My work here is done.

Nature/nurture nonsense

Can I tell you a bit about my boys? This may sound like it’s about Max, but it’s about all three of them.

Max has an issue, complex child that he is, of negative self-talk. Some challenges roll right off his back with no more response than a lighthearted dash of goodwill. Other problems – say, multiplication tables – bring out the deep dark heart of him, the unwavering certainty that life is nothing but pain and loss.

Recently he was sitting at his desk, facing a stack of multiplication flash cards, and bemoaning his life.

“I can’t DO this,” he wept, “it’s TOO HARD and I’m NOT SMART.”


This sort of talk has become an issue between us lately. Since any sympathy from me when he’s in this state only seems to cause him to burrow deep within his self-pity and stare out at the world with hollow eyes, my approach has been to say briskly, “You are too smart, now stop it. I will not allow you to speak about one of my sons that way.”
I have even assigned sentences if he doesn’t stop.

“Max,” I said sternly, “is that any way to talk?” Don’t we mothers come up with the CLEVEREST retorts?

Tre, sitting across the room, overheard us and jumped in.

“Max, you can’t tell yourself stuff like that. You have to ENCOURAGE yourself.” And he’s right, you know, Max does need to encourage himself. However, Tre’s motivation for saying that is about 32.7% belief in the statement and 67.3% desire to show that HE knows the rules and he just hopes I KNOW that HE KNOWS what is right and good and correct. The child is so rule-happy that I just want to sidle up to him some days and whisper in his ear, “You know, it’s okay if you tell me occasionally that I’m not the boss of you. G’won. Tell me to stick it in my ear. Just once. See how it feels. You’ll get in a boatload of trouble, but it’ll be YOUR OWN trouble.”

I don’t ever say that to him, because I’m pretty sure they can throw you out of the Good Mother Club for statements like that.

“You know, I think that’s a great way to say it, Tre,” I said instead. “Encourage yourself. See, Max, if you tell yourself you can’t do it, and it’s too hard, then you’re right. You’ve already given up and you CAN’T do it. BUT! If you tell yourself, ‘this is tough, but I’m smart and capable – ‘”

“LIKE ME,” Raphael interjected from across the room.

“Ahem, yes, indeed. Anyhow, Max, if you believe you CAN do it, then all that’s left is to figure out how.”

Max raised weary eyes to me, gazed at me over a stack of flash cards SO HIGH that they apparently sucked the will to sit up right out of him. He slumped over, his head thunking upon the desk and moaned sadly,

“I could probably do it if I just had some Doritos.”

“We’re not allowed to eat in the living room,” Tre reminded him.

“Besides, I think Mom bought the Doritos for me. Because I like them best,” Raphael chimed in.

I decided to wander off and have another cup of tea.



Have you ever read Kevin Leman's Birth Order Book? He talks about the various traits of first-borns, middle children, youngest, and onlies, and he's right on enough of the time with my family and the people I know, that I've sort of converted to his theory.

Anyway, this post made me laugh because your boys are classic oldest, middle, and youngest. (In fact, Raphael is so much a youngest that if you ever have another baby my guess is that she'd be a second first-born in personality, simply because Raphael's youngest-ness is way too strong to be displaced.)

You should check out the book sometime, if you haven't already.

Laura D.

Hearing this article on NPR the other day gave me new things to think about when my students tell me "I'm not smart." You seem to be doing a wonderful job, however.

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