All kids want to succeed

When I was a kid, my teachers would get frustrated with the seemingly-random distribution of my abilities. They didn’t understand how I could read at a high school level but not read aloud, how I could do trigonometry, but not write cursive, how I could memorize some things instantly and others not at all. When faced with a kid who frustrates and baffles them by turns, many teachers, I’ve found, don’t seek to look further. Instead, they blame the kid.

I gathered many unofficial labels due to my parents’ refusal to get me an official one. One of the most damaging to me as a kid was the idea that I “just don’t want to succeed.”

Some of you will not have to imagine this because you lived it, but for the rest of you, imagine that you’re a kid again. Imagine you’re having trouble with something in school – doesn’t matter what it is, but just imagine that the thing giving you trouble is utterly incomprehensible to you. Someone might as well be speaking Klingon to a non-Trekkie for all the sense it makes to you. Remember the frustration you felt as a kid when having trouble with something.

Imagine you told your teacher about this frustration, and were met with a reiteration of the words that make no sense to you. When you say they make no sense to you, that you don’t understand, the teacher tells you to try harder. You don’t understand how you can try harder on something that you don’t even have a sliver of understanding about, but you try harder anyway. And you still can’t do it.

So you ask a different adult. And they give you the same explanation. And it still makes no sense. They also ask you to try harder.

You go back and forth like this for a while, and finally you give up. You don’t understand, and it’s obvious they can’t help you understand, so why should you keep trying? It’s not like you’re going to get it anyway.

And that’s when the adults start telling you that you could get it if you tried (ignoring the fact that you were trying before and it didn’t help), and when you continue to not try because you’re sick of trying to break down a metaphorical brick wall with your forehead (all that’s done is give you a sore forehead. The wall stands unperturbed.), they tell you that you must not want to succeed.

At first, you ignore them. After all, you know you want to succeed, and you just don’t understand it and don’t see the point of doing the same thing over and over again with the same results.

After a while, though, you start to wonder if they’re right. Especially as it becomes grown-ups go-to answer whenever you have any trouble with anything. You don’t want to succeed. You’re not trying. Try harder, and you’ll succeed. If you don’t succeed, it’s your fault, you didn’t want it enough.

Imagine the impact of that message as the kid starts to take it to heart. Imagine it.

What “you don’t want to succeed” did to me is it made me afraid to ask adults for help. Because I’d be blamed for the difficulty I was having an told that I just needed to try harder. The hilarity of it was that if I didn’t ask for help, I would likewise be blamed. I needed to ask for help when I was having a hard time with it. That I didn’t meant I must not want to succeed.

It became a catch-22 that absolved the grown-ups around me of any responsibility to help me learn the things they claimed to be trying to teach me. Everything was my fault for not wanting it bad enough. If I succeeded on my own without them, it was proof that I could succeed when I “wanted” to badly enough (ignoring the fact that those successes were in subjects that did and have always come easily to me, like math and science). If I asked for help, it was me being lazy and trying to get someone else to do my work for me because I didn’t want to succeed enough, and if I didn’t ask for help and struggled along on my own, it was because I wasn’t trying and didn’t want to succeed.

I have never met a kid that doesn’t want to succeed. The child’s definition of success may be different from that of the adults around them, but all kids want to succeed. When adults say they don’t, I wonder what it is the adults are trying to explain away.

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7 thoughts on “All kids want to succeed

  1. alexforshaw says:

    Not a situation I faced regarding academic subjects, but definitely suffer from this (even now to a certain extent) when it comes to learning how to function day-to-day. Things like keeping the home clean and tidy, and the finances balanced.

    It’s a situation that is crying out to be reversed. A child tells her teacher that she’s not understanding what is being taught. The teacher repeats the lesson, but the child still doesn’t get it and tells the teacher to try harder… If a child isn’t understanding something it is usually the fault of the teacher for not explaining it in terms that make sense to that child.

    And if anybody thinks that sounds like hard work for the teacher, stop and think about it from the perspective of the child, and remember what the goal is: for the child to learn.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Agreed completely. And I think it’s foolish of adults to expect a kid who’s tried and failed over and over and over again to keep trying when the adults obviously aren’t. If adults were trying, they’d be trying different approaches and explanations, rather than just reiterating the same one over and over and expecting the kid to be able to make sense of it through force of will.

      Something related: I was 7 before I could tie my shoes. My parents screamed and yelled at me over and over (the return of “this isn’t hard!”) because I didn’t understand their way of tying shoes. Once when I was visiting extended family on vacation, my 11-year-old cousin sat me down and said, “I’m going to teach you how to tie your shoes.”

      “Don’t bother,” I said. “I can’t do it. I’m stupid.”

      “You’re not stupid – you do harder math than me! You just haven’t been taught the right way. We’ll try my way, let’s see if it works.”

      Twenty minutes later, I knew how to tie my shoes.

      Approach matters. My parents were busy trying to explain with words and showing and then expecting me to be able to copy. My cousin knew that I had a hard time copying what others were doing physically, so she had me follow her step-by-step, and if I couldn’t get the motion, she moved my hands for me so I could understand the feel of it. An 11-year-old was a better teacher for me than all of the adults who’d tried to teach me how to tie my shoes until that point added together.

      • Jazzable says:

        I think I’m very lucky, because I grew up with the person who could explain things in the way I understood – my dad. Whenever I was stuck in something we were learning at school, I could tell my dad about it and he would be able to explain in a way that made perfect sense.
        Usually, the problem was that teachers use examples and expect students to pick up the overall concept from that. But that’s completely alien to me, and very difficult to do. So I’d show my dad the examples the teacher had given us, and together we would figure out what the overall concept was so I could learn it that way.
        My favourite teachers over the years have been the ones who always start lessons with the overall concept, rather than with examples of the problems we’re going to solve. And I generally described those teachers as “almost as good as my dad”!

  2. I grew up afraid to ask for help too (for slightly different reasons, but with that same sense of “not trying hard enough” when I wasn’t getting something) and it’s crippling. It’s also taking me forever to unlearn as an adult. It’s amazing how damaging certain kinds of “educational” approaches can be.

    Your example about being taught “the right way” in reply to Alex really resonates with me. One of the things that most endeared me to my husband is his willingness to help me figure out how to learn to do things that I’d previously been stymied by. Often it’s a matter of trying a few different approaches rather than banging away at the same one I’d been exposed to previously.

    • ischemgeek says:

      A line I like to use w/ kids having a hard time with stuff in martial arts is “We just have to find the right way to show it to you.” That sentence hopefully re-frames the problem from them being [insert negative descriptor they were self-applying before] (i.e. stupid, dumb, hopeless, etc) and to me just not figuring out the best way to teach them yet. I don’t mind if the kids think I’m the worst teacher in the world – but I don’t want them thinking of themselves as the worst students in the world.

    • notesoncrazy says:

      “One of the things that most endeared me to my husband is his willingness to help me figure out how to learn to do things that I’d previously been stymied by.”

      I relate to this so much! Time and time again Patrick has made me fall in love with him all over again because he would approach something I’d assumed I was incapable of (something akin to your shoe-tying example, ischemgeek) with a fresh perspective and permission to need time and help. Just this week I learned to play Portal on his xbox! I’ve always wanted to try it because the puzzles looked like fun, but growing up occasionally trying to play Halo or anything else with my brothers and having the controller ripped away from me because I was ruining their game had me convinced that first-person shooter controls were simply beyond by mental capabilities and fine-motor control. A little time, guidance, and patience from Patrick…and I totally rocked Portal! I wasn’t just good at it, I really really enjoyed it.

      Obviously playing a video game as an adult isn’t as critical to development and success as understanding fundamental topics in grade school, and not being allowed to play with my brothers isn’t as dangerous to development as being systematically criticized as a child by adults in positions of power. Still, it is interesting to me to see how pervasive that attitude of “I must be incapable” can be.

  3. To this day I still have hang-ups about what I genuinely can’t do, versus what I don’t want/am too lazy to do, because when I was a kid everyone assumed I was a lot more capable and understood the world a lot better than I did. I was sold that line so hard I’m still genuinely confused about where ‘can’t’ stops and ‘can but don’t want to’ starts sometimes. (And I’m really quite lazy by nature, so there is a bit of don’t want to in there sometimes…)

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