The Problem with Potential

Charlie Builds UmiCityMy children are showing signs of potential and I couldn’t be more concerned. It’s a wonderful thing, ability, but let it out from under wraps too early and it can be awfully counterproductive. My firstborn is not even three and a half and he is pretty consistently told about his brilliance. This isn’t unusual, most people spend their time praising children for rather standard accomplishments. In the case of parents this is natural. Every new thing your child does is earth shaking. Truly. But it’s becoming evident in school that he is getting some distance between himself and the other kids. He has a memory that is remarkable, a vocabulary that is of someone twice his age and in a class where many of the other kids struggle recognizing their own names he not only recognizes and spells his own name, he recognizes and spells everyone’s name. And when he is confronted with new words he can often sound them out since he’s known the sound of each letter and what letter comes after what since he was two and a half. He reads me bedtime stories.

I should start by saying that I’m aware this isn’t some kind of Doogie Howser, MD level of brilliance or anything. He’s a bit advanced, that’s all. But he hears it all the time. He’s also started to hear and notice disappointment in teachers when he misbehaves or struggles to focus. It happens so rarely that it must be noted as it is entirely out of character. But to have simple struggles like these, standard ones really, highlighted at every opportunity is something that his burgeoning emotional development is starting to register. He’s already a kid capable of harsh self-criticism as noted in an earlier piece, Fear and Loathing in Parenthood, about his struggle with potty training.

Furthermore he is stunningly good looking. I’m not going to explain this one away. I may be biased, but that don’t mean I’m wrong. And on top of that, he’s about the average height of a six year old. When he’s around other three year old kids, as he is all day everyday, the combination of his precocious ability and his mature behavior, combined with his stature and handsomeness make grown ups think he is older and more capable then he is. If he’s struggling there’s a reason. He’s three that’s the reason. But lately, I’m starting to feel like that reason is pressure. Pressure to live up to something that others think of him. again he’s three.

What makes me crazy is how wrong people get the whole ‘gifted and talented’ thing. I want to foster his curiosity and I worry that it can be stifled if he isn’t able to continue to see the joy in learning if he drifts further from the mean and finds less and less that challenges him moving forward. But this is often where people start talking about ‘tracking’ kids. Getting them into a lane that will challenge them intellectually in order to keep them engaged. It’s important. But don’t for a second think this is the most important thing.

Prior to moving out to New Jersey my wife and I lived in Astoria, Queens. It was our first apartment and the neighborhood will always hold a special meaning to us. While she was pregnant with Charlie it became clear to us that we would have to move. She was working in Parsippany, NJ and we lived in a fourth floor walk up without a dishwasher or a washer and dryer. It became very clear that we could double our space and amenities and get what we needed to be comfortable by moving. So once the spot was picked and the date was set we went about planning. This is something we do now on the fly. Life is crazy with kids. But back then it was something we could plan a dinner for. So we went out to a Greek restaurant on Broadway and 30th, sat on the street and talked about our future. We hashed out logistics. We did calculations and determined that we could get movers!!! (ALWAYS GET MOVERS) We decided our move day and talked about the various possibilities for daycare. We even daydreamed about our new apartment and planned projects that we had no idea that we’d have no time for after a kid.

Then Karen started talking about the need for us to get our kid into a good school district. I have biases against the education system, biases that have altered in detail but remain present and I dismissed the concern. We weren’t buying at that point. We were getting a two bedroom in Morristown. Who’s to say we’d even be there when the kid started school. Besides, I had a close friend and coworker who grew up there and went to the public schools who is one of the brightest and most energetic and engaged people you could know, we should stay zenned out and not worry.

This was and is my way of avoiding many things I don’t wish to confront. But she pressed as she should and eventually got me to access and express my true feelings on the matter. The first part of my feelings are cynical. I don’t think school matters, and it matters less and less the further you go. The people I’ve known, at least the non-scientists and non-social workers who have gone to ‘the right schools’ are living a life I don’t want for me or my kids. They place value in the wrong proportion. There’s no denying the value of money, but there is greatly overstating it and many of these people in my experience do that. Which pulls these efficient minds further and further away from curiosity and pushes them to cold profit analysis. It’s gross and I don’t want my kid surrounded by these people.

The second part was more optimistic. I told her that the kid, assuming standard developmental health, would be bright. We didn’t have to worry about that. We were both smart. The IQ and capacity would take care of itself. What we had to do, what our responsibliity would be was to foster natural curiosity and be mindful in nurturing his emotional development. It’s our job to make sure he is a compassionate and caring person who is respectful of others and appreciative of all that he will be afforded.

While we may have disagreed on the value of an education, my wife could not have been more in agreement with me. It is our job to raise a person in whole and value the right things. Everyone gets to decide what is right for them. For us it was fostering curiosity and compassion and kindness and enthusiasm and love and a sense of appreciation.

I think that in general we’ve lived up to this. It might be hard to see as he is at an age where his curiosity puts him in a lot of situations that could cause an ambulance ride and as a result I’m more often then I’d like employing my scary dad voice. But we are very proud of the little boy he is. He shares, is kind and is loving and joyful. And at this age that is all that counts.

The problem with potential is that it narrows your outcomes and heightens expectation. So if you show early signs that you might be incredible, you are then tracked to be so. And that’s crazy, you’re a kid and no amount of giftedness, other than effort and curiosity should be highlighted. Your interests may turn out to be in a direction that isn’t yet present. Why stifle these.

I have a visceral reaction to this, one that is personal. Emotional immaturity causes you to internalize the disappointment of others. I have a good deal of experience in this area. And in my case, I reacted to this by failing immediately. I’d pre-fail to get it over with. High School would have been easy for me had I tried. But I didn’t. The same is true with college. And I claimed not to care. I swore up and down that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I didn’t care so much in fact that I drank to blackout every night and gained 80 lbs. immediately on going away to college. Where I immediately failed off the basketball team and never had a gpa above 2.1 in the ten years it took me to get a degree. I made a point and a show of not caring. To this day I still am able to get access through my first impression and to this day, to some degree, I still set out to lower expectations immediately when I sense that there are high hopes.

I labeled myself a failure and went about making myself one. I didn’t care, and it nearly killed me how disappointed I was in myself. It is for another post, but the seeds of my salvation from this awful cycle of self-defeat was when I went to work at a summer camp for adults with special needs. The result of which was finally confronting my issues and embarking on years of struggle with myself and the eventual ability to find and be loved by Karen. She was the payoff, and as such the WHOLE struggle was worth it.

I hope beyond hope that I can avoid a similar fate for my Charlie. I’m frankly terrified that he won’t regress to the mean of toddlers in his world and that the expectations will come at him fast and furious. I am afraid that he’ll start having his potential squashed by the good intentions of those trying to support him. I fear this will make it nearly impossible for him to know what it means for him to be fine. Which is exactly what he is. Absolutely, joyously and beautifully fine.

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11 thoughts on “The Problem with Potential

  1. mamadestroy

    Thanks so much for your honest reflections. I related a lot to your thoughts about Charlie. My 7 year old son also frequently inspired awe in adults for his quick wit and precocious reading ability. He is, however, an extremely energetic and exuberant child who loves to make others laugh. This means that, despite his intellectual gifts, he is exactly the kind of kid who WILL NOT thrive in a “gifted and talented” setting. He is likely too jump on top of a table and start dancing the moment he gets bored, and unlikely to sit quietly all day long. I was very lucky to find a public school in Brooklyn that is all about active, inquiry-based learning that is an excellent fit for his active mind. That being said, I firmly believe that school just influences how much you like school. It has no bearing on your success in life. Good luck to you all as you enter the educational sphere!

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  2. joejmedler Post author

    Thank you so much for both taking the time to read and thoughtfully comment. As a parent to two boys you know how wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating and exasperating it can all be! I am happy to hear that you’ve found a good school for your boy. I’ve many friends in and fond memories of Brooklyn. I love the thought, ‘school just influences how much you like school’. There’s so much to chew on in that phrase. Thank you. Have a great day and continued good luck to you as well!

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  3. artiedemann

    I am a mother of a boy who sounds much like yours, although he is currently only 2 and a half. I am also a teacher, and surprisingly I agree with you, at least to some extent, that school doesn’t matter. However, learning, more specifically a love for learning, most definitely does. In an ideal school environment, your child’s love for learning should be fostered, not squashed.
    My son has not yet even entered preschool, but I can forsee him encountering the same sort of problems. Even in child care, because his communication skills are more advanced than other kids his age and even older than him, he seems to be held responsible for any disagreements or issues that may occur. I hope that this is not something that is a recurring theme in his life, and that no one is able to put out his shine.

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    1. joejmedler Post author

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read the post. It’s always a pleasure to hear from thoughtful folks about the topics I’m grinding on and figuring out. I know what you mean about the ‘shine’. I’ve always contended that curiosity is the aspect, at least in so far as education goes (and I mean that term to be larger than simply schooling), that I want my kids to retain. With it there’s constant movement and a greater likelihood for a level of joy around learning. And it doesn’t surprise me that as a teacher you might identify some with my piece. I think teachers, especially good ones see school and formal education as a big piece of the puzzle, but not the whole thing. Is that right? Anyway, I hope my kid comes away from school excited because he has been given a set of tools that he can use with some alacrity as he goes about continuing his education for the rest of his life!
      Thank you again for your insights.

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  4. mommytomax

    Hi I read your post and I just wanted to say that this really hit home for me. I was actually planning on writing a post on my blog about the detrimental effects of just praising “being smart.”

    All my life I heard that I was smart. And I hated it. I felt set up for expectations that I was destined to disappoint. That just made me stop trying altogether. Much like you, I had entire semesters of F’s because I didn’t even show up for exams and didn’t bother to drop the class either. I ended up failing out of college.

    It was a hurdle that I had to overcome with age and maturity. Praise the process not some attribute! I now ask people not to say my son is smart but, instead, compliment that process he went about achieving something.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

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    1. joejmedler Post author

      Thank you so much for your very thoughtful reading and response to the piece!

      Hearing your experience makes me feel less like I was missing something. To know that someone else reacted this same way is hugely good to hear.

      I don’t think people ever understood why I was the way I was, and to be fair it was only in hindsight that I seemed to get it. I just knew that I shut down and seemingly willfully refused to achieve. I loved to learn and remained curious, I was just angry. It made me so self critical and in some ways my actions were to confirm my worst thoughts. I’m still an underachiever of sorts, but now it’s okay. Then it wasn’t.

      I love your phrasing and will steal it in my own life and start referring to praising the process! Thank you again and I hope you have a lovely holiday season!

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  5. jsackmom

    I can understand where you’re coming from in regards to your son’s education. My oldest son has always been so personable, intelligent, and well liked since he started school. When we moved and he started in a larger school he became the victim of bullying. I was shocked because this was a boy who’s former principal teared up over saying goodbye to him. And the new adminstration wanted my son to deal with it on his own. It was the anxiety he felt about being new and he had all these high expectations on himself. So the anxious kid gets picked on because he’s a rule follower and he put so much pressure on himself to be liked; but he forgot to respect himself first. His school year ended on a positive note because he started to believe that he was capable of more and the problem kids just started leaving him alone. I think whatever part your son’s choose it will be a winning one, with you and Karen at the helm steering that ship. 😊

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  6. Donna Miglino

    My oldest was chosen for a gifted and talented program for Pre-K. He was elevated to what was then deemed a very exclusive level of gifted. (1600 gifted applicants, for 20 spots.) He remained in the program through kindergarten and half of first grade. We were battling through 3 hours of homework nightly. He was doing math with cuisenaire rods. I had never even heard of cuisenaire rods. By the time HW was done, it was too late to go outside or ever have friends. After a night of battling over creating six shapes out of ONLY THESE SIX RODS, I looked at my boy and realized, he’s six years old, and can’t PLAY because he’s too smart. I pulled him out of the program the following week. (It took that long to process the transfer.) And after all the agonizing choices, and stressing the importance of his education, my “genius” left high school and got a GED. And he’s still an amazing person. You’re right. Education is important, but it’s not what makes or breaks a person.

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  7. That Shameless Hussy

    See now this was before I knew you. I was in the Gifted Program and I wanted my son to have nothing I do with it when he qualified. But I relented since it was part time. And he came home with piles of inane, repetitious homework in reading that was making him hate books. Id rather have him have a shot at loving reading like his mother than loathe it because of the very system that is supposed to foster his love for it. So I pulled him. He’s reading Harry Potter. I don’t win very many, it seems but this one, I did. Great post. 🙂

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