Last week Scientific American wrote this article about how to raise smart kids. The key, apparently, is not emphasizing intelligence and talent. It’s teaching them that being smart is about effort and the evolution of your mind over time.
The difference between kids who get the former vs. the latter message is stark:
Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.Their conclusions remind me of a book I read a bit back called The Drama of the Gifted Child. It is about how parents, mothers specifically, can cause their children to shy from real feelings because they expect their kids to be faultless due to their giftedness. A similar loss in potential results from this encouragement of the inauthentic and the impossible.
The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.
Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.
The evening after I read the article I saw the Broadway musical 'Avenue Q.' It’s spectacular. Imagine if 'Sesame Street' had a dirty sense of humor and were directed at recent college graduates just beginning to be uncertain of themselves. Imagine puppets singing about how it sucks to be you, we are all a little bit racist sometimes and the Internet was made for porn. (It totally was.)
The actors are so incredible and the story and songs are so honest it’s not necessary to be 23 (or overly fond of puppetry) to feel a resonance. In each song and scene there is something that echoes to what we are at one point and to whom we are now and still. This difficult honesty that we are not unique in what we experience more than we are connected to everyone else who has wondered about their life’s purpose or made mistakes or found and lost love. These requisites of being what we all are.
And the point of the play and of that article seem to me to be the same. The show's last song is essentially about how our lives and we are constantly changing. That the things that consume or engage or fascinate us – "everything in life is only for now." And if we live in a fashion that imagines anything in life is fixed we miss the beauty in the moment and in the possibility of what comes next. We misunderstand that our worth is not in outside marks but in the effort we put into who we are, whom we love and what we do and choose.
Bob Dylan once said it’s impossible to be in love and wise at the same time. Perhaps that is why parents raise children for how they hope they will be instead of the complicated mix they will become. Perhaps this is why love constantly changes. So we can fall in and out of it to gather wisdom from what is felt and what follows. Because life, 'Odyssey'-like, is designed to make us wander toward and away from what it is most essential for us to know.
When I was little, after my dad came home from work he’d tell me stories of 'The Odyssey.' Wrapped in my Holly Hobbie sheets, I would concentrate on the slats above me as he narrated next to me on my bottom bunk bed. The light from the hallway would spill in a slanted rectangle on the darkened carpet, making gold of what was dull in the daytime. He wove from memory stories of Calypso, Nausicaa, Telemachus and Penelope. He gave me the words to imagine in my mind how my future would be an adventure of circular paths, waves that would beat me back, and a goal to find whatever Ithaca would mean to me.
It could be home or wisdom or hope. It could be something in my imagination or beyond its gossamer borders. And before I knew what he was trying to say to me he was teaching me that what guides us no matter the moment or impediment is who we are in our complicated essence. And perhaps something more. This gift both my parents unfolded for me of the perseverance that is love.
This is my last blog post. Thank you so much to everyone who has read what I’ve written and left your mark on me by your comments. Especially but not limited to -- the feisty, the sweetness, the sensitive thug, yes sss ss s, todd, the fighter, the best hugger, the Yankee faithful, the un-average, the badass blonde, the tough girl, the brave girl, the synchronicity believer, nato, and the anonymous friend who sends encouraging emails. To me, you are all extraordinary.