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Deciding Little Guy’s fate at the age of 3

Submitted by on Thursday, 13 November 2008 No Comment

It started just after Big Guy snagged the impressive scholarly honor of Math Master, recognizing his ability to count and write numbers up to 30.

If it’d been just one clod who said it, I wouldn’t still be irritated weeks later. By the time the third person piped up, my head was ready to explode.

“Gosh, Big Guy’s doing well in school. I hope Little Guy’s not dumb.”

Nice. Slap great big honkin’ labels on both my kids with a single swoop. The fact that the guys weren’t within earshot when any of this was said is the only reason I let people live.

Smart. Not. Scholar. Slow.

Excuse me? They’re 5 and 3. How about giving them a chance?

All the labels can be equally damaging as the guys struggle to live up to or battle to climb out of their preordained destinies.

Genius. That label leaves no room for failure, which is exactly what has happened to many a bright child trying to live up to it. “I’m smart. This is supposed to be easy.” And when it’s not, the reaction is, at best, frustration. At worst, the child will give up.

“When the work becomes more difficult, children who have come to expect a string of successes may fall apart,” Adria Steinberg wrote in a 1992 Harvard Education Letter.

It’s the difference between a student thinking she gets better by learning and trying hard and a student who believes everyone has only so much inborn ability and once you hit that ceiling, you’ll go no further, Steinberg explained.

Obviously that trap can ensnare the “slow” kid, too. You’re just not as bright as your brother. Give it up.

Wonder how many younger children have heard that in their lives. The three who were ready to seal Little Guy’s academic fate all mentioned that the younger sibling usually isn’t as smart as the older one.

OK, so there’s some evidence to support that cliche, such as a 2007 study that showed younger siblings’ IQs are, on average, 2.3 points below their elders.

And Little Guy’s development has lagged his brother’s in some areas, unfortunately in things most noticeable to people who aren’t around him every day. Which is part of the reason for the rush to label him. He’s also been ahead in other subtle but important areas.

Not that it’s a competition — kids learn at different paces. And not that it matters in the long run. It takes more than a high IQ to succeed in school or in life.

I think it’s important that people define success in life on their own terms. For some, it might be making a million bucks by the time they’re 30. For others, it could be helping as many people in their community as they possibly can. Not that those goals are mutually exclusive.

Maybe one of the guys is going to be a great brain surgeon. Maybe one will be a great humanitarian. Or maybe they’ll both be gloriously mundane and perfectly happy.

Right now, Big Guy wants to be a police officer and Little Guy wants to be a bird. Which is fine with me, as long as they keep trying to be the best police officer and bird they can be. And as long as they’re nice to people along the way.

But, please, people, don’t give them labels to live up or down to until their age has at least reached double digits. They’re both little works in progress. Give them a chance to grow a bit before you plot out their futures.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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