Saturday, April 13, 2013

Forget Lake Woebegon's Above Average Children: America's Children Are Intelligent . . .

. . .at least according to the children's parents.

Writing in Slate, Nicholas Day asserts that the study that produced the following infographic explains  everything about how Americans parent. That claim may be hyperbole, but the graphic does explain "the look." I'm not referring to the look my wife gives me that prompts the words "Yes, Dear! Right away, Dear! As soon as possible, Dear!" to cross my lips with fear and conviction. No, the look comes from parents who sit across from me during parent-teacher conferences. I've just told them that their student works hard, asks good questions, uses her time well, seems respected by peers and staff, and has earned a very solid B. (In the old days, the student would have earned a B+, but pluses and minuses no longer go on the report card.) The parent's brow will furrow;  the chin will jut out, and a scowl will briefly appear before the parent says "Susie is a bright girl; I'm sure she can do better."

Writing in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan points out that Americans are unique:
American parents were the only ones to consistently mention their children's advanced intellect, while other countries focused on qualities like "happiness," being "easy" to manage, or the even more zen-like "well-balanced," in Italy. (Italians also used the word simpatico, a group of characteristics suggesting social and emotional competence).
The study's author, Sara Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut points out, “The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.” (italics in original)

That obsession, according to Day, may lead parents to ignore those other important qualities:
. . . nothing in American parenting is anything like the concept of ng’om, which is used by the Kipsigis people in rural Kenya to describe children who are especially intelligent and responsible. This concept of intelligence, as Harkness and Super have written, highlights “aspects of social competence, including responsibility and helpfulness.” These aspects, they add dryly, “have tended to be overlooked in Western formal theories of children’s intelligence.”
Part of the lesson of parental ethnotheories is that when we look for certain qualities, we stop seeing others. It’s a cruel circle: Because our version of intelligence overlooks ng’om, we don’t prize it. Because we don’t prize it, we don’t see it. Because we don’t see it, we obviously don’t encourage it or acknowledge it—we don’t create its condition for possibility. And yet none of this stops us from wondering, years later, why our children insist on leaving their damn coats on the floor.
The study and the charts also point to one other quality that Americans seem to prize above most others: individualism. While plugging his new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming, Rod Dreher recalls his interview with physician Tim Lindsey. Dreher quotes Lindsey:
The American dream is a lie. This idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything — that’s very individualistic. Who’s that really about? Who is that serving? Who is that for? It’s for me. It’s a pursuit of happiness that doesn’t create happiness. There’s nothing with any substance at the end of that. So, if you work hard enough, are you going to defeat cancer? If you work hard enough, are you going to be happy with your job? If you work hard enough, and get a big bank account, does that create happiness? No!
Lindsey goes on to stress the importance of humility, faith, service, and relationships. Perhaps we Americans ought to modify our dreams and priorities and copy the Dutch, the Swedes, the Italians, and the Australians and start hoping that are children are happy, well-balanced, and fulfilled.

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