Like many parents, I believe that Sullivan is his own brand of perfection, and I describe him as such quite often. I understand that there is no actual perfect, and even if there were, Sully wouldn’t be it. He’s quite hefty for his age, he’s really slowly eeking out understandable words, and he taps his own chest when he says, “mama” (proof that he can make the noises but not totally connect them with me). But it’s these same things, with the potential additions of his absolute love of dancing and his full-bodied laughter, that make me confident that I can still claim perfection. He is an individual; he’s perfectly him.
I think this is what creates so much tension in me when I hear that he’s just a little behind with milestones. He was late to sit up (his pediatrician thought it was likely due to his leg rolls), crawl (he had slightly more to hoist off the ground), and walk (I get it bud; someday you’ll watch me on roller skates and realize that balance is not our strong suit). But I took heart in hearing that his first steps were taken while the other members of his daycare class cheered him on; maybe he was slower getting to where they already were, but he had the support and encouragement of a bunch of one and two-year olds. Language has proven to be our elusive next hurdle. Jack and I talk to him constantly, and one of Sully’s favorite activities is flipping through the pages of books that we read to him. He’s not in a language desert. He babbles all the time, using all sorts of inflection and an incredible range of sounds. He pauses to wait for us to speak. He follows lots of “rules” of conversation, it’s just that we have no idea what he’s saying. And he’s getting to an age where that’s slightly more concerning, so we’re getting slightly more concerned. I’m balancing his incredible perfection on one hand with standard guidelines on the other. I think that’s why I felt so captivated by the opening story in Todd Rose’s The End of Average, where he talks about when, in the 1940s, the United States Air Force faced an unexpected number of noncombat-related crashes. In short, a lot of pilots were dying, and it wasn’t due to mechanical errors. In trying to understand what was happening, the Air Force hired a recent Harvard graduate, Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels, to measure pilots. From his undergraduate work, Daniels came into this job questioning the presumption that the Air Force had been working with: that designing planes for the average pilot would work well enough for all of them. But he found that, “If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.” Rose takes his reader through an array of examples that show that the average isn’t helpful when thinking about the individual, not when it comes to brain activity and not when it comes to reaching milestones.
This got me thinking about just how deeply rooted this is in our education system. How we group kids in classes is one clear way we tell them whether or not they’re average (applying labels like “remedial” or “gifted” are part of this). But I think another important message we send to our students comes in the form of milestones that education creates: test scores. The SATs are a rite of passage for students planning to attend college, and they’re designed to tell anyone who takes them how average they are. Students and families with enough disposable income will go to great lengths to show that they aren’t average. They’ll take the test multiple times and pay for pricey courses and tutors to help raise scores, demonstrating that the wealthy will, in aggregate, always be unfairly granted more opportunities to climb a rigged ladder toward success. This effect trickles down to classroom tests with grades that imply an individual’s worth rather than share a moment in time of what they know and can do. These measures become schools’ answers to the early childhood practice of using milestones; they help you (or your parents) understand your place in the great scheme of age-level peers.
But honestly, I care more about what my son is capable of than I do about what Sam, Leila, or Lexi is doing. Grades and tests are a way to promote competition and to tell all of us that our place is never guaranteed because there’s always someone else who could be a little better (or who might take on yet another attempt for extra credit). And I know I’m going to have to figure out a way to talk to Sully about all of this when he goes to school so that he doesn’t confuse his worth with a score. And I’ll also try to encourage a world for him where his peers keep cheering him on and celebrating what he does as he does it (and vice versa)—a world that celebrates each person’s perfect individuality rather than their place, relative to the average.  Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: Unlocking our potential by embracing what makes us different. New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. Images courtesy of Sara Bailey.