By the Law of Large Numbers, most children will grow up to be average in height, weight, intelligence and in their life achievements. Wonderfully, blissfully, unassumingly average. No matter which way we look at it, our children have a better chance of being average than exceptional. To date, no parent has suggested to me that they would love for their kids to be average. Happy? Yes. Average? No. Would being average live up to the expectations that are heaped upon our children today? Average children can be very happy but not if being average is seen as being a failure.
Of course, I'm guilty of wanting my son to do the best he can in school, too. Of secretly convincing myself that the Law of Large Numbers doesn't apply to my one and only child - because he's mine and I have big dreams for him. So I steer him through more homework than play during the week, hoping I'm on the right track. All the while barely keeping up with the demands of school and extra-everything-lessons that we fire at our kids here in Asia. But something happened on our last holiday in South Africa that got me thinking about what I really wanted for my son - and it wasn't good grades from an exhausted 8 year old who didn't have time for his Lego on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Lessons from the Birdman
We met him along the enchanted Garden Route of South Africa - a bohemian looking red bearded man who rehabilitates birds of prey that have been hurt or fallen on hard times, so to speak. These birds are his all consuming passion. Several species there are on the brink of extinction and he is literally protecting them with his life - his quality of life. A life that is entirely funded by donations from the public. Is he doing a worthwhile job? Yes. Is he happy? Absolutely. But would I like my son to grow up doing something he loves that is entirely reliant on fickle handouts from tourists over a few summer months? To be honest; no. He'd be happy but he'd be poor. Could he be poor and happy? Even if he was, I'd worry about him too much, his lack of security. Could it be that it isn't happiness that I want for my son? If not happiness, then what? What could be more important than happiness?
The gift of knowing how to make good decisions
My husband and I decided some time ago to dispense with the just let little Johnny be happy and find his own passion rhetoric because, honestly, we didn't know how to help him do this, apart from letting him try his hand at everything - until something resonated with him or we ran out of money, time, patience or all three. We decided instead that we wanted our son to be a good thinker.
We knew that, for better or worse, the decisions we had made in the past had created our current reality, and the decisions that we make today create our future. His life would also be guided and determined by the choices he made along the way. Not what subjects he chose, but how well he chose them to suite his abilities and goals. Not his final algebra score, but what he chose to do with it. Would that make him happy? We hoped that being able to make good decisions about how to spend his time, what to study, what to read, what not to eat or drink or smoke and how to respond to challenging situations in the playground, the campus or the office would make his life a little easier, a little more successful and maybe, a little happier.
The rest would be up to him.
How were we going to teach him to make good decisions? Surely his school would teach him this? We soon found out that, even though school subjects were now considerably cooler and more relevant than in our day, teaching students what to think is still a school's primary goal, especially here in Asia. Facts and data are easier to teach and test for. Are school teachers even familiar with decision science and teaching students how to think? Should they be? But were we in a position to teach him how to make good decisions ourselves? We'd racked up a fair amount of lousy decisions between us in the past.
Lecturing our son in the art of decision science would likely backfire before he hit puberty. But we could learn as much as possible about making good decisions, thinking about thinking and processing information soundly. Then, and only then, could we coach him. In fact, this is how I came to do what I do as a coach and lecturer in critical thinking. I realised that I couldn't raise a critical thinker if I wasn't one myself.