We talk about things like laziness and ambition as though they’re static – as though a person either is or isn’t lazy; is or isn’t ambitious.  You don’t have to look very far to prove that one wrong.  You can probably think quickly of an area in which you’re lazy, and another in which you’re ambitious, which means that you can’t BE either one in any kind of permanent all-or-nothing way.  I, for one, cannot stand filing receipts, so anyone who tracked my filing behavior could accurately call me lazy.  But give me a bunch of walls to paint, and I get fiercely ambitious.  I have to be reminded to stop and eat.  “Just one more edge!”  I’ll cry.  Lazy?  When it comes to filing? Yes.  Lazy?  When it comes to painting? No.

The same is true of descriptors like focused, distractable, motivated, smart, determined, perceptive.  Try it on yourself – choose a word, then see if you can find evidence for and against.  Then try it on your kid.  Set aside for the moment that we think kids just need to be certain ways about certain things in certain circumstances.  Think about how they actually are and whether those words apply summarily or occasionally.

I read somewhere a quotation from Michael Phelps’ mom that his teachers would say he couldn’t focus.  They weren’t seeing him in the pool, she said.  It’s so important to get rigorous about what we’re saying, because it has such a strong influence over what we’re doing and how we’re responding.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t focus.  It was that he wasn’t focusing at school.  Or, probably, most any time he wasn’t where he belonged, in the pool.