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Normalizing normal

by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director


As a young parent, I preened over times my kids got As and perfect attendance and excelled at an activity or a sport.

As an old parent, I see it all quite differently. I’m looking back over 30+ years as a mom

I’m no longer able to normalize competitive sports — or even high-level chess, to be frank. I now see the extremes of competition as inherently unbalanced: like sending our kids out as gladiators for empty glory and dangerous perfectionism. I don’t remember now why I thought excellent grades were so important, and why I looked at child athletic champs as heroes. I see now that I bought into a rather toxic and smug view of childhood as a time you find your excellence and aim for the sky. Or, rather, I bought into the idea that those children who excelled were going to be happier and more successful.

Old parents know a more prosaic truth: that the competition for grades and trophies is not a proxy for adult happiness. Success is not the better school or the better job. Being average and balanced is not low expectations: it’s an active engagement in real life.

Old parents see things longitudinally, and from the rearview.

We have seen the “rest of the story” of our own peers and the ongoing stories of our children’s peers. It turns out that the children who vibrated with competitive spirit did not do better than others at the tasks of adulthood: they are not the happier or kinder or best adjusted. Some went on to health and happiness, some were ground under with the same anxiety and drivenness that kept them at the top of the class. Some of the late bloomers and dropouts went on to happy lives, and some achieved fame and fortune despite slow beginnings, and others didn’t. Most people, it turns out, are closer to average and not the extremes, and while not protective of bad outcomes the average kids are really the ones we probably need to focus on more, and praise.

In these times of pausing the normal, and concern for the future, perhaps we can rethink the driven path our kids — and often we as parents — were doing when life is bringing us home to wait.

Honestly, I now view perfectionism and competition as a terrible start in life. I’m sure it is POSSIBLE to strive for perfection without being unwell, but I’m quite sure now that I’m old that our culture of promoting it and lauding it is toxic for most, and for many it is a distraction from the real work of growing up and becoming happy humans. Our promotion of competition and high achievement can blind us to those who are struggling and those who may indeed be mentally ill with anxiety. Our attention to the long end of the statistical curve can make normal invisible, and uncared for.

I’m sure what I’m saying sounds horribly grumpy, but a few more curmudgeons on this topic are probably needed. I’m now the one with the uncommitted smile when someone else brags on their child’s achievements. I’m the one who no longer asks what college someone got into, or joins the high fives over a perfect score. Perfection, frankly,  worries me.

I’m the one who watches for the silences of parents on the edges of those conversations, the ones who are no longer posting happy updates all the time.

I’m watching for the worried ones who, if you draw them out, want to talk about how freshman year went poorly and are seen donating to new causes involving mental health and substance use. These are the families who need us to normalize normality, and average, and resilience. And now, in this worldwide crisis, the concern I hear about gifted students losing the advantages and scholarships and placements they worked so hard for makes me wonder: how many are relieved? How many will realize the carousel of striving is a burden, even an illness, and not their true desire. And we, as parents, will surely be reflecting on this, too.

In these times when life is completely upended and things like school progress and careers have gone on hold, it is an opportunity, too, to rethink normal.


  1. Gary Tartakov

    This is profound. Our culture trains us to become as good as possible at competing with each other. Why? So we can be the winners of the race, and so the announcer on the screen can feel seriously disappointed for the girl on the balance beam who came in second in the Olympics. Second in the entire world! And so the guy who owns Amazon can be the richest, on the backs of more losers than anybody else.

    Being OK is such a struggle, because of the competition not to be run over is so intense.

  2. Laura H.

    So true. As an educator and parent I’ve been influenced by Alfie Kohn’s writings on the case against competition in terms of children’s emotional well-being and development and also connectedness with others. Based on observations of my own kids being brought up in a home where a conscious effort is made to promote intrinsic motivation, it is interesting to note how some kids seem more hard-wired to seek the promise of external validation whereas others will happily march to the beat of their own drum.

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