to have that same Harvard hang-up. I was amused by this piece in which Catherine Pearlman declares, in full voice, that she doesn’t care what college her kids attend. No, really. Bring on the skepticism and the hate! Her truly authentic children can even go to community college!

Lucky kids? I can’t say. What mainly jumps out at me is how desperate this woman is to be liberated from the iron grip of the college prep machine. All she really wants to say is that she doesn’t define success purely in terms of college admissions.

That’s fine (entirely sensible, in fact), but she clearly supposes she’s writing a shock piece. She’s already bracing herself for the hate mail. It may come. And that’s just ridiculous.

Settling For Average

For some people, Harvard may be great. Others would be miserable there. That’s all quite beside the point, which is that a culture that needs help distinguishing between an elite university and human excellence is deeply deluded. Is our vision of the human condition really that desiccated? Have you people even been to Harvard? At the end of the day, it’s just a place.

If we’re all obsessed with a few mostly empty status symbols, that’s not going to work out well.

Admittedly, Pearlman’s piece was in the Huffington Post; conservatives tend to be more suspicious of higher ed and other elite status markers. Nevertheless, many still suffer under an inferiority complex. At times, anonymous readers have gone out of their way to let me know that they are completely unimpressed by my schmancy Ivy League degree. (Great! No problem. But… defensive much?)

If we’re all obsessed with a few mostly empty status symbols, that’s not going to work out well. Most people won’t get them. That leaves us in the adult-world equivalent of that high-school situation where every single boy in school wanted to go out with the ten hottest girls. So a handful of attractive people end up feeling like a million bucks, and everyone else feels like a loser. Having worked for years with undergraduate students, I can tell you that they are terrified of ending up losers, which, by elite-society metrics, most of them already are.

This precipitates another popular solution: embrace average. Tell your kids it’s okay to be normal. Reconcile yourself to non-specialness. Somebody has to be Joe Normal, right?

Let’s Get Back To Excellence

I think that approach is un-American. It’s also just kind of sad. Hence, I propose a different solution. Broaden your children’s horizons. Help them appreciate how many ways there are to be special.

Frankly, the world always needs more excellence, so there’s no reason that anyone should settle for mediocrity.

Frankly, the world always needs more excellence, so there’s no reason that anyone should settle for mediocrity. The really great news is that the modern world is chock-full of resources to help the motivated improve themselves.

My Kindle gives me access to a veritable Library of Alexandria, with many of the classic volumes costing a tidy $0.00. YouTube can teach you to do practically anything under the sun. Your local craft, hardware, or gardening store can get you started on a huge array of useful hobbies, some for very modest sums. Volunteering and church work open innumerable opportunities for rewarding activity in service of your community. That’s before we even start thinking about that enormously important activity that has conferred dignity and distinction on Normal Joes since the dawn of time: raising a family.

Not all of these achievements will bring you fame and lucre, but all can bring the satisfaction that comes from a zealous pursuit of the good. If my undergraduates were half as interested in excellence as they are in worldly success markers, American dynamism might be born anew. Who knows what new frontiers we would conquer?

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be average. Inspire them to strive for something better. Urge them to work harder, and do more. Raise them to believe that it’s up to them to make America great again. Guess what? It is.