Monday, April 22, 2013

Being Smart

Disclaimer: This is a long post. And there are no pictures. Sorry. Stick with me. The point I want to make in it is important enough that I felt like I needed to take the time to explain it thoroughly.

During my six years of teaching, I regularly heard kids comment about how they were "smart" or "dumb" or "good" at reading or "bad" at writing. These sorts of comments always bothered me, because my students often discussed their prowess at reading and writing (or anything, for that matter) as if it was something that they had no control over. As if you're just born smart the way you're born with brown or blonde hair.

I found myself trying over and over to help my students understand the deeply held belief I have that no one is inherently dumb or smart. Surely, there are natural aptitudes for certain things, but that doesn't preclude us from developing skills in other areas. Ultimately, we choose the things that we care about most, we put time and effort into those things, and we increase our skills through practice. Ask the "smart" kids in school what they do for fun. I would wager that the vast majority of them would have reading near the top of their lists. Ask the kids who are "good" at school what their secret is? No secret--they actually do their work.

I did an analysis of my students' grades the last year I taught to search for commonalities among my top performing students. My goal was to help my struggling students to see tangible changes they could make in their own habits to improve their performance. I was shocked by how obvious the results of my unofficial study were. What I found was that my highest scoring students in every class...
  1. had no missing work
  2. had turned in few if any assignments late
  3. had met their goal for at home reading (which was a significant portion of their grade)
Now, I realize there are a lot of lurking variables in my unofficial "study", but I think the conclusion is still valid: If you want to succeed, all it takes is deciding that it's worth your time and effort, and then going to work.

My first year teaching, I had a student who really struggled with his grades. He was barely getting a D in the class, and I had started working with him to get caught up. I worked out a plan with him and his parents for him to come after school and get some help (really, I just wanted him to have some scheduled and supervised work time). One day, after he'd been coming for awhile (and seeing his grade improve, I might add), he looked up from his desk, and said to me, "Hey, Miss Wright, do you know what I figured out?"

"What?" I asked him, expecting to hear something related to the assignment he was scribbling away on.

Then, with complete sincerity, as if he'd honestly never thought of it before, he revealed, "If you do your work, you get good grades."

This was January, mind you. Of his seventh grade year. How is it possible that he'd gone through seven and a half years of school (assuming he didn't go to preschool) and never understood this? Up until that point, success in school for him was a matter of luck. If you were smart, you did well. If you were dumb, well, there wasn't much you could do to succeed. But, in that moment, he realized that he was the master of his fate. And, after that, he became a student who typically got Bs instead of Ds.

Where does this erroneous idea come from? I don't think we're born with fatalistic self-perceptions of stupidity, or of our own brilliance for that matter. We acquire them over time based on personal experience and expectations others have for us.

SO what do we do about it?

Easy solution, right? We just make sure to tell our kids they are smart, and they'll believe us, so they'll work hard, and then they will be smart. No problem.

Here's the truth, though. Telling someone they are smart can be as bad as telling them they are dumb. I was recently reading an article in which the author discusses a study of two groups of fifth grade students:

After [taking a test], one group was told, “You must be smart.” The other group was told, “You must have worked hard.” When a second test was offered to the students, they were told that it would be harder and that they didn’t have to take it. Ninety percent of the kids who heard “you must be smart” opted not to take it. Why? They feared proving that the affirmation may be false. Of the second group, most of the kids chose to take the test, and while they didn’t do well, Dweck’s researchers heard them whispering under their breath, “This is my favorite test.” They loved the challenge. Finally, a third test was given, equally as hard as the first one. The result? The first group of students who were told they were smart, did worse. The second group did 30% better. Dweck concludes that our affirmation of kids must target factors in their control. When we say “you must have worked hard,” we are praising effort, which they have full control over. It tends to elicit more effort. When we praise smarts, it may provide a little confidence at first but ultimately causes a child to work less. They say to themselves, “If it doesn’t come easy, I don’t want to do it.”

So here's my plea: let's teach our kids (and ourselves) that "being smart" is something you can control, that it's really about knowing what's worth your time and effort and understanding that it takes effort to succeed at most anything that is worthwhile...and then going to work.

Even Albert Einstein said, “It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” 

Perhaps we (Ol' Al included) need to change our thinking to realize that sticking with things and pushing through the tough stuff IS smart. If we treat being smart as a skill to develop rather than an inherent characteristic, we grant ourselves and others the freedom and confidence to take control of our achievements...and thereby reach for things we didn't know were within our grasp.

Dream big. Now, there's a smart idea.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

First Haircut!

There are some milestones my little man reaches that seem more like rites of passage, and I find myself hesitant to let him grow up too fast. I know my days of snuggling and rocking him are numbered. I know that he will soon let go of my hands and walk alone. But I also know that my job as a parent is to raise him so that he can be confident in running forward in life without needing me beside him every moment.

Getting his hair cut for the first time was one of these milestones I kept putting off, a little reluctant to let my baby's shaggy locks go. But, it was getting to the point where his hair was getting in his eyes, and he was really looking like a rag-a-muffin (albeit a cute one).

I thought I'd just give the front a trim and put off a real haircut until later, but I'm not really good with scissors, apparently. So, today I took him to a real salon for a REAL haircut.

Here's the beginning of the haircut. He was pretty mellow about the whole experience as long as he had a Triscuit to munch on.

And the final product (still with a Triscuit). He looks so handsome now, I can hardly stand it!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Like Father, Like Son

Ever since Will was first born, people have been saying that he looks like Graham. I have always found it funny when people make comments about which parent a newborn looks like because babies change so much as they grow older. I mean, I don't think I look much like my newborn self. However, in this case, I agree with all of the people who have labeled Will as "mini-Graham." 

This boy looks EXACTLY like his daddy did as a baby. Proof:

If it wasn't obvious by the age of the picture itself, I don't think anyone would be able to tell which picture of the bunch is Graham. I came across this picture a few weeks ago when I was working on a project for Graham's birthday, and my jaw just about dropped as I looked at my son staring at me through a 29-year-old picture. It is uncanny to me.

It's fun, too, though. I mean, if their similarities in infancy are any indication of what's to come, I have this adorable kid to look forward to in a few years:

And this is what he might look like at the age my Webelos boys are right now:

P.S. - Can you believe how tall Graham was at age 11? I think he looks like an eighth grader!

I can't wait to see this little boy continue to grow up. If he turns out just like his daddy, I'll be one lucky mama!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Trashing "Should"

Three years ago I made a decision that changed the way I think about my daily choices.

I banned one word from my vocabulary: should.

It's a simple word. Most people use it frequently: I should call so-and-so. I should do laundry. I should exercise more.

So why did I get rid of it? Here's the thing: should is a dangerous word. At least it is for me. Should carries a negative connotation that makes me immediately feel guilty for not innately wanting to do something I "should" do, or for not feeling a way that I "should" feel.

For years, I found myself regularly arguing with myself over everyday decisions. I would tell myself that I "should" go be social at some party or other even though I really just wanted to watch a chick-flick at home. Feeling guilty, I'd go, but then I'd be cranky and just want to leave while I was there. Then, I'd tell myself that I "should" not be cranky because parties are supposed to be fun, and I'd feel bad all over again for not being a happier person. I would get myself stuck in a downward spiral of self-criticism as I struggled to meet the demands I'd given myself for the person I "should" be.

I would tell myself that I "shouldn't" be worried about something, or that I "should" go help out a friend. "Should" made it a chore, and so even when I was doing good things that could have been fun, if I acted because I thought I "should", I robbed myself of the accomplishment and focused on my negative emotions instead. No fun.

When I finally realized this, and made the choice to change it, I was shocked at how much altering the word altered how I thought about myself and my choices. I realized that there is no "should" or "should not". There are things we need to do. There are feelings that will not make me happy if I dwell on them. But there is no feeling I "should" not have.

Once I learned to acknowledge and accept my feelings as they came, I found I was able to cope with them better. Rather than tell myself, "This is dumb; I shouldn't be stressed over this," I rephrased the thought: "Okay, I'm stressed. What is the basis for my stress? What is in my control in this situation? What do I have to let go because it's outside my control?" All of the sudden (okay, maybe not suddenly, but definitely over time), I stopped feeling guilty for feelings like stress, anxiety, fear, doubt, and frustration. Instead of beating myself up, I have learned (at least more often) to turn to the Lord for help as I talk things through with him.

I still catch myself using "should" sometimes. When I do, I make myself go back and delete the "should" in my brain and replace it with a classic "If...then" statement. If I do _____________, then I will be happier because _____________.


Yesterday I thought, "I should clean the kitchen, but I'm tired and I really want 20 minutes to myself after several hours of wrangling my adorable-but-extremely-exhausting baby." If I say "should", I feel guilty for not being a good homemaker and I start feeling like a lazy blob of a person, despite all the other productive things I may have done that day. So I rephrased the idea in my mind. I told myself that the kitchen really needed to be cleaned, and if I dedicated a half hour to doing as much as I could, then I would reward myself with the remainder of nap time to read a book or whatever I wanted to do. I knew I'd be happier relaxing when I knew I'd gotten something productive done. When I think this way, I still accomplish what needs to be done, and I avoid the guilt. I feel empowered by choosing to act instead of feeling enslaved by the many "shoulds" in my life.

Occasionally, I even realize that I won't be happier because of doing the thing, and so I don't do it. Awesome. Now I didn't have to do the thing I didn't want to do, and I realize that there's no reason to feel guilty for it.

There are a million things I can tell myself I "should" be doing or doing better in life:

I should be a more patient mother.
I should be able to handle more on my own.
I should not ever be stressed when my husband comes home.
I should find more time to serve others.
I should learn how to do my hair in something more than a ponytail.

Oh, how I could keep going. But I won't. Because all the shoulds in the world don't do me any good. So I'm trashing them. Instead, I'm going to love who I am, where I am, and work from where I am to become better. I want to do that. It makes me happy.

Maybe I'm the only one who has gone through "should"-induced guilt. But I doubt it. We as humans (and especially women) are often too hard on ourselves. So give yourself a break. Trash the word "should" from your vocabulary. Don't do it because you feel like you "should". But if you do, I bet you'll be happier. :)