Just kidding

Andrea* looks down at the algebra problem she’s working through and notices that she’s assigned a value of five, rather than six, to three twos. As she erases the five and replaces it with a six, she says “Just kidding.” We both smile. Then she continues with the rest of the problem.

This is a simple but brilliant little practice of hers.  Math can be so charged, and the prospect of making a mistake in math inspires fear and trepidation throughout the land.  If a young person can relate to miscalculation as an opportunity to pretend they’ve made a little joke, they’ve got at least one way to keep perspective.

So many of the kids I work with have learned to tense up and start defending themselves when they can’t remember something or when they mix things up.  Their eyes dart up to see how I’ll react, and before I even have a chance to, they start spinning their talking wheels – “Oh, I thought we were supposed to do plus, not times… My teacher said… When we did it in class… This is so confusing…” Or they just give up all together and tell me they can’t do it.  Usually over something as small as five, instead of six, for two times three.  These kids have received the message that if you don’t get every bit of it right every time, especially the single-digit stuff, then you might as well hang up your math cleats and plan on a route that doesn’t include any numbers.  They expect to be judged on their ability to achieve computational perfection.

Andrea figured out, in time, that it’s possible to miscalculate, even often, and still excel as a math student.  And that if she keeps her sense of humor about her, she can keep her head in the game.

I’ve started telling the younger kids I know, especially those who get skittish when they mix up six and five (or write a seven open to the right instead of left), about Andrea’s just kiddings.  I’ll say something like “One of the teenagers I know, when she makes a little mistake like that, always says ‘Just kidding.’ She’s not saying that to really pretend she meant to do it, she’s saying it because it’s funny to pretend she meant to do it.  I think she does it to remind herself that making a little mistake is no big deal and if she makes a little joke about it, the mistake doesn’t distract her from the real thinking she’s trying to do.”

A couple of them have tried it, and with noticeable results.  It interrupts the habit of panic and doubt, creates a space for relaxation and ease.  And there’s nothing like a little calm to free up the mind for math.

*Not her actual name.

Smart as Springsteen

I read a profile of Bruce Springsteen the other day in which his manager, Jon Landau, says that Springsteen “is the smartest person I’ve ever known – not the most informed or the most educated – but the smartest. If you are ever confronted with a situation – a practical matter, an artistic problem – his read of the people involved is exquisite.  He is way ahead.”

What I like about this comment from Landau is that his assessment grows out of the context of Springsteen’s work.  The “situations” he’s talking about are those that a musician or other artist faces.  They’re not general.  And what Landau sees as Springsteen’s brilliance – the way he responds to and navigates such situations – is presumably the combined result of what was always true of him, from the time he was very young and began his work as a musician, and what he has experienced in the course of a lifetime spent mastering a craft.  Landau observes Springsteen’s intellect in the context of the work he was drawn to and then dedicated himself to.

What if we were to do this for everyone, even (or maybe especially), young children?  If we were to watch to see what they were up to, in which contexts they shone brightest and seemed most at ease, and built our conceptions of them from there?

Lots more of them would seem lots smarter.  Not the kind of smart we just tell kids they are no matter what, to boost their confidence when their school performance is flagging.  The kind of smart we can point out evidence of, the kind they can believe us about because it’s got context; it pertains to whatever life work they’ve already embarked upon, not the slippery ladder of arbitrary mandate.

And the thing about people, of any age, is that the way we seem to those who are watching has a big impact on the way we see ourselves.  So when more kids start seeming smart to us, more kids will start seeming smart to themselves.


The other day I followed an online link to a list of “surprisingly lucrative” careers.  Fashion design was on the list.  I wasn’t actually all that surprised that a career in fashion could be lucrative, but its presence on the list called to mind a chronic problem which, I believe, really holds us back as a civilization.

We get very mixed up in the course of thinking about which careers to encourage and which ones not to.  We know we want our kids to be happy, and we know we want them to become financially secure adults (whatever that means to each of us), but beyond that we tend to get confused.  Or, I guess I should say, our actions show that we are confused (though we may not be experiencing confusion).  We don’t seem to be paying attention to what it actually takes to be happy and financially secure.  What we say we want for kids doesn’t line up with what we encourage them to do and not do. Continue reading

Raising participants

One of the arguments I hear for keeping kids in traditional school programs, even when those programs are not working, is that if you “let” kids focus on what they’re interested in and already good at, they’ll become too self-centered and involved in their own thing.  They won’t learn to be of service.  They won’t learn to think of others. They won’t be good citizens.  Also, I hear adults say, kids are already too self-involved thanks to social media; supporting their interests will only make it worse.

What’s missing from this argument is the acknowledgment that we’ve put kids in the position of having to defend their interests, to protect what matters to them from what we’d have them do instead.  By demanding that they spend most of their time on what we choose, we intensify their self-involvement. Continue reading

One fish, to fish

It’s old news/old adage that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Childhood in our culture is heavy on “teaching,” and most of us would say we believe in that old adage, but there are many instances in which we ignore it and opt for the single fish.   Continue reading

Good at

We have this thing called good at and another thing called not good at.  Kids learn to assess (or take others’ assessment) of which things they’re good at and which things they’re not.  Does it do them any good, this classifying?  What’s the use of knowing whether or not you’re good at something?  Or having someone’s opinion about whether or not you are?  What comes of it? Here are a couple of internal commentaries that can emerge when you’re oriented around good at and not good at:

“Oh, I’m not good at this, so I might as well not bother.”  This angle could free you up to go about something else that proves more useful, productive, fulfilling, etc., or it could mean that you miss out on something that might have been just as worthwhile.

“Oh, I’m not good at this, but I’d like to be.”  That could inspire you to work at getting better at the thing and you might produce some result with your effort.

“I’m really good at this.  I should keep at it, because it might be useful to get even better.” (This one describes itself.)

“Oh, I’m good at this.  I better not make any mistakes so people don’t start thinking I’m not.”  This one’s really too bad, and often prevents people from realizing opportunities for significant accomplishment and contribution. Continue reading


I just moved into a house with an old steam heating system.  I have to add water with a manual feed valve every so often to keep the boiler running properly.  Last Saturday, I couldn’t get the water feed to open. I wanted to avoid a costly weekend service call for something that probably wasn’t even broken, so  I turned the whole thing off and, in the freezing cold, berated myself mercilessly about how I should have done more research ahead of time, should have learned more earlier in my life about How Actual Things Work, etc.  Then I remembered something I said recently to a young friend who’s frustrated that he isn’t as good at writing as he’d like to be.  “You’re a beginner,” I reminded him.  “You’ve only been at this a short while.  This is what it’s like to be a beginner at something.” Continue reading


Should you be worried about whether your child is getting enough of one academic thing or another? Two parents have posed the question to me in the past few days.  These are folks whose days with their kids are characterized by a range of things – exploring social and natural surroundings, reading extensively on many topics, visiting museums, running experiments in the kitchen, inventing, designing, building things. They want to know if their kids are  getting enough math, or spelling, or writing in the course of it. Continue reading


It’s tempting, when kids are struggling, to assume the role of cheerleader.  How could it not help to provide a steady stream of encouragement and enthusiasm at every turn?

Here’s how: it can damage your credibility, and the older they get, the more you’re going to need it.  Kids know the difference between plain cheerleading and authentic, valid feedback.  They know when you’re just cheering them on and when you’re offering feedback that can be substantiated.  For example, if every time kids stumble their way through a short book you say “Good job!  Really good job!  You’re getting so much better!” it can sound empty.  If instead you are careful to say things that are true and specific like “it seems as though the bigger words aren’t giving you as much trouble as before,” or “I liked the way you read the dog’s voice that time,” they’ll know that you’re actually paying attention and responding to what’s happening.  You’re not just waiting until the end of the book to exclaim with delight no matter how they’ve done.  This kind of language gives you credibility.  It may sound like a dull way to speak, as though it won’t buoy them up, but when you say things whose validity they can check against their own experience of how things are going, they know they can trust you.  They’ll know that when you do let out a spontaneous cheer, the day they sail fluently through a tough section of text, it’ll be real.

Sticking to it

I hear a lot of people say they wish their children showed more ability to stick with things.  I was reminded of this as I was reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.  Lehrer mentions an accomplished chess player who “managed to turn a childhood obsession with chess into a lucrative career.”

I wonder if part of the reason we often find kids lacking in commitment and discipline is that we’re looking for it in too narrow a range of pursuits.  We’d like them to stick with the books they start, to work harder on their major and minor scales, but we don’t necessarily want them to spend too much time playing the same game over and over or talking to their friends on the phone.

What if kids know where to look for their own paths to discipline and commitment?  (The path part is important – sustainable pursuits don’t tend to drop themselves into one’s lap; they tend to be uncovered in the course of at least some exploration.)  What if their paths just don’t look familiar enough to us to seem like they’re about discipline and commitment?