I loved reading this column about ordinariness, by my friend and fellow poet, Veronica Zundel. Writing for Woman Alive magazine, she challenges the insidious assumption that to be significant, we need to do or achieve something extraordinary.
Reading this dislodged a whole load of thoughts I’ve been having for some time, about significance, achievement and how we teach our children what actually matters in life.
A couple of years ago, some parents at my children’s Primary School put together a book of memories for the Year 6 class who were leaving that year. As part of this, they took a picture of each child in the class holding up a small whiteboard, on which they were asked to write the answer to the question: What do you want to be when you grew up?
There was the usual plethora of vets, doctors, pop stars and footballers. Then one boy, whose turn it was to be photographed, held up his whiteboard. He had written “kind.”
There was a small pause. One of the parents laughed. The photographer said, “bless!” But then, task-focussed, time-pressured and blinkered, they asked him to rub out what he’d written.
“It has to be a job,” they explained.
My children recounted this story over the kitchen table, and we brainstormed the things that could be written in response to “what do you want to be?” Kind was a good one. What about “happy,” they mused, or “a mum” or “a good friend.” “Forgiving,” they went on, “confident,” “encouraging,” “a sharer.” It became quite a moving exercise – until they got on to “the owner of a racing car,” “permanently eating chocolate” and “better at football than Patrick Jones.”
It’s not that any of us don’t want to be kind, happy or the sort of person who makes people feel good about themselves. It’s just that you don’t get on TV or earn money for such things. You can’t do a GCSE, A-level or even ongoing professional development in kindness. (If I’m wrong, let me know!) These traits are not measurable, and no-one puts them at the top of a CV, or tells people that’s what they most want in life. They also don’t contribute towards GDP. Supposedly. And yet, a workplace where people’s ambitions are as much to be kind as they are to be “successful” – well, let’s imagine what a gorgeous place that would be to spend our days!
I walked into a large bookshop last week, and in the children’s department, I was faced off by a wall display publicising a range of books for children all about famous, successful people’s lives. Marie Curie! Alan Turing! Malala Yousafzi! Martin Luther King! We can’t argue with any of those in terms of living a life well, but at the same time, it made me ask myself – what kind of pressure are we putting children under, if we present them constantly with ideals of extreme success, from the moment they start to read?
(My semantics-loving mathematician side also wondered what the maximum percentage of extraordinary people is in a population, before they by nature become ordinary in their extraordinariness…)
Where is the balance between giving children aspirations and showing them the little people in life who work hard and are happy? Why not aspire to have a part-time job in a shop, look after your children the rest of the time, and have a house which you keep clean and tidy?
Although I would love to see my kids win prizes, play international sport or contribute significantly to some future technological solution to Global Warming, the thing I most want them to be is happy. I teach them to work hard, and to understand the value of money, and to make wise choices – so that they have the agency and freedom to balance their lives, not constantly pursue someone else’s ideal of achievement.
I also try and love them enough that they don’t grow up needing affirmation from external sources like social media, salary levels and having books written about them. I can but hope!
I think I’ll contact the publisher and offer a new title. “My friend Bethany’s Mum.” The blurb would say something like, “She raised an average number of children fairly well. She cared for people with disabilities, often subjugating her own desires to help them enjoy themselves. Yet she always practiced sufficient self-care not to have a breakdown, ran the village tennis club, had about the right number of friends and enjoyed making flapjack.”
Would that sell? Maybe not. But if you wanted your child to have a role model likely to lead them into a fulfilling, balanced and satisfying life, you couldn’t do much better…