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THE M.D.

When it comes to kids, embrace the average

A 'normal' child used to be, well, normal. But now a lot of parents, sadly, don't think that's good enough.

July 06, 2009|Valerie Ulene

When my son's preschool teachers recommended that we send him to speech therapy, I can't say that my husband and I were completely surprised. Clay wasn't entirely easy to understand; his "r" sounded like a "w," his "th" was indistinguishable from an "s," and his "l" was essentially nonexistent. But he was only 3 years old.

We believed his speech would clear up on its own with time, but agreed to have Clay tested for a speech disorder. We did it in part to eliminate nagging doubts of our own that he had a problem, in part to appease the people expressing concern. Several hundred dollars later, we had our answer: Clay's speech was perfectly normal.

The tests that were administered placed him in the 50th percentile for boys his age -- right in the middle of the pack. When it came to speech and language, Clay was perfectly average.

As doctors, my husband and I knew what that meant -- Clay was healthy and on track, and that was good enough for us.

These days, however, average doesn't sit well with many parents. "There's been a narrowing of what's considered normal," says Dr. David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University and author of "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon." Whether considering academic achievement or athletic prowess, some parents have come to believe that the only "normal" kids are those who excel. Unfortunately, meeting these high expectations is impossible for many children, and trying to do so can be discouraging and potentially damaging.

Statistically speaking, the term "normal" is intended to encompass a range of children of varying abilities. What's normal centers around the average child; only children who fall way above or below average -- roughly the top and bottom 5% to 10% -- don't qualify.

About 80% of 13-year-old boys, for instance, are 4-feet-9 to 5-feet-5 in height. Boys at the lower end of this range may be considered short, but they're still normal.

With some characteristics, normal isn't as easily defined. Behavior is more difficult to measure precisely, so identifying the upper and lower limits of normal can be challenging. Still, the principles are the same. The perfectly behaved child shouldn't dictate what's normal; rather, it should be the kid who truly is: one who occasionally breaks the rules, gets into fights with friends or has an emotional outburst.

Most don't excel

When high-achieving or exceptional children are held up as the benchmark of normal, most kids are going to fall short. Unfortunately, rather than examining what's wrong with their expectations, many parents -- often, along with their children's teachers, coaches and healthcare providers -- conclude that something is wrong and jump in to try to remedy the situation.

Six-year-olds with messy printing are sent for occupational therapy to improve their handwriting; clumsy 7-year-olds are made to undergo sensory integration therapy for better balance and coordination; 8-year-olds who have trouble sitting at their desk all day or keeping their hands to themselves are shipped off to psychiatrists to work on impulse control, and educational therapists are hired to help 10-year-olds bring up their grade point average.

These services can be helpful. A child who receives this kind of support may gain a bit of ground on some of their peers. But the benefits aren't always clear-cut or dramatic, and the risks that these types of interventions impose are often overlooked.

Although it's hard to imagine how a bit of extra support could be detrimental, some experts in child development speculate that there may be unforeseen costs. Too much help may interfere with children's sense of autonomy, for one thing. "It makes them think that they can't do things on their own," Elkind says.

Also, children who are constantly being told that they need help may begin to believe it. "They start to think that something is really wrong with them."

There are more tangible costs as well. Many children resist the help their parents provide: What child wants to spend free time with a therapist or tutor? So interventions can wind up undermining the parent-child relationship.

They can also strain families financially. Therapists and tutors don't come cheap -- 45 minutes of speech therapy can run upward of $100, and an hour with a math tutor can cost well over $60.

Also, the benefits of intervening are limited by the natural aptitude of a child. All the tutoring in the world isn't going to turn a bad math student into a brilliant mathematician; all the coaching in the world won't turn an uncoordinated child into an elite athlete. "You simply can't teach talent," Elkind says.

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