I tell him learning anything new takes practice. I tell him he isn’t yet an expert at chess and if he wants to be as skilled as his friend, he’ll have to keep taking lessons. I tell him he’s not good at all kinds of stuff yet. I tell him he’ll become talented at just about anything he wants badly enough to practice like crazy.
“You’re being mean!” he yells. He stomps into his room and slams the door.
When I go in later, he is curled up under the covers. “All I want is to play basketball,” he mutters. “That’s the only thing.”
I start to tell him something else but it’s probably a waste of breath. What good is it to keep telling at him like this? I reach to stroke his head and he actually lets me. “Do you know why you’re good at basketball?” He doesn’t answer. I lean in close to him. “You’re good at it because you’ve been doing it over and over and over again for years. Guess what? When you were really little, you couldn’t make shots at all.”
“Yes I could. I was always really good.”
“Sweetie, you were a baby once. And a toddler. Like that girl at the park today. Remember?” His classmate’s sister was there, trying to hurl her neon pink soccer ball up, up at the basket. She chased it down the hill, over to the fence, around the field. She could barely keep it on the court let alone shoot it anywhere close to its intended target. “You were like that once. Guess what else? You don’t play as well as those college players your daddy takes you to see. Not yet, but you can if you keep at it. They’ve had a lot more years to practice.”
“Yes I am! I am as good as them!” He hmphs around and pulls the blanket over his head. I sigh. I’m clearly blowing this.
“Listen. Just about everything in the world that you like was built or made by someone who didn’t know how to do it once.” I’ve gone right back to telling. There’s no stopping me now. I tell him someone didn’t know how to make pizza. They learned. Someone didn’t know how to make giant water slides. They learned. “Baby, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are seven years old are the only things worth doing, we wouldn’t have a whole lot. We wouldn’t have video games or houses or running water or cars or legos or anything.”
“Yes we would. I could make video games.”
I should shut up. I really need to learn to shut up. This is futile. A frustrated person is as deaf as granite and about as yielding. He doesn’t want to sign up for chess. Or piano. Or soccer or swimming or art or Spanish. His reply to every suggestion? “I don’t like it. I’m not good at it.”
But I don’t shut up. I keep going. I explain that reading used to be hard. He didn’t like practicing. He still doesn’t like practicing. But the more he does it the better he gets, and now he can find his way into stories without my help. Once he couldn’t read. Now he can. The bridge between the two is practice.
He says, “I could always read. I was just pretending I couldn’t.”
Okay. Message received. I close my trap, hug my boy, and give him a giant kiss on the head. “I love you, buddy. Let’s go get breakfast ready.”
He’s grumpy eating waffles because there’s not enough syrup. He’s mad when I brush his hair because it’s tangled and it hurts. He doesn’t want to take the bus but it’s too late to make it to before-school care. I ask him how his morning is going on a scale of one to ten.
“Great!” I say. “It can only get better from here!”
It matters that I stand on an incremental idea of intelligence. I’ve had to tell myself I believe it often enough that now I actually do. As opposed to seeing intelligence as a fixed entity, the incremental approach holds that effort and practice can change not only how smart you are but the ways in which you are smart. You can’t measure intelligence and even talent may be an illusion. Training grows skill like a muscle. Where you focus is where you become strong and where you don’t is where you won’t. A brilliant physicist might be a monstrous manager and the world’s worst dancer. As an accumulation of behaviors, intelligence is a habit of mind rather than a meaure of it.
It matters here because this conception has been the ladder I’ve used to climb out of a lifetime of self-talk so defeating it borders on abuse. Only part of mental health is explained by physiology. Like talent, depression is as much a habit of mind as it is an expression of seratonin levels. Choosing to see intelligence as a verb helps me recognize that feelings of resistance have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I am cut out for a particular endeavor. Stuff is hard and it is especially so when it’s new. Every beautiful or terrible thing our species has fashioned has required perseverence. It would always have been much easier to give up.
It matters too because trusting in this version of intelligence might keep me from passing on to my son this legacy of globalizing distortions. Belief in fixed capacity is fertilizer for depression. I want both of us to practice the art of speaking out loud all the ways a person can grow more proficient in any number of languages. I want Bug to learn early the vocabulary of self-efficacy. Sure, he’ll be awkward. He’ll hit walls. Some new skills will be much tougher to acquire than others. Maybe my parenting optimism is on steroids today, but if I know my son is perfectly capable of mastery and that he will learn how to chart his own course, I can be his touchstone as he does battle with his limits.
But let’s be real here: it also doesn’t matter. My kid isn’t buying it. If he believes intelligence is fixed, guess what? It is. For Bug, being good at something means it is supposed to be effortless. A person is naturally talented at some things and those are the things he should do. This idea baffles me.
“I hate this day,” he says as shrugs into his jacket. It is only 8:40 a.m.
When I walk Bug to the bus, other parents and kids are there waiting. Anxiety about my son’s attitude is a backpack full of wet concrete. I can talk up one side of Mt. Everest and down the other telling the world what I believe but my child is only going to want to learn new things if they are beguiling enough to make him want to trade in his ease for the effort required.
What is the currency for a seven-year-old? This: whatever other seven-year-olds decide has value.
But I am a loner of a mother. Where would I begin to plug my son into the allure of new activities if he’s already decided he isn’t interested? Which kids in my son’s school play saxophone or collect snakes? I don’t have a clue what the names of Bug’s classmates are, let alone their hobbies. What I know of their parents wouldn’t fill a teaspoon. My son has been in this school for nearly two years and I couldn’t identify his best friends if they rode up past our house on a St. Patrick’s Day float.
Besides, I’m not good building community.
Making new friends is scary. Remembering names is hard. I don’t like it. Why can’t I just stay inside my cozy house and write and dance and bake pumpkin bread with my son? I like doing that stuff. I’m good at that stuff.
Thanks, universe. Got it.
The dad at the bus stop nods a hello as he has on all the other mornings. My turn to endure the telling. It whispers, Every single amazing, effortless activity in the world was hard once. I take a deep breath and re-introduce myself. I say I’m looking forward to seeing his girls out now that it’s getting warmer. Maybe we could all go to the park? He mentions that his family goes to Nationals games and that they’d love for us to join them when the season starts. “You know what?” I say, pulling out my phone. “We’ll never make it happen if we don’t exchange numbers.” He texts me his name, his wife’s, his children’s.
I’m not good at it this. The vulnerability makes me squirm. On my way home, I run into another neighbor in the hallway. It would be so easy to pass her with a polite hello but all that telling is still clanging around. The degree of difficulty of an endeavor bears no relation to its suitability. I force myself to slow down long enough to have a conversation. After the requisite small talk, she confesses she’s been having a hard time getting to know neighbors since moving in last fall. Also, could she come by to see my bamboo floors? She and her husband are remodeling and want to replace the carpet with hardwood.
Baby, the telling whispers, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are forty are the only things worth doing, our world would be a dismal place indeed.
I tell her I’d love for her to come by.
As I head out to my car, I feel a bouyancy breathing under the anxiety of these new commitments. The telling whispers, There was a time before Thomas Edison knew how to work a telegraph machine. Before Langston Hughes could pen a verse.
Thanks, I tell it back. Nice work.