Is Mediocrity Good Enough for Our Kids?
An interview with Dr. Wendy Mogel
When I first read Dr. Wendy Mogel’s book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, I was shocked by how she reframed mediocrity as a pathway to happiness. I had parents who raised me to have big ambitions, and expect all my dreams, no matter how farfetched (Miss America!?), to come true. The life lessons Dr. Mogel champions, are ones I apply to my boys, and frankly, myself, daily. Who knew “good enough” could be so good? — Laurel Moglen, TMC, Managing Web Editor
How are children affected by their parents’ search for perfection for them — like classes, schools, vacations even?
So, one problem with always seeking the best, is that it’s paradoxically depriving for kids, because they don’t have an example of taking good enough and turning it into great. For example, if you go on a vacation, where there is non-stop, very stimulating activities, kids don’t have a chance to discover that’s it’s really exciting and interesting to see a wave come in from the ocean, and fills up the hole you made in the sand.
Or simply climbing a tree. I like to make the rule with parents that kids can go as high as they want so long as they can get themselves down on their own. But, there are so many well-intentioned parents that are so excited about their kids having big adventures, and turning their kids into champions, that they do half the work for them, and as a result, the children end up feeling less competent because they feel like they depend on their parents for making the fun happen or making the accomplishments.
Regarding school choices, if parents have a choice, I always say, it’s the quality of the child that’s more important, not the school.
Parents look around this world over which they have little control. The news is terrifying us every minute (with our 24 hour access). The choice of preschool becomes the thing onto which we displace all our anxieties about the things around us we cannot control. It becomes this make or break thing which is not the least bit true!
What’s the alternative to seeking out the best?
Really look to whom you’ve been given. You receive each child as if they are a packet of seeds without a label. You don’t know when that child will bloom, you don’t know what kind of flower you’re going to get. Your job is to pick the biggest weeds, and then just stand back and wait. You may find-out you have a child that is not an athlete, or does not have a gregarious personality, or may not be a scholar. But, they may have a wonderful heart, they may be a poet, they may be a mechanic. You really want to look at your child, and instead of seeking out perfect experiences, you seek what is a nice fit for their nature — not for your own unlived life.
Which brings me to the example parents set for children. The greatest relationship for human beings is between grandparents and grandchildren because they have a common enemy. They have time for each other, and they don’t worry about sugar, or Bisphenol A or toxins. The only way your children are going to want to have children of their own, is if they see you enjoy being a parent. The only way they can enjoy seeing you as a parent is if you are firm and kind. This means you need to make sure you are enjoying your life, not just living through your children, and not over-identifying with your children’s success or failures.
What happens to the child when the parents stop seeking perfection all the time?
They feel cherished. They feel seen.
Instead of feeling like they have to measure up to some kind of ideal.
Kids develop at a very raggedy and zig-zaggy pace. We don’t want our children to feel like not trying anything new, because if they fail, they may not get praise. Instead, if children hear you praising other adults, or your spouse, or partner, it gives them a much deeper sense of security then when you praise them.
I’m into praising people’s effort – not the result. So, it’s, “Wow, it looks like you put so much effort into this painting. Tell me more about this shape you created!”
How can parents determine if “good enough” is actually mediocre?
You will probably feel that the classes, or soccer coach, or education, etc are mediocre a lot of the time, because the bar is set so high. So if the soccer coach is mediocre, then the soccer coach is mediocre — this year. Or, the Kindergarten teacher is not the most talented. We parents imagine that every tiny disappointment or harm is an injury, and permanent. No! It’s part of life. You know, most of life is mediocre! Yes, life can be dull and in this way mediocrity is good, because then the things that are special are really special. You’ll feel delighted, and excited, and invigorated.
Part of the problem with television is that so much of the story-telling is amped up. The message our children are getting is that people should be gorgeous, and life should always have that “third-act” arc. But, that’s not the typical work-a-day life.
We need to give our kids developmentally and tempermentally appropriate things to do. If we don’t, our kids go to college, and they’ll be back in three months, because they don’t have the skills of self-regulation. They don’t know how to manage eating, sleeping, scheduling their lives…That’s why there’s so much use of beer-pong, Adderall — they can’t self-regulate on their own. Their parents have been doing all the work for them. This is short-sighted. It’s co-dependency at it’s worst.
My advice is when parents witness their children experiencing mediocrity, embrace it! I see it in my practice every day. When children are over-scheduled, over-protected, and over-indulged, they end up feeling entitled and anxious. Instead of feeling competent, capable, appreciative, self-reliant, and imbued with a feeling self-determination.
What does “good-enough” parenting mean to you (for 3-6 year olds)?
- Life is full of troughs and peaks. If we try to make life all about peaks, then our children will not learn how to manage disappointment, heartache, longing, frustration, being cold or wet or hungry for more than 2.5 seconds. They will be like hothouse flowers, instead of hearty perennials.
- Don’t mistake a snapshot taken today with the epic movie of your child’s life.
- Before you nag, criticize, praise or over-explain remember the slogan W.A.I.T.: “Why am I talking?” Listen four times more than you talk.
- Be alert but not automatically alarmed.
- Don’t confuse children’s wants with their needs.
- Learn to love the words “trial” and “error.” Let your child make mistakes. Grant freedom based on demonstrated responsibility and accountability, not what all the other kids are doing.
- Don’t fret over or fix what’s not broken. Accept your child’s nature even if he’s shy, stubborn, moody or not great at math. The rabbis caution: If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t ask him to be a doctor.
- Resist taking the role of sherpa, butler, crabby concierge, talent agent, a crack team of defense attorneys, an ATM or the secret police. Your child is hard-wired for competence.
- When your child doesn’t get the cool English teacher, make the team, get a big part in the play, or gets ejected from the in-group remind yourself that disappointments are necessary preparation for adult life.
- Give your kids time to play…lest they sue you for stealing their childhoods.
Dr. Wendy Mogel is an internationally acclaimed clinical psychologist, parenting expert and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Her new book The Blessing of a B Minus, is about raising teenagers. A popular keynote speaker, she lectures widely at conferences and schools.