Saturday, July 28, 2012

Natural flair

There's a photo on the mantle-piece of my family's sitting room of me as a toddler, sitting in a little wooden chair unaided for the first time. The photo is a little blurry, either due to the camera or the rush to document the moment before I fell over, and my fat little face is beaming with delight, probably because of the fuss rather than pride at my sitting abilities. Evidently it was a big deal because previous attempts at sitting me upright had been met with failure.

It is crass to brag, but these days I can sit like a pro on all sorts of things. No-one ever feels the need to record it, or tell me what a good job I'm doing, and it just comes naturally.


I'm perpetually confused and frustrated by the idea that you need to have an innate aptitude for certain fields if you are to excel in them. An inborn knack is certainly a boon and timesaver, but to think it's essential flies in the face of the lived experience of every adult who started out as a baby. Babies aren't great at just about anything, especially vocalisation or fine motor control, but most of them turn into attestments to the species' capacity for complex language and tool use.*

This viewpoint is quite prevalent with regards to maths and art in particular. With maths, it's easy to see how a methodical way of thinking is an advantage, but it's not the be-all and end-all. In fifth year I went on a big maths buzz and got consistent As. In my Leaving Cert, when I was more focused and giving roughly equal time to all my subjects, I came out with a C1. I gave maths as much time as my other subjects, but due to being average at it, compared to quite good at the others, I didn't score as well. But when I put more time and effort in, I did! BIZARRO!

It's not at all hard to see the appeal of the fallacy. There's nothing like trying something and discovering that you're good at it. When I was in Junior Infants and we were given a page of reading to do from our reader, I dicovered I knew how to read. I had always made my very patient mother read stacks of books to me, and apparently I had picked it up without realising it. I was so excited that I made my mum sit with me while I read the whole book.** By the time I was in Senior Infants, when it was my turn to go up to the teacher's desk, I would bring my own book because I had surpassed the levels of the readers.  Seventeen years and many books, textbooks, articles and papers later, that moment of understanding the symbols "Ben the dog rolls down the hill" still stands out as a high point in my life. Man. Reading.

But everyone I went to school with is literate! I might still be speedier at it or have a wider vocabulary than some of my classmates, but everyone got to a level they needed by working at it.

What bothers me, because I'm painfully literal***, is that "I'm not good at X" can be a perfectly true statement, but it comes with an implicit "AND THEREFORE I NEVER WILL BE," which is not a logical conclusion! It is true for me to say "I am not good at dancing," because I am ungraceful, and have made no concerted efforts not to be, so my version of dancing involves wooden flailing and shuffling and accidentally bumping into people. For the time being, I don't mind that (though bumping into people is not ideal), so I will continue to not be good at dancing, though I could correct it by going to classes or something. It is possible I will never be good at it, but that will be through a conscious lack of effort on my own part.

There's a big difference between "I'm not good at it now, and it's not important enough to me to work on becoming good at it" and "I wasn't magically good at it the first time I tried, so I'm doomed to mediocrity." There's nothing wrong with mediocrity, but it's not inevitable!

This wouldn't bother me as much as it does but for how it affects children. I think children should be praised for efforts they make, rather than for being good at something. It is easy to fuss when a child produces a picture better than their age, but if you don't fuss when they produce something average, you might kill their enthusiasm and stop them from having a chance at being good at it, or never being good but taking joy in it anyway.

That just seems so sad.

*It is really interesting how young children learn grammar, especially irregular verbs! For example, they will initially use "ran", then as they work out the general rules of grammar will use "runned", then they will learn that that verb is irregular because English is a nonsense language, and go back to "run".

Also, my friend's three-year-old knew the noun 'hyperbole' but no form of the verb 'exaggerate', and wanted to challenge some ridiculous story his father was telling, so accused him of hyperbolating. What an amazing three-year-old.

** I was surprised to learn that I still had to go back to school the next day. I knew how to read! What else was there?

*** Which makes me quite good at languages, because I'll have an appreciation of how the grammar works, rather than relying on "This phrase is the rough equivalent of that phrase", but means I sometimes fail to realise exactly what conversation I'm having with English speakers. I will leave and realise I answered someone's question inaccurately because the answer to the question with the words the used was "No" but the answer to what those words are commonly understood to mean by native or fluent English speakers is "Yes." It is kind of a problem.


Jessica Córdova said...

It took me until my mid-30s to figure that out. Now I make up stories and dance and play guitar, and while I still suck at all of those activities, I am getting better at each of them.

Evidently, all those people who told me to practice knew what they were talking about. Damn them. ;-)

Forkis said...

When I was in my mid- to late teens I would sit out and watch board or computer games at parties for fear of being embarrassingly bad if I tried them. Gradually became less neurotic and realised that button-bashing or needing the rules explained again is not something for which my friends will hold me in contempt, plus in a strange way it's narcissistic to think everyone is watching me that closely. I missed out on so much Rock Band! (I also went out with a gamer for a year and a half, and that much sitting out games would have felt like going beyond awkward into rude. Plus they were fun! I need to bully people into going to cons with me.)

Re: the making up stories, I was a volunteer at a summer camp for underprivileged kids two summers ago, and the girls in our room kept asking myself and the other volunteer for a made-up bedtime story, rather than one out of a book. We told them they'd get a made-up story if they were all very good. Fortunately, they never were.