Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Overheard at the Grocery Store

I was on an unusual solo grocery shopping trip when I overheard a clearly exasperated woman in my isle berating her daughter (I would estimate the daughter was somewhere between 10 and 12, but I didn’t get a close look at her and I am a horrible judge of children’s ages). The tirade went something like this:

You really need to stop paying attention to what other people are doing and just pay attention to what you are doing. I’ve told you, the country isn’t run by A students, the country is run by C students, so just stop thinking about your grades and ignore them.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this, I think it is so interesting and wanted to think about all the different parts of her statements. The biggest question is, in my mind, Is what the mother said helpful? Since this conversation appears to be a common theme, I’m guessing the answer is Not so much, or the daughter may have resolved her upset and not feel the need to talk about it again. So let’s break down what the mother said and what the intention likely was behind it.

First, I understand that she was trying to tell her daughter to not compare herself and her academic performance to others, but just focus on doing what she could. I can appreciate that. Mel at Stirrup Queens recently posted an excellent article on objective success versus comparative success. The basic idea is that, a lot of the time we are objectively successful in an endeavor – in academics, in a career, in a relationship, really anything. But so often we compare ourselves to others who are more successful (or appear to be more successful) and we feel mediocre at best and like failures at worst. In the exchange I described above, it appears the daughter has clearly expressed some insecurity about her academic abilities in the past. She tends to compare herself against higher performing children and feels bad about herself. The mother was trying to invoke Mel’s idea of objective success versus comparative success in her first sentence. I think she could have worded it better, personally, and made the idea more clear.

The exchange took a rather surprising philosophical turn, I think. “The country isn’t run by A students, the country is run by C students.” Such an interesting thought - so counter to what we are constantly told, what we are conditioned to believe. C is an “average” grade, and most people are considered “average”, so if you mean to say that the majority rules and the majority is average, then that position makes sense. But is it true that the “average” rule the country? If you consider a certain previous president (cough, choke, Dubya, ehem) that certainly seems true. But is that the exception to the rule, or is that the general rule? Who really runs this country? Elite CEOs who graduated from prestigious ivy league universities and have the money and influence to shape policy? Hysterical ideologues that exert pressure on their representatives to behave like 3 year olds based on lack of information, lack of critical thinking, and dogma? Honestly, I think I could easily argue both positions. (I know there is an implicit assumption that ‘elite CEO’s who graduate from ivy league universities’ represent the A students and the ‘hysterical ideolologues who don’t think critically’ represent the C students. I acknowledge these representations are totally unfair, biased stereotypes and I apologize for not being well thought out enough to develop a better comparison.)

Lastly, the idea of a mother telling her child to ignore her grades is surprising, assuming the child attends a traditional public or private school. If the child were home schooled or unschooled I don’t believe grades would even be an issue of concern to the child, since grades are not the marker of achievement in a home school environment. Assuming the mother sends her daughter to a public or private school, where grades are the marker of achievement, and where they push the idea of better grades equals more success in life, what do you tell your child if you see that she is genuinely limited in academic ability, as measured in the public setting? How does a mother make her ‘average performing’ child feel adequate among higher performing peers? Should she try to build her up by tearing the higher performing child down, as this mother did by saying that A students don’t run the country, C students do? Or, perhaps, would a better idea be to focus on the child’s strengths and support and encourage the development of those strengths? I obviously know nothing about this girl. I don’t know if she plays a musical instrument or excels at ping pong or has an eye for designing creative landscapes. If academics is something that is really important to the child, and she seems to be struggling, perhaps talking about potential ways to get her additional help and academic support, through a tutor or additional time one-on-one with a teacher after school would be appropriate.

I tend to think that figuring out what is appropriate for the individual child takes more two way dialogue and active listening to the daughter’s true concerns. Perhaps the grocery store isn’t the best place for such a conversation, and perhaps the mother followed up later that day with more empathy and a willingness to listen and really hear what her daughter was trying to communicate. I hope for the sake of the daughter’s well being, and for the sake of the mother-daughter relationship, that was the case.

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