Child Psychologist Ellen Braaten addressed the Independent Educational Consultants Association at its conference in Boston a couple weeks ago. Her topic: “The Curse of the Average Child.” She began the program describing a couple who had brought their daughter in for testing, “hoping” that some type of diagnosis would explain her lackluster grades. They were shocked at the outcome the therapist reported; their child was “perfectly normal. “ Perfectly average. Parents don’t enroll their children in just the right schools, provide an enriched home environment, and push the most impressive extra activities to be told their child is “perfectly normal!” As parents we all want to live in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, “where all the children are above average.” We view intelligence as fixed and failure as negative. We offer praise based on external performance while hoping that our children will develop internal motivation.
The cost of that attitude, for our children and for their futures, can be high, according to Dr. Braaten. Children who feel they can’t meet their parents’ expectations are more prone to suicide. And overpraising even talented students can undermine motivation. Dr. Braaten suggested parents focus on encouragement rather than praise. Believe that your children are capable of improvement – in intelligence as much as in violin or soccer. Help them understand that they will never know their limits until they reach them and fail. According to Dr. Braaten, this is how children learn optimism and develop the internal motivation that can lead to success, even starting with the dreaded “average” label.
This optimism is needed more than ever as students approach the college admissions process. An “average” student in a college’s applicant pool may have a 3.8 GPA and a 33 ACT. A young adult will be better adjusted and happier if she can identify and rely on her strengths, while acknowledging and learning to work around her weaknesses. The student who cultivates this self-awareness will be able to communicate to colleges the singular combination of qualities that set him apart.
After all, most of us adults are average drivers, average spellers, average cooks. We read an average number of books and play an average game of ping-pong. But with luck, we have people in our lives who think we are special. And we are. And each student is, too – even if he’s average.