It’s strange how watching your kid face a defeat means more–and hurts more–than anything that could happen to yourself.
This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help. If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book. Learn more here.
I have two kids, who I’ve generally stereotyped here before (and in a lot of conversations), as the Good Kid and the Mad Scientist. The older one has all sorts of great qualities–intelligent, good grades, well behaved, respectful, etc. Classic firstborn. Good Kid.
The second is… well, he’s…yeah. He’s the one that leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. Remnants of projects and drawings and creations litter half the house. Fifty percent of all the food storage containers and reusable water bottles that have ever crossed our property line end up as bug habitats. Pretty much anything… scrap wood, tinfoil, sticks, my office supplies, silverware, you name it… gets conscripted into his projects. When he’s working on something, he goes at it with a single minded devotion that verges on obsessive. Fat chance getting that dishwasher unloaded
Granted, they’re amazing projects. I know, Mom is supposed to say that, but even given my bias… The kid makes clay fish the size of your fingernail so detailed that you can identify the species. He makes reefs with dozens of types of corals that fit in your palm. He draws birds with all their plumage. The kid has sold his work at art shows, exhibiting next to adults. He’s been the youngest exhibitor every time. He’s 11.
Today was Awards Day, the culmination of his years in elementary school. He won…nothing. The award for achievement in art went to the Kid Who Won Everything Else.
Jon knows how the quality of his work compares to his age peers. You can’t help but notice at the school art shows. But he doesn’t always do the art class project exactly the way he was told. Sometimes he figures he knows a better way. I don’t know if he actually does know a better way or not. But he’s usually quite sure of his vision.
I watched from the other side of the room as Jon congratulated his classmates…generous kid, sweet disposition. I watched him jump forward,then sit back down as a kid with the same first name as him was called to receive the science award (Jon’s also a biology wizard, which explains the fish and the bugs and the birds).
But after the art teacher gave her award, Jon sank into himself as though someone had let the air out of his body. Across the gym, I tried to catch his eye, give a thin smile of encouragement, but he looked at no one.
After school, in the car alone, tears, dashed expectations, I try and try but I’m never good enough. Why don’t they understand me? What’s wrong with me?
Moms experience heart breaks that feel like nothing else in human experience.
I have an undergrad degree in education. About a year ago, bewildered about how to deal with this kid, I pulled out one of my old textbooks and reviewed the one chapter I could find on gifted education. The book listed six types of gifted kids. First up: standard good student. Check.
Second: Divergent Creative. Characteristics: independent thinker, resist playing by the rules, challenge authority, driven by deep need to create.
Student is at significant risk of tuning out of the education process.
Look what I got.
The ironic thing here is that I started out as the Good Kid, but turned into the divergent. I was the Kid Who Wins Everything when I was a kid. Now I’m the one who challenges authority, who ignores people at the community pool when I’m writing. Who says stuff that isn’t always popular with my peers. At least some of the time.
I can’t in clear conscience anymore tell him to conform, do everything you’re told, play the game without question. That’s not true to me, and its not true to him. And he knows that.
Kid is also pretty good at reading human behavior, including his own.
Why do we crave reinforcement? What makes us so desperate for praise, for approval, to hear that “good job?”
I don’t know. But we have to make a choice sometimes: try to fit the system in the hopes of winning the award, or obey what we are, what speaks to us, do what it seems like is our role in the world to do.
Part of why I think I have been evolving from Good Kid to Divergent is because I realized that I had nothing to lose. And that’s something I’ve talked about here before— it’s not like job security is a reality for most of us anymore anyways. And I’ve talked plenty of times about the need for bravery, for grit, and for determination to do the right thing and lead change in the face of discouragement. If you need a dose of that, click some of the links in this paragraph.
Sometimes, though, that’s a lonely and misunderstood road. Sometimes that just feels like shit.
But it doesn’t change who we are. Or what we have to do.
Ironically, I stumbled across a music video yesterday that I hadn’t seen in years. I never like it when it first came out. But it’s kinda growing on me.
So this one goes out to all you change agents, community leaders, Mad Scientists and tap dancing bumblebee people. Hang in there, guys.
And as Jon told me after he got the tears out of his system, none of today’s crap will matter a week from now. He’ll try to play by the rules better, but he’s not giving up what matters to him.
Wise kid, that Mad Scientist.