One of my favorite shows is So You Think You Can Dance. The choreography is incredible, and the level of talent among the finalists is outstanding. The one thing I hate? The auditions. Many contestants were and are excellent, but the ones that were bad were so, so bad. Worse, these contestants often thought they were good dancers.
Take the contestant known as “SEX.” Yes, that’s his real stage name. (This should provide some perspective for those readers who’ve complained that “Autumn Ashbough” sounds too much like either a porn star or a romance writer.) SEX auditioned multiple times for SYTYCD, always with his mother in tow. He was…well, the judges couldn’t take him seriously:
If you didn’t watch, trust me, his dancing was as bad as his choice of stage name. And yet SEX, like so many other contestants, thought he was a great dancer. He couldn’t believe the judges panned him. Brilliant, classically trained dancers lit up the stage in front of him. Poppers performed extraordinary body isolations right next to SEX. Yet the man was unable to see the difference between his own jerky, graceless moves and these extraordinary dancers. Neither could his angry mother, who clearly felt her son was a prodigy. SEX, in fact, auditioned repeatedly, always with the same sad result.
I could not understand how such a denial of reality could exist. I definitely couldn’t fathom how such a parent could exist.
Chinese Tiger Mothers have a reputation for demanding both academic and musical perfection. I had a White Tiger father. Anything less than an A was unacceptable. If you were on a swim team, you’d better be the best. Gymnastics? Ballet? Same thing, and if you didn’t, damn it, you could expect to spend the ride home from the meet/practice/recital being dressed down all the way to your toes – which, by the way, should have been POINTED.*
Living in a nonstop judgmental juggernaut while competing with three (then four, then five, then six, then seven) siblings for any kind of validation and attention has consequences. Some good. My full siblings and I were excellent students. Big Brother won the local It’s Academic! quiz show and got appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. My sisters and I went to college on academic scholarships. We won all sorts of honors and awards.
The less pleasant result? We were judgmental assholes. We focused on the flaws in every person, every book, every performance we saw. If it was imperfect, it was unworthy. We were intolerant, impatient, and competitive. We lacked compassion and empathy. Boyfriends, girlfriends – heck, ANY friends – did not last long.
College saved us, I think. We were all at different schools, meeting nicer people. We slowly learned that being a friend does not, in fact, involve mocking every questionable outfit another person wears or any less-than profound comment another person makes. Apart, we broke the cycle of daily one-upmanship. (Now we just save it up for the holidays.)
Meanwhile, our father’s second marriage broke up. Ex-Stepmother #1 took my two youngest sisters to a small town in New England. After vowing to remain single forever, my father was living with a new woman within three months and married once again within six months. Dad moved to Utah. My full siblings and I tried to equitably spend holidays between our dad and the Ex-Step-parents who maintained custody of our younger siblings.
We weren’t always the nicest older siblings. We often judged our younger sibs on everything from their grades to their friends. Yet they always met us at the airport with squeals and smiles. I’m not sure why. Probably it had something to do with the See’s Candies I brought with me from California.
Bit by bit, though, it got harder for us to leave homes, jobs, and pets to see our younger sibs.
When Boyfriend-Stealing Baby Sister graduated from high school, she worried that none of us would make the trek up to Nowhere, New Hampshire to watch her get her diploma. Her mom and I rallied/ guilt-tripped the troops, though. We got almost everyone and their significant others to attend the ceremony.
Our big, competitive family came into its own at graduation ceremonies. We were many, we were loud, and we were objective-oriented. Our goal was to make the most noise when Baby Sister collected her diploma. I even brought a huge brass bell from Italy.
But first, Baby Sister had a surprise for us. She’d been chosen to play the piano and sing a song during the commencement ceremony. She did pretty well, too. Only a few mistakes. When she finished, the entire small-town audience jumped to its feet and gave her a standing ovation.
Well, not quite. One row, way in the back, stayed seated. Her own fucking family. Including me, to my everlasting shame. My father and his current wife, a professional singer, had exchanged looks on the not-quite-right notes. Just as I did with Big Brother and Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister. We knew Baby Sister hadn’t been perfect. And we looked down our critical, cultured noses and decided to maintain our, I don’t know, collective integrity or something equally pompous. Because imperfection didn’t deserve a standing ovation.
I don’t know how the perfect parent raises a child. Over-value your child, heap them with inflated praise, (such as unwarranted standing ovations), and they turn into narcissistic creatures divorced from reality, like SEX from SYTYCD.
Teach them to strive for perfection, to think critically in every situation? You get a bunch of budding Darth Vaders, ready to verbally annihilate you for the smallest of flaws — even if you’re family.
Never mind that Baby Sister played the piano and sang far better than any of us could have.
When Baby Sister collected her diploma, our cheers were the loudest in Nowhere New Hampshire’s High School auditorium. My bell nearly deafened the crowd, and we looked like the most joyfully supportive and loving family around.
But inside, we’re still recovering assholes.
We’ve got a long way to go.
*This super-critical parenting style came from my grandparents, of course. My father was an All-American swimmer. He came in third at the top college meet, called his parents with the news, and got the following response: “Why didn’t you win?”