Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Growth Mindset

            “So what do you think we’ll do today?”
            My son asks this question frequently.
            His grandfather sits at the round table with the checkerboard pattern. He methodically works the New York Times crossword puzzle, periodically throwing clues in H’s direction.
            “Winnie-the-Pooh catchphrase?”
            “Eight letters.”
            “We’ll come back to it.”
            H circles the table peripatetically.
            “South American range?”
            “Oh!” H breaks from his orbit and walks to the framed world map hanging near the refrigerator. All geography clues send him to the map. “Ahn-dess,” he says, carefully adding Spanish pronunciation.
            “Anne-deez,” my father corrects him.
            “What! But it’s Spanish!” H cackles in feigned exasperation.
            He has been taking a Spanish enrichment class four mornings a week for nearly two years. He has learned virtually nothing. As he nears the end of third grade I am prepared to say that language acquisition is not a strength, which seems odd because he uses his first language almost constantly. At times he seems to be narrating his own life.
            “You're right,” says his grandfather. “In South America, that’s probably how they pronounce it.”
            “I’m not so good at Spanish,” says H, admonishing himself reflexively despite a rare moment of foreign language acumen. “Wait!” he looks in my direction and corrects himself. “I’m getting better at Spanish.”
            “That’s right,” I say.
            This growth mindset exercise has become something of a joke in my professional circle. No child, or for that matter, no person, is ever “bad” at anything. No one “can’t.” Everyone is “working on” a skill. All children are “still learning to” do whatever it is that they actually suck at and possibly always will. My fellow teachers and I have embraced the word “yet” as a catchall.
            I’m not a good artist, says StudentDylan.
            I’m not a good artist yet, say we, correcting him.
            I can’t spell “thesis,” says StudentMia.
            I can’t spell “thesis” yet, we encourage her.
            I don’t like reading, says StudentTeddy.
            Not yet. (Forced smile.) Growth mindset.
Some of the more sophisticated students recognize the subtle mockery in our voices. A smart middle schooler doesn’t need a pedantic reminder that his intellectual abilities have not peaked in 7th grade. Yet we persist, mostly because, through our cynicism, we believe in the power of positive reinforcement, but also because the absurdity makes us laugh.
Some people, even children (especially children!), just are the way they are. As a teacher, it almost seems kinder to tell a child, Yes, you are indeed bad at long division. And you probably always will be. But being alive requires some basic math. So suck it up. You get better at things by doing them, not by believing you’ll get better at them. And you have to do them whether or not you get better. “Not yet” is a ruse. Everything in life is “not yet.” Except death. Death is just “not today.” Unlike getting better at math, death is definitely going to happen. Now eat your snack.
            “So what do you think we’re going to do today?”
            He can’t not ask the question. My son is a planner. He needs to know the plan. Without a plan, he cannot relax. At home, this trait is mildly annoying. Paired with his garrulous nature, it means that idle moments are constantly conversational, which renders them not idle at all. But we are not at home. We are at his grandfather’s house in Mexico. Waves rhythmically crash outside the sliding glass doors. Beach umbrellas and palm fronds flutter in a late morning seabreeze. Young “indigenes” stroll up and down the beach politely hawking hair braiding, wooden jewelry, and shell animals. Pelicans futilely nosedive into the choppy blue water, not 50 yards from where I sit. Nothing has to happen today. No one here has a plan. This is why I come here; why I need to come here once a year.
            Wake up late. Drink coffee. Take a dip in the ocean. Listen to my father and H do the crossword. Apply sunscreen. Walk into town. Find a palapa. Drink beer. Eat tacos. Take another dip in the ocean. Read. Listen to the ballgame. Make a cocktail. Watch the sunset. Eat more tacos. Sing my son a lullaby. Talk to my father. Go to sleep. Rinse. Repeat.
            “So what do you think we’ll do today?”
            “Sweetheart, I don’t know. Can you maybe just try to relax?” I add the sweetheart because he is sensitive and I’ve learned that his feelings are easily hurt when I suggest he try to do something that is hard for him. Without Sweetheart, he hears, you should be different than you are.  Sweetheart says, you should be different than you are, but I love you anyway. It’s a small difference, but it’s the best I can do for him.
            “Don’t apologize. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
            “Right. Sorry."
            “Arg! I’m so bad at that. Wait. I’m working on that.”
            He goes outside to toss a baseball against a wall. Sitting still is hard.  I can hear him doing play-by-play. Silence is an enemy.
            “Is he always so hard on himself?” my father asks, looking up from his puzzle.
            “It’s a defense mechanism, I think,” I answer, sharing my half-baked theory on why my son apologizes for everything. “If he’s hard on himself, then no one can get mad at him.”
            “Sounds familiar,” he says pointedly.
            “I know. I’ve imbued my children with all of my neuroses and shortcomings.”
            “Now you’re being hard on yourself.”
            “I don’t really mean it. I just feel bad for him.”
            “What’s with the plan thing?”
            “He just needs to know what’s going to happen,” I say. “I think he thinks it will help him relax. But the bummer is that the only thing more disregulating than not having a plan is having a plan that doesn’t pan out. The poor kid gets so stressed out when things don’t go the way he expects them to.”
            “That’s tough.”
            The ball smacks the wall outside. The muffled call of a World Series game seven is carried on salt air through the screen door.
            “He’s getting better about it though,” I say.
            “Dad,” comes a voice between cracks of horsehide against stucco, “what are we going to do today?”
            “I don’t know, H. What do you feel like doing?”
            “I’m good with whatever."
             He doesn’t mean it. But maybe saying it will help.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thanks Jess!

    1. Thanks, Ian. Great to see you this week. Que te vaya bien, amigo.