The Lies We Tell Our Children - "I'm Not Smart Enough!"
How many times have we heard someone say (or said ourselves!) "Oh, I'm no good at math." or "I'm a terrible writer." Why do we believe this to be true, and how does it affect our youth?
Over the past week I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the youth staying at our South King County Youth Shelter. SKYS as we call it is a multi-bed facility providing emergency shelter to youth ages twelve to seventeen who are either temporarily out of the home or experiencing homelessness. Many of these youth struggle to maintain school attendance, or have little to no support outside of school when it comes to completing and understanding homework. This can result in youth feeling overwhelmed at school, or feeling motivated to drop out or skip school due to lack of understanding and interest. On Thursday I had the chance to speak with one of our clients, who was struggling to keep up in class.
"A" is twelve years old, and attending specialized classes for students in need of extra support. While the workload was all subjects "A" knew from class, the sheer amount of homework to be done had her feeling overwhelmed. Page after page of fractions, decimals, and percentages presented a daunting task outside the classroom. I sat down with her to offer some support, and heard something that shocked me. "I'm too stupid to do this work." she told me. "I just don't get it." When I asked her why she thought that, she mentioned several adults in her life who "Didn't get it." either. Not quite satisfied with this answer, I decided to pry a bit deeper. I and another Nexus Youth and Families staff member sat down with "A" and slowly began dissecting the work laid out before her. I had her explain to me what a decimal was, and we talked momentarily about how money (something VERY interesting to a twelve year old) worked on the decimal system. She worked through 0.25 equaling 25% equaling 1/4th equaling (much to her delight) the big, shiny quarter on the table in front of her! We repeated the process with pennies, nickles, dimes, and dollars. Suddenly, it was becoming a game to see how quickly she could figure out the percentage, fraction, decimal, and so on of each equation. We checked her answers, and incredibly she had gotten every last one correct, with work shown! I asked her again why she said she thought she was "too stupid" to do this, and she shrugged. "I get it, it's just a lot of work at one time." I understood what she meant immediately. I, too, was a victim of telling myself I "didn't get it" simply because I was trying to tackle a problem in its entirety instead of piece by piece. All the numbers laid out on the paper could seem more like hieroglyphics than simple math when you're faced with them all at once. With a bit more understanding of why "A" was feeling overwhelmed we broke for lunch and spent some time playing games and talking. I let her know that we'd tackle more work at 1:00PM, but until then we'd get to relax. Having this clear timeline of work and play put "A" at ease, and by 1:00PM she was excited to get started again. Next was vocabulary homework, which presented a new challenge. What do all these words mean? Implicit versus explicit, concise versus vague, and what the heck is "prudent"? I found a dictionary and we set to work. We sounded out complex words, looked up their definitions and talked about them, and by the end of the hour everything as done and "A" was back to picking away at her math homework. She didn't seem the least bit bothered about the ten pages of math and vocabulary homework she'd already completed as she worked on her times tables and some geometry. This interaction with "A" had me thinking. Why do we tell ourselves, and our children, we don't understand things which we clearly do? While I'm mathematician working with "A" reminded me that, yes, I can simplify fractions and convert to percentages and solve for x. Things that I, had you asked me a few days prior, would tell myself I had no idea how to do. It made me wonder how many people had heard me put down my own intelligence in the past, and if any of them went on to do the same thing to themselves and others. "A" was not some remarkable case either. We are well aware of how capable children are when it comes to understanding complex mathematics, language, and so on. "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader" came up several times over the course of the day, reminding us that we had built an entire television show around how intelligent our youth are. We know children can soak up, and enjoy soaking up, information if we give them the opportunity to do so. So it becomes our responsibility, as the adults in the lives of these children, to make learning as easy and enjoyable as possible. I challenge you to remember your own intelligence. Revisit subjects and concepts which you've struggled with, and seek out new opportunities for learning. Replace the "I don't know" with "I'm willing to try" when posed with a challenge. Allowing our youth to see us learning and trying to learn makes education a lifelong joy rather than one of the many trials of childhood. "A" may go on to do amazing things, or she may not. She may be the next Einstein, or she might stumble over those 9's times tables forever. But whatever she does, she'll know she has the option of trying, and that's enough to do some pretty amazing things.