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. This is a reality in many asian families where teen suicide rates are consistently the highest in the world.
I am guilty of wanting my son to do the best he can in school, too. With occasional tears and more homework than play during the week – we still barely keep up with the demands of school. But something happened over the summer that got me thinking about what I really wanted for my son.
Lessons from the bird man
We spent a morning with a falconer along the Garden Route in South Africa. A mesmerising 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 and love of his 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. I’d worry too much. If not happiness, then what do I really want for him?
The gift of making 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 child to be a good thinker.
Bonaparte knew what he was talking about when he said, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” We wanted our son to be the best decision maker he could be and nothing more.
We knew that 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 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 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 do this? 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 their primary goal. Facts and data are easier to teach and test for. Are school teachers even familiar with decision science and critical thinking? 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.
Tremaine is a behavioural economist and lecturer in Critical Thinking, based in Asia. Follow Tremaine on Facebook for weekly thoughts on thinking and raising your children as critical thinkers at http://www.facebook.com/tremainedupreez or her blog at http://www.tremainedupreez.com/raising-thinkers-blog/
Her latest book, Raising Thinkers - Preparing your Child for the Journey of a Lifetime will be out soon.