Unfulfilled potential is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Yet we ignore this fact almost constantly. I mentioned to someone that I need to buy a bike helmet for Clara now that she is riding her tricycle out on the street.
“A helmet?” the person said. “When I was a kid, no one wore a helmet and we’re all fine. And for a tricycle? I swear we coddle these kids like they are made of porcelain these day.”
“Correction,” I said. "You didn’t wear a helmet and you’re fine. But what about all the dead kids who weren’t wearing helmets?"
It’s easy to forget about them. Maybe you didn’t know them.
Maybe you don’t remember them.
Maybe you didn’t hear about them because you were a kid and shielded from awfulness like the death of a child.
Maybe most of the news in your childhood was local, so unless it happened geographically near you, you didn't hear about it.
Maybe you can't remember them because they ARE DEAD.
At a recent author appearances, I told the story about riding in the back of a friend’s mother’s pickup truck when I was a kid. When I was done speaking, a man approached me and said that my story brought back a flood of memories of doing the same. “It’s a shame we don’t let kids ride in the backs of those trucks anymore,” he said.
“It’s a shame only if you enjoyed it and survived it,” I said. “But all the kids who fell out of the back of trucks and died or suffered massive head injuries probably wouldn’t consider it a shame at all.”
Kids tend to not hear about these tragedies unless they knew the kid who died, and even then, it’s so easy to forget about these tragedies by the time we become adults.
As a teacher, I can tell you that most of my third graders were shielded from the 9/11 attacks at the time, and even a few years after the attacks, many of my students were not aware of them.
Parents don't share the horrors of the world with little children.
As a result, we grow up assuming that whatever dangerous thing that we did and survived as a kid was survived by everyone else as well.
But rarely is this the case.
Unfulfilled potential also comes into play in the raising of children. For example, the way that my parents raised me was questionable at best. No books in the home. No help or even follow-up with homework. No encouragement to attend college (the word college was never even spoken to me). No participation in my athletic, musical or Scouting careers. No curfew. No limits on where I could go or what I could do.
When I was 16, I vacationed in New Hampshire with six friends, squeezing into two tiny cabins and spending the week playing video games, hanging out at the beach and meeting girls, and my parents didn’t even know I was gone.
As a friend said recently, I parented myself for most of my childhood, and he was probably right.
Despite all this, some might assume that my parents did a great job, because I have turned out to be moderately successful. A wonderful family. Great friends. A successful teacher and novelist. A small business owner.
Others might say that although my parents were less than supportive, I managed to squeeze the most out of my innate abilities. They might assume that I rose above my parents’ inadequacies and still made the most out of my life.
I say neither.
While I am quite pleased with the way that I turned out, I am also willing to acknowledge that there may be a lot of unfulfilled potential in me.
I often wonder where I would be today had attended college after high school and gotten a quicker start on my professional life. What if I hadn’t languished for those five years after high school, working unending hours and living in the most ridiculous circumstances in order to survive?
What if I hadn’t needed to work a full time job while attending college? Might I have extracted more from my education? Would I have gotten to know more people? Built a larger network of friends and professional contacts?
What if my parents had been even slightly supportive of my athletic or musical career? Might my skills have developed to a higher level? Might something have become of those talents?
I suspect that despite my success, there is great amounts of unfulfilled potential littered throughout my life, and that most of it is no longer accessible or attainable.
This does not mean that I am not happy with who I am. Just curious about who I could have been.
Yet parents (including mine) justify their lapses in judgment or ease their parental guilt by ignoring unfulfilled potential and simply focusing on how their child has turned out in comparison to the mean.
“We didn’t really read to Johnny as a kid, but he’s turned into a solid A student, so it just goes to show you that every child is different.”
Sure, but maybe Johnny was supposed to be the next Einstein or the next Faulkner. Maybe if you had read to him at an early age, he would be curing cancer today.
I’m not suggesting that parents constantly beat themselves up over their failures. I just want them them to be realistic when dispensing advice or complaining about how dramatically the world has changed.
Don’t complain about bike helmets just because you've forgotten about all the dead kids from your own childhood and managed to avoid a head injury of your own.
Don’t suggest to a new mother that reading to a child is overrated and unnecessary because your little Johnny is an A student.
And please don’t tell me that Johnny turned out fine even though you smoked throughout your pregnancy.
Yes, Johnny may be fine, but in the grand scheme of things, fine sucks.
Lost potential sucks.
Just because Johnny has managed to survive and thrive despite your prenatal nicotine intake doesn’t mean that you made the best decisions as a parent.
Or even average decisions.
Worst still, we will never know what Johnny could have been.