An Open Letter To Parents Of Exceptional Children

It might surprise, and possibly offend, people that a childless woman like me has Strong Opinions(tm) about parenting. I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media saying that people like me (who don’t have kids and probably never will) should just “mind our own business” or “stop being so judgemental when kids are throwing a fit in the grocery store.” Perhaps even more surprising is that I do agree with most of this. I think a lot of child-free adults can be aggressively anti-children and often lack empathy for the struggles of modern parents, and that’s not okay. Parenting in this day and age is incredibly challenging and isolating.

An illustration of a postmarked envelope that reads "To: Parents everywhere" and the return address is erica of sneer campaign, USA. The stamp is a heart.

So why (other than my well-documented narcissism and our need of a post today) am I bothering to voice my opinions about parenting? Well, my glamorous tulips, it’s because I am still a member of this society and am still impacted by people’s parenting decisions, both good and bad. And one of the most frustrating decisions I’ve been seeing more and more lately is parents’ dogged instances that their child is Exceptional.

Now, before I have a bunch of mommy blogger warriors calling for me to be tarred and feathered, let me explain what I mean by this. I’m a firm believer in the value and dignity of each person. I think kids are unique individuals and should be treated as such. And if you are a parent, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of your kid’s achievements or enjoying watching them learn and grow.

However, there’s a big difference between recognizing that your child is smart for their age, or really kind, funny, or creative, and thinking that they are (or need to be) Exceptional. Parents who think their children are Exceptional don’t just admire their kid’s accomplishments or positive attributes. Parents who think their kids are Exceptional are fundamentally incapable of recognizing their children’s perfectly reasonable and age-appropriate limitations. 

A childhood photo of Erica when she was about eight years old. She has a bow in her hair and one of those 1990s era little girl dresses.
Even I wanted to run around in age-appropriate ways!

The scenario in which I most often encounter this is as follows: A family comes into the museum (where I work) with a child between the ages of two and five. The child is then led around the historic house museum — a strange place with a lot of interesting looking stuff — and told they must not run, they must not talk loudly, and they must not touch anything. In case you are not familiar with the average young child’s preferred daily activities, they almost exclusively include the opposite of this behavior.

Invariably the young child in the museum will do something “wrong” and the parent will grow upset with them, utterly flummoxed that their child is misbehaving. If I had a dollar for every parent that says to me, “I don’t understand what’s wrong with her!” or “He’s normally so well-behaved” during these episodes, I’d be able to buy a private island.

As I grow older, I am pathologically afraid of becoming one of those old biddies who says, “back in my day things were better!” while shaking a sword cane at random passersby. Actually, on further reflection the second half of that sounds pretty rad, so I’m keeping the sword cane on my vision board. However, I do not think things were universally better when I was a child, and I’m wholeheartedly unconvinced that parenting was done better by my parents’ generation than by this generation.

That being said, I do wish that we as a society would be more willing to acknowledge that there are certain establishments that are just not age-appropriate for children. We’ve decided to shield them from places that are too sexy (like porn stores and strip clubs) and from places that are too dangerous (like quarries or open manholes), but we need to seriously start respecting children’s boundaries and limitations. Some places might not be too risque or dangerous for the average five year old, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a good place for them. These establishments deliberately cater to a specific audience and often aren’t designed with children’s needs in mind. One of the reasons we have specific hospitals dedicated to the care of children, for example, is because their needs are dramatically different than adults. 

A clip from an old comic that shows Amandoll when she was probably about two years old. She is atop a little toy horse meant for riding. His name is Clip Clop.
Even Amandoll was loud as a child. Maybe she still is sometimes…

Children need to play. They need to explore the world around them and they need to be physically engaged and active.They need to test boundaries and discover themselves. All of these behaviors are good for a developing mind and body. This is how children (even the exceptionally placid) learn. It’s completely normal and age-appropriate for kids to get bored or uncomfortable or to just be bratty.

This is one of the areas where I think social media has fucked up a lot of parents’ expectations of their children. I think a lot of parents in this day and age see social media posts and think, “well Rebecca’s kids are doing x, y, and z amazing things, so my kid should too.” Let me be the first person to tell you that Rebecca is almost certainly a goddamn liar. You don’t see the tantrums or the messy living room, or the fact that Rebecca’s oldest son secretly enjoys pulling the wings off of insects. You just see the nice, neat portions of Rebecca’s life that she’s comfortable presenting to the world. Rebecca’s kids are special to her, and she’s likely suffering from a crippling need for affirmation, so she posts neatly cropped photos of “perfect” family outings on Instagram. This makes people assume that her kids are Exceptional because they went to the Guggenheim or were eating organic kale and blackened almond salads, even though they’re only four and six. As a result, Rebecca’s friends all think, “well my kid’s Exceptional too, because he’s way better behaved and doesn’t enjoy torturing small animals.”

Realistically though, 99.999999% of children aren’t Exceptional. Your child probably isn’t, either, and that’s okay. They don’t need to be some wide-eyed changeling baby who constantly unnerves people with the profound questions of a seemingly ageless soul. Even if that sentence does describe your kid, it’s still not likely that they’ll be a perfect calm angel all of the time.

This is an older illustration of b b dollissa. She is wide eyed, intense, and dressed as a girl scout. Watch out, world.
Except for Dollissa, who was apparently always good and always quiet.

Children, regardless of their individual level of maturity, aren’t miniature adults. We need to stop pretending they are, and that if we treat them like they are, they will rise to the occasion. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with a bored child in an airport will tell you that this is not the case. Kids’ brains are still in the process of developing, and will be until about age 25. Wanting your child to experience new places or situations is good, but it needs to be done at an age-appropriate rate.

It’s okay if your kid would rather go to a playground than a museum. It’s okay if they don’t like vegetables or finely aged cheese. It’s okay if they’re not Exceptional. None of these things are a negative reflection on your child, their future potential, or you as a parent.

It’s okay!

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