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Hard Work Trumps Talent

My little one's bookcase.

My little one’s bookcase.

Big Girl popped out reading — or nearly so. She was reading picture books at 2 and chapter books by the time she turned four. She was a natural reader, and I augmented her talent with flashcards and classes and lots of mommy-and-me reading time. We praised her and lauded her accomplishments. A lot, I might add. Strangers and family members reinforced our messaging. I still remember vividly the shocked look of a Macy’s cashier when — after she asked for my phone number and address for a postcard — my then-two-year-old Big Girl piped up with the entire thing, right down to the Zip code.

This wasn’t the right way to go, though. I know now that emphasizing how smart she was instead of the fact that, really, she practiced reading a lot was the wrong thing to do. By telling her she was smart, we set unrealistic expectations for her. It’s something we have been undoing for the past six to ten months. It really hurt her because she is now very critical of herself and she gets frustrated and feels stupid when she can’t get something right away. She’s also been really reticent to try anything she’s not naturally good at.

Little Girl came out running. She is smart like her sister, but since Daddy was her primary caregiver from a year until she was about 29 months she didn’t get the careful attention or mommy help that Big Girl got. (Daddy preferred the park to a structured class.) By the time I was able to teach her to read, she decided she would rather jump and swing. She also decided she just couldn’t read, saying her sister was a great reader and she was a great soccer player. I have a feeling she may have heard us say that, too.

Anyway, I am a persuasive person and I told her that no, she could read and we would make it happen. But after seeing the damage that my “you’re really smart” strategy inflicted on her sister I didn’t say she would read because she is smart. Instead, I told her that she would read because she was going to work hard and practice. Nothing worth doing comes without practice, I said. I reminded her that she already knew her letters and letter sounds. I would help her put them all together. Last spring and summer we spent at least ten minutes every day working on reading. This fall we kept up with it, learning more sight words and learning key things like silent “e” and how it covers its mouth and tells the vowel it has to be hard because E is going to stay soft. At the end of every lesson I told her that I was so proud of her practicing and working and sticking with it. That yes, it was great to be a reader, but I was more proud of the way she didn’t give up, even when she got frustrated.

The lessons worked. Today Little Girl is a reader, and a good one. This morning I woke up to her cute little face in mine. I told her to get dressed and she could watch a few minutes of TV. No, she said. “Mommy, I am going to get dressed and read this Junie B. book instead! I’m going to practice reading all by myself!” Still groggy with sleep I couldn’t help but smile. Yes, because she is finally following in her sister’s footsteps, but mostly because she’s learned the most valuable lesson I could have taught her: Practice makes perfect — and it takes a lot of practice to do anything well. I know the big one is watching and learning, too, which eases my guilt a bit about the misstep I made telling her how smart she is. She’s getting the message, too.

About a month ago she was having trouble with a math concept. This is new for Big Girl, who has up until now sailed through school without putting in much work. I told her she was going to extra help. She was horrified. She told me that people would think…and then she stopped. Think what, I asked her. “Think that you need help with something? How is that a bad thing? Everyone needs help and everyone needs to practice.” She went to extra help, and got a 91 on the test. She came home smiling. “Why did you do well,” I asked her. “Because I practiced and worked hard,” she said.

As a mother still practicing and working hard on this parenting thing, I was so proud of her and of myself for making a change that’s starting to pay off. In Junie Bs — and As.

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