My son got his first homework assignment yesterday. I thought it was the cutest thing. It was a little worksheet with images he was supposed to match together: kitties, mittens, eyes, and pencils. I’ve seen him do worksheets like this before. Many kids his age do them. Most of them find it pretty easy (maybe even boring). But I was excited. My baby had HOMEWORK! I took pictures for our family flickr album.
My son looked at the sheet, quickly pointed out the answers, cheered for himself, and then tried to wiggle out of the situation. He wanted to take the crayons elsewhere and color something more interesting (and maybe eat a shit load of Elmo crackers while sticking leggos together). He didn’t want to pause and draw the lines connecting the images. A relative noticed and said, indignantly, “that homework is too easy for him. He doesn’t want to do it because he’s too smart. What’s wrong with that teacher? This is boring for him.” But I didn’t view his boredom with it as a moment to marinate in my son’s exceptional mitten-matching abilities. I figure there are other kids in the class that this is cake for, too. I think there is something questionable about assuming every thing your kid does is a mark of genius. And I always listen quietly, a little embarrassed for other parents, when they go on forever about something really basic that their child does (that they are convinced makes their kid ready for NASA).
I’m an educator; so, when I hear comments like that (about kids being “too smart), I process them differently. I paused and thought a little bit. Yes, this assignment was kind of lightweight, but he’s three. What the hell do you want? Yes, there is some merit to complaints brought forth about classrooms not challenging children the way they need to be, but in many instances, there’s a lot more to it. He was still learning something that would help him become a more successful student in the future. He was learning the importance of sitting down to tackle a chore he might not be in the mood for, a task that he might initially feel is beneath him. As a college instructor, this is an important life-skill that I believe many young adults are struggling with today. The inability to do something mundane is getting in the way of student-success for many young people.
Naturally, we Professors try to keep the instructional content as lively as possible, but at some point, you’re going to have to sit down and focus on a task that seems lame. Many times, the assignment or paper isn’t that difficult. What makes it FEEL difficult is the discipline it takes to sit down and get it done. Some students feel these mundane tasks are beneath them because they have been told, all their lives, by their very loving parents, that they’re brilliant. They know they’re amazing because it’s all they’ve heard growing up. Their knowledge of their alleged brilliance has become a handicap in their young adult lives. It worries me. I like to see my students do well. When some of them struggle, it’s seldom because they’re “too smart.” And yet, very routinely, I hear many parents (and students) claim the struggle is due to an over abundance of intellect.
Here’s the thing, parents: teachers deal with hundreds of kids every day. Almost all of them are amazing and exceptional in some way or another (some, not so much). However, the ones that are routinely told they are too exceptional to function usually end up struggling in a number of other ways, ways that could have been prevented. “Too smart for this” becomes a crutch they lean on when the job doesn’t look fun or interesting enough (or when they simply aren’t in the mood to do it). I have seen many intelligent students drop out of their college programs, not because they were too smart, but because they couldn’t be bothered to pull it together and perform the mundane when it was required of them. I come from a long line of educators. After being dragged to many classrooms as a bystander, then sitting in them as a student, and ultimately ending up with a classroom of my own, there is one thing I have noticed about parents: we can be delusional about our children (yes, me too).
The individual we think we have raised is not always the individual the rest of the world interacts with. Our children are capable of being little assholes. They are capable of being lazy and obnoxious. They are capable of lying. They are capable of simply refusing to cooperate when it’s not a good day. And yes, teachers have an obligation to create a learning environment that rises above many of those challenges, but the fact remains that schools operate in the real world and hope to prepare your kid for life in the real world. Functioning in the real world requires a certain amount of doing what you don’t feel like doing. Throughout my teaching journey, I have encountered a handful of parents that simply refuse to believe the person in my classroom is the same person living with them. Unfortunately, we end up watching these enabled kids struggle.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent claim their child was not doing well in school because he or she was just “too smart” or “bored,” I’d be a rich woman. If you added another dollar for every college freshman that said, “but I was in all AP classes in high school,” I’d be doubly wealthy. It’s not that I don’t want to praise my child or let him know that I think he’s a sharp little guy, but I do want to temper my praise with a little bit of perspective. Being an educator has made me more conscious of the way I view my child and his capabilities. I find myself thinking of the excuses I might make for him, the excuses I hear other parents making for their children. I listen to girlfriends go on about how exceptional their child is (all the while noting that the kid is usually right where he should be in terms of intellectual development, as opposed to light years ahead of his peers as his doting mom suspects).
So, last night, my response was that “No, he is NOT too smart for his homework. He has a great teacher.” Before assuming that the teacher wasn’t “challenging” him, I took an honest step back and thought about the curriculum and where children his age should be emotionally, socially, and intellectually. I decided that it was a perfectly fine assignment. Obviously, he knows what a fucking cat is and where it is on the worksheet. I’m pretty sure his teacher knows he knows what a cat is, too. Emotional and social intelligence, as well as the ability to complete a task are important to nurture. Sometimes, your child’s teacher is trying to reinforce a greater life skill, one that will take your child very far if mastered.
Don’t be so quick to run around claiming things aren’t working out at school because your child is just “too smart.” Honestly, as a teacher, I’m tired of hearing it. I refuse to say it about my kid, even if sometimes, I think he’s ready to run for President. When I feel like that, I remind myself to get a grip. It’s good to be proud of your child, but there’s something scary about lapsing into delusion. You’ve all heard a delusional parent before. Who wants to be “that mom?” If your child truly is “too smart” for a particular grade, most teachers will find a way to have them tested, then push him / her to the right level, or actually adjust the curriculum. Sometimes, children who score high are kept in their grade anyway, because they don’t have the social skills and maturity needed to advance (that’s a whole other kind of intelligence). Yes, some kids are “too smart” for a particular classroom (and that can be addressed), but half the time, it’s not really the case. The truth is, many kids test above their grade levels. Many don’t. Just because you have a kid that is testing a little higher does not mean they can’t be bothered with learning to function in the classroom. It’s not always the teacher’s fault. Sometimes, it’s not just because your kid is “too bright.” Sometimes, our kids need to be pushed to explore different manifestations of intelligence.
A friend shared this article with me and it gave me a lot to think about, too. I appreciated the author’s perspective. I thought I’d share it here: The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart, By Salman Kahn