When the US Air Force was designing fighter plane cockpits, they discovered that having the controls in the perfect spot made a big difference in terms of life and death. However, Todd Rose in his TED talk titled The Myth of Average, explains that designing for the perfect position was tricky because there is no useful average dimensions of a man. Each pilot is different.

It’s a great example of why you can design stuff for the average person when the stakes are low. Pants, for example. They don’t fit perfectly if you buy them at the GAP, but paying an extra $500 for the perfect fit isn’t worth it.

School is more like fighter planes than GAP jeans. There is no average, so all materials designed for the average student serve to undermine each student’s abilities, just like poorly placed plane controls. We get upset when we find out that essay test grading is totally corrupt, but how could essay test grading be fair when they are looking for some sort of average response to a question that brings up a (presumably) visceral response?

When I first saw this video of a twelve-year-old Egyptian boy talking about politics to a reporter, I thought, “Oh my gosh, he is simply astounding. He is a genius.” But then I thought, “Really, he is just super passionate about the subject. All kids become geniuses when they are in their sweet spot.” (It’s true for all adults as well, really.)

The problem is that we have a fixation on average. We have to peg average so that we know our kid is above average, and if we sense something is below average, we need to peg average to know where we need to get to.

I was slapped in the face with my own fixation on average when I saw this photo. It came from a series of photos I took of my son’s day in Chicago. I used every photo in the series except this one. Melissa is my photo editor, among other things. I called her and said, “How could you think I’m going to use that photo? His face is messed up.”

“What?” she said. “I don’t even see it. You are the only one who ever sees it.”

“His eye.”

“Oh. Yeah. I see it. Well, no one else will see it. You can use it.”

But I didn’t use it. Because my son has hemifacial microsomia. He’s had three operations on his face. He’ll probably have another when he’s older. I’m obsessed with wanting his face just to be normal. (Here’s the post where I write about him having hemifacial microsomia. You should read it. It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever written.)

I’m posting this photo. Because I need to get over the idea of average being something to aim for.

All kids are above average in some things and below average in some things. It’s the job of children to get a good understanding of themselves so they can put themselves in a right-fitting cockpit where ever they choose to fly. And it’s the job of parents to help them by setting them free from the constrictions of average.

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15 replies
  1. Kelsey
    Kelsey says:

    Great post, Penelope. I have been struggling with something similar for 2 months. My daughter was bitten by a tick and developed Lyme Disease. Because of the location of the bite, the infection put pressure on a facial nerve causing Bells Palsy to the right side of her face. 2 months has felt like an eternity to me, but is nothing when I read about your experiences with your son. It’s unbelievably hard to look at your child’s face and not see the smile you think you should see. Your post has confirmed what I’m sure I knew all along- learn to see the beauty as it is- not what you think it should look like. I love your advice to set our kids free from the constrictions of average. (You have the best closing paragraphs!)
    I’m 10 days from having to call the neurologist if there is no change. Prayers, good ju-ju, happy thoughts— all appreciated!

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    That is a great point!

    I feel like any post that deals with how school is bad is so outdated because I am way too convinced that school is outdated and I am not sending my kid to school. The thing that worries me though is that even when I allow my kid the freedom (and ourselves) to learn and grow outside of school’s rigidity the world will still measure him by the standards that others kids are measured by.

    And since we don’t live in a vacuum then that could be bad. Maybe. Not for sure but it could.

    Most homeschooled kids I know are pretty good at something. There’s a small bunch of them that had to be homeschooled because of special needs and being way behind the average. But most homeschooled kids are super advanced by the standard that we measure kids who are in school.

    So what if my son doesn’t care to be a doctor, a “some impressive title so his parents feel validated and then rub it off on people’s faces”?

    haha! so ridiculous! But it’s the truth. Being outside the average comes with the need for validation. And sometimes there’s no greater validation than your son turning out impressive even though it’s a conventional impressive. Like going to college at 12 years old.

    I need to work on validating myself no matter what because my point for homeschooling is to take down hurdles for learning and to give my son freedom to pick whatever he wants. And he may not want to pick anything conventional no matter how impressive or how rich that may make him look.

  3. karelys
    karelys says:

    ps. I saw the picture and I thought it was just….the picture of a kid playing. If you hadn’t taught me to look at his eye and tell me that it looks non-average I wouldn’t have seen it.

  4. Noelle
    Noelle says:

    P: Zehavi is a very beautiful child. I have thought that from the moment I met him way back in preschool. I didn’t even notice the asymmetry (and I still don’t notice it).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, Noelle. It always amazes me that people don’t see. But maybe it’s true across the board that mothers see their kids differently than other people do — face, mind heart, whatever. The issue is not unique to a birth disorder.


  5. Kat Alexander
    Kat Alexander says:

    Lovely post, Penelope. These words apply well to thinking about my career: “All kids are above average in some things and below average in some things. It’s the job of children to get a good understanding of themselves so they can put themselves in a right-fitting cockpit where ever they choose to fly.”

    And the Egyptian boy’s interview makes me hopeful for the future of this planet.

  6. Natalie Lang
    Natalie Lang says:

    Melissa was correct, I didn’t notice anything, and I’ve never noticed anything. I went to the link where you describe your sons situation and it was filled with very raw emotion, and I don’t like crying, but I kinda did… I mean, I definitely did. But if you hadn’t pointed it out in this post I would never have known anything was different.

    My favorite closing paragraph so far. It should be put on one of those waterfall photo’s that get passed around on facebook to inspire people.

  7. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I spent most of my youth trying to be average, to be invisible, to be normal, until the day my father explained “normal” to me.
    He said, “Normal is just another boring form of average. Normal is unremarkable in every way and that is not you.”
    It seems so simple, but that changed the lense I used to view myself. It has changed the lense I use to view my children and our approach to learning.
    The invisible academic yardstick is just another way to keep us in line, to keep us invisible, to keep us average.

  8. Gwen
    Gwen says:

    Penelope –

    I think I said on that post, but I’m going to say again here… I have Crouzon Syndrome. I was at the NYU too. I’m just at the age where I was probably sitting next to you in the waiting room prepping for my big, final “she stopped growing, now we can fix her” surgery while you were there with Z as a baby.

    Anyway, I had that surgery, even though it was hell, and now I look like I would’ve if I didn’t have Crouzon. Not super pretty, just average. Kinda cute. I do fine. Except that my eyes are still a little weird. No one except me notices unless I point it out, but I actually do find myself pointing it out, and making friends feel the head of the screw just under the skin by my eye socket, and showing off the big scar on my ribcage where they took some to use in my skull.

    It’s weird. It’s a grass-is-greener thing. When I was noticeably different, I hid behind glasses and shaggy hair and my computer. Now that I’m average looking I want people to know it wasn’t always that way. It might be the same for Z. Maybe not.

    I’m not sure how I would have felt if I thought my mom had been obsessed with my face looking normal. Bad, probably. Guilty that I was making her feel bad. I don’t know your son and I don’t know if it would be the same for him. But I can say I was angsty enough about it.

    As an aside, it’s been interesting reading about you homeschooling, for this reason. My parents sent me to private school so I wouldn’t get teased, even though we lived in Princeton with great public schools.

    If you or he ever want to talk (to me, or to my mom?), I think you have my email address. Even just “what the crap can I actually eat after they’ve taken my whole face apart”. :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s great to hear from someone who is older who went through NYU’s plastic surgery clinic. I like hearing that you’re fine. I just want things to be fine.


      • Gwen
        Gwen says:

        It will be fine. They are great at NYU.

        Just make sure to always get ALL the instructions for any meds they give post-op. I wasn’t told I needed to drink milk with one of them, and it wasn’t pretty.

  9. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    With all that I hear around me, is that seems that every parent believes that their child is super smart and that the child doesn’t eat at all. The truth is the child is mostly average and eats just fine.

    This obsession with wanting their child to be special / above average is becoming some sort of medallion that parents are giving themselves. It’s crazy

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I really enjoyed the Todd Rose TED talk titled ‘The Myth of Average’. I watched another video of his where he mentioned an experience of his son … at school. So evidently he’s OK with having his son go to a school. My assumption is school works for his family. Everybody’s needs and preferences are different. My takeaway is it’s not a case of either school or homeschool is always the better choice for the child and family. It’s having both options available and having the ability to make the choice.

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