With pieces of themselves drawn from so many places, it’s not surprising that kids seem increasingly fragmented in their emotional lives as well as in their school lives. Images and expectations from television, from music, from movies, from their immediate and extended families, from their after-school activities, from their coaches, from their religious leaders, and, yes, from the dozens of teachers they’ve had, strike them from all angles. Of course they cower. Of course they hide.
To inflict the burden of excellence upon them when we’re not even sure what it means seems like it may have a paradoxical effect: like taking an Alka-Seltzer PM, which is meant to put you to sleep, but ends up making you jumping and nervous all night. The quest for elite performance can end up eroding ambition and talent like rain that’s supposed to help a small plant grow, but instead drowns it.
I’m not saying that kids with promise should not be encouraged to develop enthusiasm or even passion for their talents, but that they should not be trapped inside what is regarded as potential by the cheerleading adults around them, as if they’re being caged by possibility. It seems to me that a lot of kids are being driven towards developing an “excellence” that might be better called “obsession.”
We keep telling kids that they should do what they do best; I think that’s a flaw in the system. If a kid knows how to do something instinctively and wonderfully right from the start, by all means we should applaud his or her endeavors and offer every kind of support. Yet we should also encourage and support her attempts to try something altogether different; we should tell him that rising to a new challenge might be as much fun as the exploration of ground he already knows.
If something is worth doing, then it's worth doing, right? Doing well, doing weirdly, and doing wrong might also be the outcomes of trying something new. But that doesn't mean it wasn't worth doing. That's the very definition of learning.
I always feel bad for children whose parents spent a lot of time, money and effort making them into little Mozarts, Magic Johnsons, or Martha Grahams. They seem sad to me, and they always seem to feel that they were letting somebody down when they didn’t come out in first place, or at least on the winning side.
There were kids in the same situation when I was growing up. While they were being driven to ballet lessons or to try out for yet another state-wide team, I was happily entertaining myself scrap paper and a box of Crayolas, or else playing with my Barbies or watching re-runs of Greenacres on T.V. My free time wasn’t organized, which is why I have developed, over the years, such a fondness for the word “free.”
Harnessing someone’s talents still means that you’re putting them in a harness – that you expect them to pull some kind of weight. But a harness is not something out of nature; it is a contrivance, a series of trappings, which inevitably end up domesticating and burdening the very creature that wears them.
“Excellence” shouldn’t be a burden; achievement shouldn’t be a rope around your neck or a weight around your ankle. Doing well should be a choice, a gift, a chance, and a pleasure.