Monday, November 4, 2013
A Child's Perspective
Disclaimer: I don't have any children (although my husband and I have 13 nieces and nephews). What follows is based on personal experience, from way too many decades ago. I think that, as adults, we underestimate the power that our words hold for children (although those who suffered abuse know all too well). Simple comments, made from the adult perspective and quickly forgotten, can affect a child for life. In 7th grade, I had a history teacher, Mr. Watson, who made history come alive. One day we took a field trip to Carter's Grove, a mid-18th century plantation built on the James River. An archeological dig had just finished and we were given permission to poke about in field and find stuff. We found beautiful pieces of glass, clay pipes, and I found some kind of buckle. I was hooked and decided then and there that I wanted to be an archaeologist (note that from an early age I had always been fascinated by old buildings, old-fashioned clothes, my great-grandmother's button hooks (button-up shoes--how cool is that?!)). In 8th grade, I had to take earth science and try as I might, I never excelled at it, and never liked it. I had a session with my guidance counselor and as I recall, the discussion revolved around what I wanted to be when I grew up. Of course, I mentioned archaeology and I probably mentioned that I didn't like earth science. The guidance counselor responded that in order to be an archaeologist, I needed to take earth science. I was crushed. Because my child's reasoning translated what she said to this: I don't like earth science. I want to be an archaeologist. Archaeologists need to have earth science. Ergo, I can't be an archaeologist. My brother had a similar experience. None of my brothers were good students, but all of them are very intelligent. They just didn't fit in the "sit at your desk and read books" type of education system. My brothers loved being out in the woods, catching snakes and turtles and building forts and such. Carl wanted to take that one step further and become a forest ranger. His guidance counselor essentially told him that he wasn't smart enough. I don't know what words she used, but the discussion revolved around his grades and how they weren't good enough to get into college. End of story. To my knowledge, there weren't any follow-up discussions about what they could work on to improve his grades (I think this was in junior high school, so he still had three or four years to turn around his grades). His dream of being a forest ranger was effectively squashed. As adults, we know that in order to get from Point A to Point B or Point O or Point Z, we need to take certain steps and that if one step fails, we stop, assess the situation, and try again from a different angle. For children (or at least for children when I was growing up), everything seems to be black and white. You either get good grades and go to college or you get bad grades and take up some vocation. It worked the same with the arts. In elementary school music, I really wanted to contribute by playing the triangle. I was routinely passed over, probably because the music teacher saw that I had an odd sense of rhythm. To me, that translated as "I'm not good enough." In order to take art as an elective in junior high, I think you had to exhibit some proficiency at drawing. Therefore, I never took art because my drawing wasn't good enough. I've seen similar things happen to my nieces and nephews. Even with continuing support and encouragement from family and friends, failure often means the end of a dream. I failed, therefore I cannot do this. Perhaps success is seen as being too hard, too painful, too full of sacrifice. Perhaps they, like I sometimes am, are afraid of what will happen if they are successful. I did not go on to become an archaeologist, but I did get my degree in anthropology. I had dreams of working to change third world development, because at that time, we brought in agricultural technologies that were not congruent with the culture and environment of the countries we were trying to help. I didn't do that either (Reagan put a stop to social sciences grants and there was no way I could fund my own field work). And in strange twist, I ended up in software testing. The moral of this story is children don't think like we do. When we provide encouragement, we need to be mindful that what we think we said might not be what the child heard us say. Come to think about it, that advice applies to adults as well.