what’s wrong with being average?

April 4, 2014 |  Category:   life parenting


How do you answer this question when it’s asked by your 10 year old? Especially when you were raised in a pretty typical Asian-American household where average wasn’t acceptable? (There’s a reason why those Asian parent memes are funny) Because truthfully? Despite how I was raised and despite whatever struggles I have with it myself, the answer is…nothing. There’s really nothing wrong with being average. So I did the only thing I could when I was caught off guard when asked that question point blank during a confrontation about homework – I didn’t answer, mostly because I didn’t know what to say at that moment.


Raising a kid who has an entirely different temperament and personality than your own has its challenges, though I suppose on the flip side of that, I can argue that it’s equally hard to parent a kid who is exactly like you. I have one of each. At least you have some knowledge of what you’re dealing with in the child that is very much like you, but the other requires stepping out of yourself to try and understand the child that is different from you so that you can make the right choices and decisions for her and not ones that you would make for yourself. I’m not even sure if my Type A, perfectionist personality is a direct product of my upbringing or whether that is just ingrained in who I am and always was. Even though my knee-jerk reaction to her question might have been similar to those Asian parent memes (what do you mean you’re fine with being average? Why even think that way?) I know that it’s a very narrow (and often unhappy) way to live life.
Given how hard my brother and I were on ourselves when we were kids, to the point of ulcers and severe anxiety, I always wondered what kind of parent I would turn out to be. I didn’t want that kind of stress and pressure, self inflicted or parental, on my kids, but now that I am here where grades and test scores are starting to count, I’m finding that it’s a lot more complicated. What makes it worse is that in NYC, kids start taking standardized tests in 3rd grade which causes anxiety at such an early age, and middle school applications are competitive. It’s simply not a matter of going to your neighborhood middle school; you need to tour, rank, and interview at your schools of choice and hope that you get in. This year, 4th grade, is when the tests, grades and attendance count. If you’re thinking this is a crazy process, then you’re right. These kids are 10.
I reread that Tiger Mom post I wrote 3 years ago because I remember asking myself that very question when the girls were just starting school. What kind of mom am I going to be once school grades start carrying weight towards their academic future? Turns out I’m that mom who gives her kids extra writing assignments during school vacations and downloads practice tests to complete on the weekends leading up to the state tests. Really didn’t see that coming, but I still don’t consider myself a “Tiger Mom”. I think there is a line between encouraging your children to do their best and pressuring your kids to succeed beyond what they’re capable of, and I don’t plan on ever crossing it. But I’m still trying to figure it out and I’m sure I’ll make a few mistakes along the way. What worked for me, how I was raised, and how I performed in school are the not the standards that I should hold my kids to because the girls aren’t me. I do, of course, want my kids to do their best and succeed, but by whose definition of success am I measuring? It’s different for everyone, isn’t it?

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  • A April 4, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    What an interesting question. The thing is no one is above average at all things, meaning that we’re all average (or below) at some things. On the flip side, I believe every single one of us is above average at some things (academic or otherwise).

    Like you say, by whose measure of success should we live?

    P.S.- I love your blog and am a faithful follower :)

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      damn, that is true, isn’t it?

    • Joya April 8, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      So so true.

  • Heather April 4, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    I saw this poem recently and loved it

    Make the Ordinary Come Alive

    Do not ask your children
    to strive for extraordinary lives.
    Such striving may seem admirable,
    but it is a way of foolishness.
    Help them instead to find the wonder
    and the marvel of an ordinary life.
    Show them the joy of tasting
    tomatoes, apples, and pears.
    Show them how to cry
    when pets and people die.
    Show them the infinite pleasure
    in the touch of a hand.
    And make the ordinary come alive for them.
    The extraordinary will take care of itself.

    – William Martin

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      Thanks for sharing this poem Heather!

  • hnahk April 4, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    wow, the timing of this post. we just received our son’s G&T scores for kindergarten admission. his score was a complete surprise since we did not tutor and wanted to see how he would fare on his own. i am proud, relieved, excited etc, i’m also anxious. once again, i have that burning desire to quit my mid level 9-5, cuz how else are we going to keep up with homework, activities, testing?? i also don’t consider myself a tiger mom but just last night i was writing out the multiplication for 2 through 9 so my kids (ages 5 and 4) can start on memorizing it. who am i?

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 6:48 pm

      Woah, and haha! Kids don’t start learning multiplication tables in school until 3rd grade! Let them be kids :)

  • Sora April 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    This post rings true for me. It is a different problem for us as our daughter may or may not have some sort of learning disability. It is hard to tell as there is an enormous amount of pressure for all kids to be at a certain level on all subjects and she is struggling somewhat in one subject. I am not sure if she just needs more time to develop. How can I even know? I’m not even sure if testing and a therapist could tell at such an early age (she is in the 1st grade). There is a lot of pressure from her teacher to put her in a special class and it just seems wrong at this point. I was also raised by a type A, Asian parent, but that worked for me. I wanted to do well in school and when it came to academics, may have even been on the competitive side. But for my child, I do not look forward to the coming years as it does mean more testing, tutors and added pressure to be good enough. Needless to say, don’t get me started on Common Core. Boy, that was a downer. Sorry!

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      I don’t have any words of advice for you Sora, but I wish you and your daughter all the best as you both try to figure out the best learning path for her. 1st grade is very early, but if you have services in school for extra help, by all means take advantage of it. There is no stigma about that where I live and in our school and I think early intervention is key.

  • Teapotkid April 4, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    My motto is “aspire to mediocrity”. It is half joking, but there’s also some truth in it. The reality is that most of us are average and maybe that’s ok. There’s a lot less pressure that way.

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      maybe I should start adopting that motto :)

  • Desiree April 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    I think you are a very wise and considerate mother. Your girls will do well with a mother like you and yes there is nothing wrong with being average. That could lead to a happier life in some ways at least.

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks, Desiree.

  • Diane April 4, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    Thoughtful post, Jenna, and a very important one in these times of over-testing. Let’s hope that our schools can swing back to a time where the delight of learning was more important than the test score.

    • Jenna April 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      my kid just took the English portion of the state tests over 3 days and according to the teachers, it was a terrible test this year. Our school has always been vocal against standardized testing. It’s a shame that the teachers get evaluated based on these test scores and that the scores don’t holistically reflect a student’s comprehension of the material.

  • Deepa April 6, 2014 at 2:48 am

    Ha! Just in time. My kid is 10 too and parents here have already begun discussing the SATs. Since I was raised in a fairly competitive academic environment in India and did very well too I’m not sure how much and when exactly to begin worrying. In first grade we shifted my son from an extra competitive(read: lots of asian and south asian parents and 99% Tiger Moms) bay area school to a smaller one with less emphasis on testing and scores and more on in depth and investigation led learning. I’m not entirely sure we made the right choice although if happiness and joy are indicators of success my son is definitely both those on a daily basis. We think we’re going to pay the price later when he’s simply not up to mark perhaps when kids in other schools start bragging about all their uber AP scores:-)

    I know NYC can be crazier than even bay area because I have cousins there who’re tearing their hair out over admissions to prestigious middle schools and so on. The best to you.

    • Jenna April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am

      the SATs already?? Ok, that is pushing it too far.

  • Leila April 6, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    I’m in my third year of undergrad and until about a year ago, “average is okay” was some kind of bizarre, unheard of concept to me. Now I’m really working on taking that to heart. Instilling this in your kids early on can only be a good thing, I think, and hopefully it will save them from dealing with the anxiety and self-inflicted pressure that would have been otherwise.

  • Megan April 7, 2014 at 1:50 am

    This post rang so true for me – my childhood was one of intense self pressure as a Type A overachiever. I don’t know that I carried stress in an ulcer causing way, I just attacked everything and did so much and accepted nothing less than excellent in anything. I fought a teacher who didn’t want to let me retake a test I missed on a club trip – even though my score in the class was over 100%. Through college, through ivy law, I finally started to accept that average is great, and fitting into that large swing of the curve meant I could have a life and carry less stress. It took a long, long time.

    When I was pregnant, all I prayed for was a kind, healthy, happy child. And that probably speaks volumes as to how important I think perfectionism actually is to me and how much I wanted something more for her. And now, at 4, I still try to balance pushing her and giving her the ability to excel. I always think of the Einstein quote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” And I hate that growing up in a test world may crush her sweet excited curious interest in the world and learning, her self esteem, and shape her outlook on life in such a limited way.

    Average is ok.

  • Amy April 7, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Jenna. I struggle with this, too. What has helped me some is not to frame it as average or above or below. My standard is to raise self-sufficient and independent adults. How much “success” they achieve in life will be up to them, and they will own their accomplishments, but they will know how to accomplish things and will be able to depend on themselves.

    Facebook has brought to my attention that some of my “average” classmates are now doing very meaningful and extraordinary things. The most successful were not in my honors classes, clubs or teams. I find this very comforting and I try to spend less time worrying if my kids are keeping up with the best of their peers, and more time honoring their accomplishments and interests and exposing them to life outside of school. I want them to see that they can be anything they want, not by being the best at everything in school, but by working hard, taking risks, being creative and connecting with others.

    But that is easier said than done when your third grader’s report card is going to partly determine if he gets into the only good middle school in your city, or if you are going to have to figure out how to shell out 25k a year for private school or move. It’s a shame that so much should ride on a 8 year old’s performance in school. I think back to my performance in 3rd grade and how inconsequential it was–what a luxury! I had to bite my lip at our teacher conference so as not to ask, “how above average? Like super above average?” I thought I would never leave the city, but it’s just too much pressure for me. My husband can be all “we’ll see what happens” but the uncertainty makes me sick.

    Again, thanks for your lovely writing. I like to think in the real world we would be friends.

    • Jenna April 8, 2014 at 8:35 am

      Thanks for your comment Amy. I grew up here as you know, and I don’t remember testing this early and we certainly didn’t have to apply to middle schools – high schools yes, but not middle schools. I don’t know when this changed or why – maybe because more people stayed and and at some point there were not enough schools?

  • Rachel April 7, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    As someone who was raised to excel in everything I did, this is an interesting post for me to contemplate. I think there is room in life for a person to be both average and excellent, depending on what it is that’s at hand. Growing up, I was taught (not just by my parents, but by all of my teachers and schools) that scoring well and getting A’s was the basis of my worth. As a result, I started to avoid doing things I thought I would fail or be average at, even if only at the beginning, because that would mean something about who I was as a person. Now, in my late twenties, I really struggle with facing any kind of challenge or situation where I would be anything less than perfect, and since in the real world those situations happen a lot, I’m struggling almost all the time. Now, in my opinion, by not allowing kids to be average, or to be bad at things, we as adults are making life a lot harder for them later on. Instead of teaching them the value in growth or the learning process, we’re saying that if they’re not excelling, there’s no point. Of course, none of this is to say anything about your specific parenting style or how you’re raising your kids. The fact that this is even a topic you’re thinking and writing about means you’ve gotta be doing something right =] It’s just my personal experience with the whole thing, and something I’ve been meaning to write about on my blog for awhile but haven’t taken the time to do – these are all realizations I’ve come to in the past year. I really enjoy how much I can relate to so many of the things you write about on your blog even though our lives have practically nothing in common. (P.S. This is the article that originally got me thinking about all of this – it’s a fascinating read, in my opinion: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/)

    • Jenna April 8, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Well, this is certainly the risk and totally true for me. I was afraid of failure and still am in many ways. Trying to shake that off, but it’s hard to deprogram yourself when you’ve been programmed to think a certain way all your life.

  • MCC April 11, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Have you seen this recent article on the same topic on Bloomberg? At least people are thinking/writing/blogging about it. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-02-20/go-ahead-let-your-kids-fail

    My son is still too young but I think about this all the time. Heck, it goes far beyond parenting. How do I tell MYSELF it’s ok to take a chance – even if it might be the wrong one.

    You’ve got my wheels turning, as usual. Enjoy the wkend.