Though it may not be a wise idea to say so, I’ve always thought I was smart. Even when I haven’t been (e.g., a few evenings in my twenties come to mind) and even when other people thought I wasn’t (e.g., most of the time spent in my Constitutional History class). It was just this trait I held onto as a substitute for being cool.
I don’t say this to brag. As illustrated by many members of the Prometheus Society, which is a High I.Q. club composed of people too smart to sully their cognitive prowess by consorting with me, doing well on intelligence tests does not guarantee future success in life. (It is, however, an excellent predictor of future success on future intelligence tests.) Moreover, being smart is not nearly as important as, and doesn’t seem to correlate with, more admirable character traits like industriousness, trustworthiness, and being kind. Being smart is like being pretty: It’s pleasant if you are, unpleasant if you are not, and there is not too much a person can do change it in the positive direction.
Anyway, it is nice to feel smart. I would love for my kids to feel smart. As I grow older, though, especially as a parent to a child who tried to get a kindergarten placement in Manhattan c.2012, I realize that being smart is not necessarily correlated with feeling smart. (Nor is it correlated with the willingness to wear a collared shirt, eat yogurt without making an enormous mess, or to look a stranger in the eye when shaking hands. That said, kindergarten applicants who can do those things while being related to a billionaire are mostly likely to be deemed “Brilliant!” by the people sending out acceptance letters.)
So how do you make a smart kid feel smart even if he doesn’t quite match up with certain expectations of so-called smart kids his age? I don’t know (like I said I am not that smart) but this task would be a lot easier if six year-olds did not have to do homework.
Today was the first day of school and my son was supposed to have written a three sentence “Flip Book” over the summer.
My son spent about three minutes working on this assignment before announcing, in tears, that he could not do it. To an adult this would seem an seem an easy assignment: You fold a paper in half, then divide it in thirds, and then write one sentence and picture for the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
1) The boy tried to do his homework
2) He threw a fit
3) His mom drank some wine
For whatever reason, my son couldn’t make his “Flip-Book.” Maybe he did not understand the concepts of beginning, middle, and end, the teaching of which seems to be the point of the exercise. I acknowledge that this is an important lesson to learn. But what serious author doesn’t struggle with plot? My son might just be more of a meditative fiction type, asking, “If I spend each day like every other, playing with Magnatiles while my mother screams repeatedly, and futilely, for me to put on my socks–Where is the end in that?”
Or maybe he had more of a problem with how the assignment was defined. I mean, he might still be learning to read, but he knows what a flippin’ book is and it is not one flimsy sheet of paper folded in half.
There are many reasons why this seemingly straightforward task would not be easy for my unstraightforward son. But his inability to do this assignment is not evidence that he, as he contended via plaintive wail from underneath his comforter on the top bunk, is “not smart.”
After my son’s outburst, I left my five-year-old daughter at the kitchen table to complete her summer “homework,” which she did blithely and without fully understanding the instructions or caring whether or not she was doing it “right.”
I went to my son’s room and I tried to talk to him. Peeking out at me from under his blanket he announced, “I hate school. I can’t do it. I am not smart.”
Having had this sort of conversation before and knowing that no matter what I say this conversation will have a similar ending I asked, “Why do you say that?”
As proof, he listed a set of arithmetic facts that he claimed not to “know” (though I know he could have figured the answers to at least a few of them). Then he threw his head against the pillow in the style of Don Music, the old piano playing Muppet who always would collapse against the keyboard shouting, “I’ll never get it! I’ll never get it!”
Moved by this performance but not too concerned that there was any truth to his claims of stupidity, I offered: “Well. I don’ t know how to explain it. But you are smart. And it isn’t about knowing what a hundred plus a hundred is. It is just something that you have to know in your heart.”
I was trying to reassure him. However, these comforting words would only offer reassurance if the issuing party (me) was understood by the listening party (my son) as a reliable source of information. Unfortunately this was not the case. And my pronouncement about knowing something in your heart did not help matters on either front.
In his characteristic cross between a whine and a wail, my son countered with, “See!? That’s the problem! My heart can only keep my blood flowing! It doesn’t know anything.” Then he stomped out of the room.
This illustrated that my son was “smart” even though he didn’t know it in his heart or otherwise. More importantly, though, this illustrated what a piddly thing the brain is when compared to the human heart. I mean, who cares about having a brain when you have another body part that can pump blood, swell with pride, and burst with heartache all at the same time?