Monday, November 15, 2010
Every time I think my kids have accomplished something noteworthy I get gob-smacked by another preteen prodigy who has achieved a perfect SAT score or invented a better way to microwave bacon. The latest is a 10-year-old opera singer, Jackie Evancho from Pittsburgh, who has an album coming out next week for the holidays. She was a contestant on "America's Got Talent" (AGT) but I saw her on the "Today" show. I don't watch AGT because their child superstars make clear that my kids are remarkably ordinary. I'm delighted my kids fit in so well with their peers, but I also like having my fantasy that they will make the cover of Time magazine before they can drive.
I don't think I'm any different than any other parent. We all want the best for our kids while also validating our excellent parenting and genes. At one point I only had to compete against friends and family, but now we have YouTube highlighting world-wide phenomena daily. It's like getting your cousin's holiday newsletter extolling her kids either saving the rainforests or winning a poetry award. But instead of getting it once a year, you now get it every time you log on to AOL. It's hard not to be jealous and to believe that brilliance touches every family but mine.
When I sit on the sidelines of a youth game and see parents coaching, demanding, and even verbally assaulting their kids to meet unrealistic expectations, I see the dark side of all this adulation of young luminaries. We lose perspective on what constitutes normal, even exemplary, performance. We make the mistake that somehow we can create the child star through sheer force of will. I don't know what's completely behind the emergence of a Jackie Evancho. She may be a very regular 10 year old with an extraordinary talent. But I suspect that there's also a mom and/or dad in the wings coaching to the point of micro-managing. We can never know for sure, although we get a boat-load of tell-all tales from child stars like Patty Duke or Macaulay Caulkin revealing some pretty horrific histories.
I remember when I first saw 3-year-old Tiger Woods on the "Tonight" show. He was making these great shots and putts, but hovering over him directing him every second was his dad. Andre Agassi just published his memoirs, "Open", in which he details tennis as a prison from which he tried to escape. His father expected all his four children to be tennis prodigies, but only Agassi survived the grueling daily training sessions that often pulled him out of school and left him with no friends. Despite the agony, the success of these talents only reinforces a parent's belief that his or her child will be happiest by being the greatest through intense training and constant monitoring. Hopefully most of these parents do it to insure an amazing future for their children and not out of an egotistical need to be recognized as the parents of high achievers, although I suspect the latter plays into their behaviors too often.
Even after Agassi details his horrific journey to the highest levels of men's tennis, he also admits that he has come to appreciate what that success has meant for him. Obviously this makes the process problematic. On the one hand, we parents want our kids to go as far as possible on whatever career or interest path they choose, while we also want to insure they have a childhood that they can look back on with joy. We only get one chance to do it right, and naturally we make tons of mistakes. But we don't want to have any regrets that some major talent in our children went untapped because we didn't push enough. For many of those talents we have to make decisions before our kids are old enough to have any serious input. I remember on vacation to Florida when the boys were three and four we got them tennis lessons with the hotel pro mainly so we could relax for two hours poolside without having to watch out for the boys. When the pro returned he extolled their athletic abilities and naturally suggested they continue training with him, which at $40 an hour I fully expected him to do. But then he said, "Bryce is really too old to ever become a serious tennis champion, but Robbie definitely has a chance." In ten seconds he had opened a dangerous door. What had begun as time-killing lessons could now become a serious mission to mold a new tennis sensation. We passed.
When I tell this story most people laugh and agree that we probably would have spent thousands of dollars on a long shot. But there are always a few, especially those who know how athletic Robbie is, who ask, "Don't you wonder if he could have made it?" Sure I do. I have the same fantasies about all my kids that they achieve ultra success in their chosen passions. I know that child actors, models, tennis stars, gymnasts, and figure skaters among other "professions" can start before kids are toilet trained so parents have to make the choice to pursue these dreams. I respect their decisions since only they know their family dynamics and their child's ability to handle the pressures of such early professional demands. But luckily most of youth sports evolve slowly and don't begin seriously until a child is 9 or 10. That gives the player a bigger voice in what happens. As parents we need to listen.
Ultimately the question becomes: how different will your child's life be if he or she becomes extraordinary at a young age or simply becomes successful but typical as an adult. The temptation to try for the former outcome is powerful. Yet the reality remains that many have tried and few have succeeded. With no "do-overs" we'll never know which path would have been the best. Sometimes the decision can be made for us if our child is plucked from obscurity by fate – like Lana Turner being discovered at Schraft's. However, for most of us we have to decide if at age 5 knowing how to slide tackle or score 10 goals a game indicates our child has exceptional skills worthy of intense development. While most of us will decide to take pride in whatever accomplishments our kids achieve, brag and share pictures until people run when they see us coming, and give our kids an occasional push, some of us will decide to pursue an accelerated course. If your child is successful I'll try not to be jealous, but I can't promise anything.