I couldn’t help being fascinated by the New York Times article about praising your kids. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my schooling lately (not just because the question of sex ed at school got raised recently…) Perhaps it’s because I’m already nervous about sending my darling precious daughter to school.
One girl I know was told from a very early age that she was gifted. She refused to admit she ever got anything wrong. I remember her telling me when we were 14 years old: “Don’t ever admit that you don’t know anything!” She was shocked that I expressed ignorance about a topic. As I tell my students in my class, one should never ever feel guilty about asking a question if one does not understand. In fact, it’s the intelligent thing to do – to seek clarification, and to be open to learning new things! She still never admits it when she gets things wrong. And she is a very lonely, unhappy person to this day: she has alienated so many people.
I’ve written a post on feeling guilty, in which I expressed some doubts about labelling a child as “gifted”, no matter how gifted they may be. It seems that this doubt was justified.
I suppose my own views on this matter come from being labelled as “gifted”, not by my parents, but by my Australian high school. What did it do for my self esteem? S.F.A. What did it do for my results at school? I seem to recall that I actually did worse the semester after I was labelled as “gifted”. The best thing for me was to go to the UK, and to find out that I had to work bloody hard to keep my head above water and achieve results.
Doing “well” in an exam when I was doing O-Levels and A-Levels meant getting 60% – 70%. One did not always succeed. There were many answers one got wrong. And one only exceeded by working extremely hard. Before, I had been used to getting great results in tests without studying. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever had to study before. I was motivated by a sense of pride (How dare they think Australians are inferior?) and I pushed myself hard. For the first time in my life, I really worked, and it paid off.
I don’t like this modern tendency to try to “eliminate” failure. I seem to recall that when the VCE was introduced in this State, my mother received a bulletin saying “The concept of failure has been abolished.” Well, that’s stupid. Because real life isn’t like that. The fact is that some people are better at things than others. Full stop. It really gives me the irrits, particularly as this mindset doesn’t extend towards sport in the Australian schooling system. So one can be humiliated in all sorts of ways because of one’s sporting ineptitude, but woe betide anyone who says that maybe little Betty can spell “acrobat” and little Bill cannot. (You can guess from this that I was always one of the people who was left until last when teams were chosen at school. In primary school, only myself, the two overweight girls and the girl with the mental age of 7 were the only four people in our year not chosen for a netball team.) I’m never going to be a sporting genius. I’ve dealt with it. However, I now know that I can play and enjoy sport (with some effort and practice). Before I became a mother, I was in a soccer team and enjoyed it immensely. We even won some tournaments, to my immense pride and delight.
So, I won’t be telling my daughter that she’s “gifted” or “intelligent”, although I do think she’s a fabulous, clever and lovely little critter. I will tell her that I love her heaps, just for being her: in fact, I already do so repeatedly. But, after reading that article, I will feel justified in treating her like an ordinary human being, just as my parents treated my sister and I. The truth of the matter is, that to achieve results, one has to work hard and do “boring” stuff. It seems to be unpopular these days to emphasise this. Everything has to be “interesting” and palatable for easily-bored students. But once you get out into the real world, there’s lots of boring stuff. Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t mean that you can escape this: in fact, it may mean you resign yourself to a life of boring stuff (discovery, due diligence etc). And one is constantly judged in the real world – who gets pay rises, who doesn’t etc. The best way of preparing children for the real world is to let them know that life isn’t always interesting, and native intelligence or talent alone does not get you anywhere without practice and hard work.
But when you do work hard and do well, it is immensely satisfying. And for me, at least, the world is an infinitely interesting place.