Is Mediocrity Okay?

The Thinker by Rodin

This is a discussion I’ve been having a lot with my daughter and my wife lately. What we’re trying to figure out is whether it is okay for our daughter Rosie to skate by through life or whether we should push her to excel. Rosie, by the way, is 13 years old and currently in the eighth grade. For years she has been “getting by” in school with a mixture of A’s, B’s and C’s, and the occasional D, but mostly she has been a high C sort of student. She came very close to going to summer school last summer.

It’s not that we haven’t been doing everything we could think of to motivate her. We’ve tried it all from bribes, threats, hands off, cajoling, networking, lengthy discussions with her teachers, punishments, incentives. She’s been tested for ADD (negative). Her teachers say over and over again what a bright, intelligent and interesting girl she is. But her pattern is the same. She starts off the year well then seems to lose interest in about half her subjects. We play the paper chase and try to keep on top of her homework but it’s impossible. She forgets to bring stuff home, or deliberately doesn’t do things. To her studying might be looking through her notes, if she has any, a few minutes before the class. But mostly she can’t stay organized so assignments aren’t turned in or are never even started.

Doubtless my wife and I are mirroring our own childhoods with Rosie. Terri was practically an only child, with a brother 8 years older than herself. She did well in school because she was naturally bright, but not necessarily naturally interested in everything she was taught. If the laziness gene is genetic, Rosie gets it from Terri. I mean no offense to my lovely wife but that’s just a fact. It was okay for her to be lazy. Her mother was too busy doing the single mom thing and just scraping by to care too much about her studies. Besides Terri was naturally bright. In a sea of mediocrity in the Flint Public Schools a naturally bright person working at half their ability is an A student.

I on the other hand was number five of eight siblings, and most of us were A students. I learned to compete against my brothers and sisters. My parents set high expectations. We were expected to be A students so we were, for the most part. Even so I was somewhere in the middle of my siblings. Certain siblings, Doris, Jim, Teri and Tom in particular excelled and zoomed to the top of the class. I had to work at it. I was ashamed to bring home any test that was less than a 90%; I knew I’d get a reproving look from my father. But mainly I was self-directed. I didn’t need anyone to pick up behind me. I kept up on my homework. I studied on my own. I knew life would not be handed to me. If I was going to go to college it would have to be done through hard work, both scholastically and through part time jobs. With all those siblings money for college was tight.

Fast forward to the present. I observe a lot of the characteristics of Terri and I in Rosie. She picks up on ideas and concepts very quickly. She has a unique and somewhat skewed perspective on life. She is an excellent writer, and both my wife Terri and I have considerable talent in that area. At her age I burned with writer’s fever, as does she. My writing at that age never came close to what she is producing right now. She also has considerable talents in singing and acting. Even though she doesn’t like math, she understands it.

I don’t understand why if the brass ring is right there in her grasp she won’t make the little effort to go up and grab it. But that’s continually the problem we face with Rosie. Yes she wants to go to college. Yes we explain to her that colleges are selective and if she wants to go to college now is the time to clean up her act and commit to serious studying. Yes, she knows the consequences of indulging her own apathy: “Do you want fries with that?” Even though graduation is four years away she doesn’t seem to grasp it. We try to explain that she starts high school next year, and that the pressure will double, and the kids are racing toward the finish line. Her fantasies revolve around private boarding schools far, far away where she gets to do things she likes in school all day, not tackle things that she finds boring like geometry or world history.

Is the problem too little adversity in her life? I’m not sure we spoiled her, but her life is certainly a lot easier and a lot fuller than my childhood. If there aren’t enough tough obstacles to climb over in your life, will you be conditioned not to climb over them in adulthood?

I’ve explained that growing up is all about mistakes and learning from your mistakes. I told her it is much, much easier to learn from your lessons now than to procrastinate and try to do the same as an adult. I try not to be myopic about her education, but I try to set a reasonable bar. Getting B’s or better in all her classes should be a minor matter. All she has to do is turn in all her homework. That’s it. And she is doing better than before, but she hasn’t gotten to the bar yet. She gets a couple C+ grades the last two grading periods, but the rest are an improvement on last year. But she feels under pressure, she says I in particular am obsessed with grades, and she tells me frequently there is more to life than a report card.

She is right of course. And she is wrong. It is both. One doesn’t need an abacus to figure out the consequences of her behavior. There is certainly nothing wrong with a life behind the French fry vat at McDonalds. But I also know her well enough to know she would not be happy there. That sort of life would make her miserable. She flows on the energy of music and writing and drama. She is a restless child who wants to suck the nectar out of life. She just hasn’t made the connection that it takes perseverance to get that nectar.

All this while at 13 she also needs to start making her own choices and my wife and I have to continually rethink her boundaries. Maybe she does have the right to be mediocre. Maybe she is one of these people whose greatest lessons have to be learned from failure. Maybe we have to take our hands off and let her fail before she can summon the inner strength to move persevere and grab the brass ring. Or maybe she’ll never grasp it at all, and spend her life getting by. Ultimately it is her choice.