Saturday, February 17, 2007


Po Bronson’s article in the February 19th issue of New York Magazine hit home for me. The article, How Not To Talk to Your Kids is about gifted kids who are afraid to fail and as a result often don’t try things they don’t know they’ll be good at that.

This sounded familiar. Also familiar: Bronson blames the parents. Parents are praising their children too much and about the wrong things.

The article recommends some advice that appears in many articles and tomes about childrearing: praise the action, not the child. Don’t say, “You’re so smart,” but “You did a great job figuring out that hard math problem.” This should encourage further action – it rewards the action rather than the person.

Despite my knee-jerk crankiness about articles that blame the parents (it’s just too easy; our inherent uncertainty and guilt makes us willing targets), this rings true for me. I’ve had innumerable conversations with fellow academics about how we all feel like frauds, how people have always told us we’re smart and how we all feel like it was some big mistake, that people just haven’t seen what we’re really like and that someday we will be revealed and humiliated. This is exactly why my dissertation is still not finished: I am terrified to turn it in. Because once I turn it in, it will exist only on its own merits, not on the promise of my intelligence. I am afraid that the answer will be, “What were you thinking? I thought you were smarter/better than this!” The fact that this exact thing has happened to several people of my acquaintance, several people whom I’ve always considered “smart,” has not helped me feel better about it.

Perhaps AJ’s fear of failure is genetic, at least in part. Or perhaps he’s caught it from me. Some of AJ’s fear is, I think, due to temperament. He wants to be in control. And who can’t identify with that? One of the reasons I think it is about temperament for AJ is that his avoidance of new things extends to foods. If he hasn’t tried it before, he doesn’t want to try it now. I assume he’ll grow out of this eventually. Boy cannot live on hot dogs alone. And as long as his pediatrician says he’s okay, I’m okay with his eating habits.

As a parent, I try hard to praise AJ’s actions not his intelligence, to encourage him to try new things. But what do you do when other people call him smart? His preschool teacher who used to come up to me when I’d pick him up and tell me what amazing things he did that day that she’d never seen a kid that age do before? The friend we met in the library who talks about how smart he is to others in front of AJ as if he isn’t there, as if he isn’t listening to every word? Or even his grandmother, who says it almost every time she sees him? How do you handle that? We’re not guiltless either. We slip sometimes. Maybe we shouldn’t have played into his incessant demands for quizzes and grades.

I was stunned the first time AJ asked for a grade. “How do you know about grades?” I asked. “I’ve seen you grading your papers,” AJ replied. And my stickers say “A+.” The stickers did – amongst the “Good job”s and the “”Nice work!”s there were some “A+”s. How could a three year old be worried about grades?

We played along for a while, but were uncomfortable with it. But we also thought it was kind of cute and funny. Lately we’ve been trying to wean him off of it. It’s hard going.

I’m also a little afraid that AJ is coming to associate “smart” with “more work.” Sometimes it looks like more of a burden. I remember that feeling from when I was a kid. I loved my “special” classes designed to develop my skills and my creativity, but I had twice as much homework as my classmates. AJ’s teacher keeps asking him to do extra reading to her in class, but he won’t because no one else does. Part of it is because he doesn’t want to look different. But part of it is also that he doesn’t think it’s fair.

And then there’s the fear that it’s not okay to try something and fail. Nobody likes to fail, of course, but it’s a skill to be learned like any other. How do we teach our kids to fail gracefully? We can tell them that trying is what matters, but how can we convince them that failing honestly is a virtue not a vice? Such a statement doesn’t carry weight in a world of stickers and chore charts and grades and performance evaluations.

So what do you tell your kid when he comes home from kindergarten wondering why he’s the only one in his class reading chapter books by himself? I usually just tell AJ that he learned to read at a younger age than most kids and that he’s had more practice. It kind of begs the question, but it usually satisfies. AJ loves to read, but he doesn’t enjoy the difference. He desperately wants his best friend to read too. He reads her stories. She likes that. He wants to help her with her words, but she doesn’t like it when he tries. But the day she reads her first book, besides her parents, there’s no one who will be more excited than AJ. Because it means he will have company.

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