My Son, The Generalist
In a world of pre-teen Mandarin speakers, coders and lacrosse gods, our columnist makes the case for just goofing off.
After having two girls, my son Fletch was born into a house full of My Little Ponies, sparkling unicorns and ball-gowned princesses. Despite these precious surroundings, Fletch was all-bro. He was dropping more cable than Comcast in his Huggies—well past the age when my daughters were potty-trained. And the first time I handed him a Barbie to play with, he super-casually spread her legs to form her into a gun and started shooting, making PSHEW! PSHEW! sounds. That is nature not nurture.
For birthdays, he was gifted baseball mitts, a Hess truck, a onesie with a bulldozer on it. It could have all been purple flowers and glittering faeries and it wouldn’t have mattered. He was a little thug. He had ants in his pants. He had untamable energy so I figured I would follow the herd and shove him into sports.
Around three, he started a little soccer class. Let’s just say I didn’t have a budding Beckham on my hands. At tennis clinic in his little whites the neon ball smashed him in the ween. He got winded and didn’t want to run around during basketball. Okay, I thought. Maybe he’s not college recruitment material. This is New York City after all, who cares? I’m not shackin’ up in the 203 aka Connecticut where that bullshit is a big deal and your sport is part of your identity. Moving on!
I signed up for music class at Diller-Quaile, which is Manhattan’s kiddie-Juilliard. He was so wild he almost burned the place down; there was no crisscross-applesauce to be had for the glockenspiels or drum song. Acting? Barf. Cooking? Snooze. Spanish? ¡No, gracias! Fletch wanted none of it.
Somehow in this arms race of unique accomplishments meant to make kids stand out, no one just goes to the playground anymore. Or stares out the window. They schlep to hockey camp or coding camp or gymnastics camp. I mean, this isn’t Romania under the Ceaușescus.
Now he is 10 and has zero interests. No sports, hobbies or the parent-coveted Passion. And I truly, hand-on-stack-of-Zagats, do not give a fuck. In a world of Specialists, my son is a Generalist. And I’m totally okay with that. In the 1970s when I was a child, we were supposed to be well-rounded. Colleges sought students who were good at several things. That shit’s over; the trend has skewed towards having one Gladwell-honed area of expertise so a class can be curated with the best-of-the-best in their particular field. But why should a kid be an expert in anything? Why can’t they fuck around with a bunch of stuff and figure out what fuels them along the way? Surely their interests will last longer if they are discovered not forced.
Thomas Jefferson, rather than plumbing the depths of one skill and limning every last piece of knowledge surrounding it, was proficient in many. For crying out loud, among his myriad accomplishments, the dude popularized mac and cheese, so naturally he’s a god in our house. Somehow in this arms race of unique accomplishments meant to make kids stand out, no one just goes to the playground anymore. Or stares out the window. They schlep to hockey camp or coding camp or gymnastics camp. I mean, this isn’t Romania under the Ceaușescus. Do these parents seriously think the “sports tutors” and hauling ass to weekend games three states away will propel their kids to the Olympics? Is it to toughen them up and be a team player? I get it IF and only if it is an organic interest, but often it’s the parents’ vicarious competitive streaks of yore rearing their helmeted heads.
I have witnessed psycho screaming dads coaching their daughters on a squash court. Mothers bragging about a lax “hat trick.” I mean, WHO CARES?! Maybe they think these skills will help gain admission to the next school, and maybe they will, but at what cost? I personally am a big fan of quitting. If piano is torture and 125 clams a lesson, WHY slog it out? If Mandarin is pulling teeth, what’s the point? Are you really that sure China is taking over?
My kid loves to draw. And he’s pretty good at it. Will he create the next SpongeBob? Who knows, but I’d rather him have 360 degrees of experiences and observation than tunnel vision on one thing selected by me. A kid can burn out, or even crack under the pressure of daily Suzuki and tell his alpha mom to shove the violin up her ass.
When I was a kid, I made up love stories about my stuffed animals and made them get married and have sex. I picked a person on the street below and watched them battle the rain as their umbrella tuliped under the merciless gales. I watched TV re-runs. I wasn’t great at anything but I was okay at lots of stuff. So in this world of honed and practiced experts, this Jill is cool with having a Jack of all trades, master of none. That can come later, fueled not by my vision of what he needs but by how life’s weird circuitous path guides him towards what he actually wants.
Jill Kargman is a New York-based writer, actress and television producer. Follow her on Instagram @jillkargman.