Saturday, March 22, 2008

On Prowess, Praise, and Bragging

When E says she's the smartest kid in her class, M rolls her eyes and tells her not to brag. I say she is very smart and is one of the kids in her grade who is really good at school, but other kids are good at lots of other things too.

Despite the equalizing attempts of well-meaning adults, kids know what's what and who's best. This is especially true in kindergarten and first grade where the difference between best and not is often simply the ability to do whatever is being assessed. E was the only kid in her kindergarten class who could read, ergo she was the best reader. M (different M) was the only kid on E's t-ball team who could hit the ball into the outfield, ergo he was the best t-ball player. Everyone knew it, and there was no point in denying it.

It gets more complicated as kids get older and other issues besides basic skills come into play. Someone may have enormous capacity but not enough time to practice. Someone else may be playing dumb to be cool. Still, it's clear to M that she understands the math and her friend A doesn't (so she helps A). On the other hand, it's clear that M is the slowest swimmer in her age group in her league, and yet she still would be one of the first five kids any coach worth his salt would choose for his team: you'd want the fastest swimmers in free, back, breast, and fly, and then you'd want M, because she has fabulous attitude, she's serious about practice, she gets along with everyone, and she cheers her friends like a maniac--they cheer her too, and the team goes wild when she doesn't lose her heat. In other words, there are lots of ways to be great and lots of skills that matter.

I think we do kids a disservice when we tell them they're great at everything, because they know when we're bullshitting. I told E the other day that she'd written a great story and she said, "You have to say that, you're my mom, you think everything I do is great." I said, "No, I don't. I don't think it's that great when you divide a piece of paper into three sections and color each section a different color," which she does just about every day and which is fine, but doesn't excite me much.

My kids are great at a lot of things and not so great at a lot of other things. Every kid I've ever met, and I've met a lot of kids, is great at something. I know a teenager who can't do school for shit, but knows everything there is to know about rebuilding Hondas for racing. I mean, you can't even believe it when you hear this kid talking about engines and titanium axles and stuff I never even heard of, let alone evaluating used cars on craigslist in seconds flat. So what this kid needs is to be told that he's amazing on the car front and has to improve on the school front. And then you need to look at how his car skills and knowledge can be put to use in service of school.

Hmm, I've covered prowess and praise, but somehow I've digressed and bragging has slipped out of the mix. I'm way down on bragging, to the point that I think I've made my kids overly self-conscious about it--and conscious of it in others. M used to be really good friends with a boy in her class who now spends an inordinate amount of time declaring that he is the best--at music, math, spelling. He's pretty good, but the egotism is insufferable. What I want is for kids--and grownups--to be able to accurately assess themselves, to be proud of what they're good at, to acknowledge what they're not so great at, but try hard anyways, and, especially, to be able to see and honor the good in others, and to accept, understand, and where possible support others where they struggle.


Jenny Davidson said...

Very nice post!

I am against bragging, but I am also against false modesty and in favor of honest self-assessment...

jackie said...

Re: that last sentence, could you come over to my house and give us all lessons? I agree that it's so important to know, but I still struggle with it myself, much less knowing how to impart it to my kids. The ability to be confident and maintain that confidence even in the face of failure or mediocrity is a truly valuable skill to have-- but difficult to acquire, I think.