One rainy afternoon a few years ago, I gave each of my kids a puzzle to complete. Noah had picked out a Spiderman puzzle and promptly set the box before him, ready to study it. Brow furrowed, he tackled the work starting on the corners and the edges like a good left-brain thinker. Isabel, my right brained child, started with the most random pieces, singing as she worked, and when I tried to show her the box so she could be guided by it she exclaimed indignantly: "No, mami! I want to be surprised!"
I should have known then what our journey through homeschooling would be like. Isabel draws on every paper and she devours books. I can't keep the bookshelves full enough for her. Noah sees everything as a problem to be solved and categorizes the world in terms of which parts of it can be built out of Legos. She is all creativity and he is all logic.
It is not surprising that math has been a struggle in our house from the beginning. One curriculum did not challenge Noah enough, while it brought Isabel to tears of frustration daily. Finally I had to choose two different curricula, which can be challenging, but it has restored the peace and love for learning in our home.
I still have to sit with Isabel and work through the math lessons. She and I spend a good bit of time each day hunkered down over the math book, playing with manipulatives, drawing the problem out, and such. With Noah all I do is give him his work and send him away to do it. He comes back if he has a question but for the most part he only comes to show me what he did and get his many check marks.
Which is why I was so surprised a few weeks ago when they came home from church with a little "About me" quiz in which one of the questions was: "Are you good at math?" Isabel had answered "yes" and Noah had written "no" and I was utterly confused. That is until I thought about our math journey and had an "aha" moment.
I know Isabel struggles with math and I know how discouraged many girls become about their math and science skills by the time they hit middle school. So I have been telling her day after day how good she is at math because she does not let it defeat her. My mantra to her has been: "You are good at math because you work hard at it!"
I realized that while Isabel hears this day after day, I had not told Noah he was good at math because I assumed he knew this to be the case since it comes so naturally to him. But because I did not spend as much time working with him and telling him how proud I was of his efforts, he thought he was not any good at it.
So we re-defined what "good at" means in our home. You are good at something when it comes naturally to you, but you are also good at something when you don't let it beat you, when you work at it until you master it, when you don't give up. We decided you are not only "not good" at something when you don't even attempt it.
This morning I found an article that resonated with me and with the approach we've been taking. Here is the link for the article in its entirety: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/11/struggle-means-learning-difference-in-eastern-and-western-cultures/
The author talks about the difference in Western and Eastern cultures' understanding of struggle. In our culture we think of struggle as a mark of lack of skill or intelligence. If you struggle with something then you are obviously not good at it. Eastern cultures view struggle as a "predictable part of the process of learning" (Spiegel). You're supposed to struggle. Everyone struggles some time. In fact, their academic lessons are designed slightly above the pupil's skill level. They believe it builds character and emotional fortitude.
And I'm beginning to agree.
I don't think there is anything wrong with telling your children they are smart, but when it comes to academics our family does not value being intelligent as highly as we value being persistent, hard working, teachable, and giving your best effort. A child who is willing to work hard and do their best, even if the work is difficult, will learn much more than a a child who is smart but refuses to do anything that does not come easily to them.
We are not filling our kids' heads with the song: "You are good at everything!," thus creating children who don't understand their limitations and have an unrealistic sense of their own selves. We are simply teaching them that just because something is hard they should not stop trying with the excuse: "I'm just not good at it." Of course our kids attempt, almost daily, to get out of something by whining: "This is haaaaarrrrrd!" I guess they expect me to say: "Oh, my darling, sweet baby, then you don't have to do it, my love" But they have learned it just does not work with this momma.
We understand that life and God will have a way to help the kids hone their interests, discover what they are particularly skilled to do, and put them in the path they should follow. But while they are under our care, we will not put confines to their potential and dreams by pigeonholing them into only pursuing what is naturally easy for them to do.