I wrote a recent post (Baseball & Ballet) about what can happen when a parent and a child are very different from one another. In the service of keeping the post brief, I left a lot of really important points unmade. The points I didn’t make have been bothering me since that post, so I am revisiting the theme. A slight variation on this same theme is nicely illustrated by the following comment, made by a very memorable and very charming little boy many years ago:
How could a judge and a physicist have gotten stuck with me? Terrence, age 10
Terrence had been brought in for evaluation by his parents because of “academic under- achievement.” He was a 4th grader in a highly regarded independent school earning mostly B’s and C’s on his report cards. He was a very engaging and verbal only child who behaved like a miniature adult. Terrence worked fairly hard in school and on his homework. He did very well on assignments that allowed him to be creative, but math, report-writing, and memorizing social studies facts were all more difficult for him. What really got Terrence jazzed, though, was hip-hop music and dancing. He spent hours upon hours of his free time perfecting dance moves and writing rap songs. His parents had no idea why Terrence had developed this love of all things hip-hop, and no other interests that they encouraged captured his attention.
One of the services that I offer in my practice is psychoeducational testing. The purpose of such testing is to describe learning styles, to identify learning disabilities, and to assist in the diagnosis of attention deficit disorders. One of the most difficult things I have to do as a result of such testing is to break the news to highly accomplished parents that they have a child of average ability. While it is true that above average parents tend to have above average children in terms of intellectual ability, there are no guarantees. Super smart parents can have average children and average parents can have super smart children.
When a physicist and a judge (or a doctor and an astronaut or a lawyer and a CEO, for example) have a child who is an average learner, there is a risk that the parents’ expectations will exceed their child’s capabilities. When that happens, there is a risk that their child will sense their disappointment and begin to feel inadequate. In fact, this is what happened with Terrence and his parents. Psychoeducational testing revealed that Terrence was an average learner. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his ability, his achievement, or his focus. After all, 75% of people are, by definition, “average.” Terrence’s academic achievement fell right in line with his intellectual ability. He wasn’t under-achieving relative to his ability, only relative to his parents’ expectations. The comment above told me that Terrence was fully aware that he was not measuring up.
Interestingly, when I gave Terrence’s parents this feedback, it was apparent that this was an outcome they had never considered. Because of their own high level of ability and achievement, they assumed that Terrence would be an exceptional student himself. Also, Terrence was a verbal and creative child who was mature beyond his years. In fact, his “interpersonal smarts” surpassed his “book smarts” by a mile. After I answered Mom and Dad’s questions about how and why their son had ended up an average learner and what they could reasonably expect in terms of his future achievement, they instinctively knew that they needed to turn down the pressure about his grades. They also understood that they needed to support his passion for hip-hop culture whole-heartedly. In other words, they needed to nurture their son’s unique gifts.
This same dynamic can develop any time a child differs from his or her parents in important ways. Imagine two very outdoorsy and athletic parents who have a gay son who loves fashion and hates nature or two musically talented parents who have an athletic and tone-deaf daughter or two politically conservative parents who raise a left-leaning vegetarian pacifist (my own parents are experts on this particular challenge!). All of these scenarios can be recipes for disastrous family relationships. Fortunately, they are also excellent opportunities for parents to stretch themselves and embrace the child they’ve been blessed with, rather than the one they thought they’d get.
[Note: Names and all potentially identifying information has been changed.]