The first time I heard the Heinlein dictum about not handicapping your children by making their life too easy, I was still technically a child myself. Technically, because I was around fourteen I think. I didn’t know how easy I’d had it, relative to the world at large (who does?) but I knew I had it better than my parents, who only didn’t have to walk up hill barefoot in the snow because it rarely snows in Portugal.
So I was mildly resentful of the idea that it was bad for kids to have it too easy. I no longer am, and in that way of aging children and their parents (though Heinlein could only count as a mental parent) I’ve come to think the old man had a good point.
Look, I had it much easier than most people in the generation previous to mine. Too easy? That’s relative. The family was never wealthy enough that I could have whatever I wanted at the drop of a hat with no worry about how much it cost. In fact, my incentive to tutor a lot in college was that I could pay for my own books and also for additional language courses on the side. So I was conscious of financial limits, and not so sheltered that I didn’t get in my share of physical danger and fights. (Though I wonder if my parents were aware of those, having grown up in different times. Well, mom was aware of what use I put my umbrella to, hence buying me the weaponized umbrella, but I wonder if she had any clue how often those were deployed against real weapons. My brother seemed to have a little more clue than the parents, as he told them if I didn’t learn to keep my mouth shut, I’d end up disappeared or dead. I didn’t. I don’t know if the old man (RAH) was right again and it’s easier to be a live lion, or if I got lucky. Who knows? The fact that I invented “fight like a cornered cat” before it was hip probably didn’t hurt.)
However, life has its way of giving you challenges neither you nor your parents could have anticipated. For instance, I will not claim to have been an indifferent student, because none of you would believe it. I was usually at or near the top of my class (and if only near, I was working my tail off to be top.) I was/am one of those people “born with something to prove” and quite capable of being unconscionably hard on myself to make up for natural deficiencies.
And natural deficiencies I did have, as I found out when I started going up against others in intellectual arenas.
I am not going to talk about IQs, because IQs are…. slippery, particularly above a certain level. I’m simply going to say by the end of elementary school, most of us know exactly where we stand in relation to those we’ve encountered.
I had a good enough reasoning and could do things like reconstruct/invent methods of solving mathematical problems, if I’d forgotten formulas. I had words at my command with almost lightening ability, compared to my classmates. I could reason through philosophical principals and, due to a defect in character, find flaws in the best constructed arguments. My memory was good enough for either words in context, or for numbers given a place I could reel them off from (I used to know all the history of the renaissance in relation to Leonardo DaVinci’s birth date.) My reasoning was useless for anything spacial. I couldn’t — quite literally — think myself out of a paperbag. It was non-existent for visual puzzles. (Let me touch the pieces, though…) And my memory was NOTHING for random syllables, arbitrary words, and unconnected/not logical strings.
Because G-d has a sense of humor, I was pushed — through a chain of circumstance and events — into humanities in 9th grade (which is when you make the choice in Portugal.) In the humanities, you were pretty much consigned to teaching, UNLESS you studied languages. I could easily have taken philosophy. Baffle them with bullsh*t has been a strong point since I learned to speak. But at the time, for reasons known only to Bob, I was convinced I’d hate teaching. (Actually I was wrong and right. I do love teaching in itself, almost as much as writing. I purely hate the bureaucracy and in Portugal it was/probably is worse than here.) So I took languages.
What do languages offer? Ah, yes, the endless opportunity to memorize endless strings of what is to a foreigner arbitrary syllables.
Part of the reason I loved English from the first is that the verbs are MUCH simpler, and there was less arbitrary bullsh*t to memorize. There is also a certain internal logic to English which I couldn’t explain because it’s a back-brain thing, but once I had acquired a basic vocabulary, I could start reading in English, which gave me the “roots” of things and made it easier to learn English by making the strings of syllables less nonsense.
German, because it’s both arbitrary as to genders, declines everything including nouns, and is more strict as to structure was my least favorite and more easily lost language. (Also our teacher tried to teach us by translating nothing, which fell into my competency black-hole.)
That said, I will note I was still among the top of my class for languages, which included German. I managed it by packing in an inhumane amount of work around my busy social life. I must have worked four to five times as hard as my colleagues who were GIFTED in languages. (I’ve seen gifted in languages. My brother is. I’m not.)
At the end of it, I spoke five languages with enough fluency that on my first-to-stay flight into the US I found myself the hub of translation going through customs.
I’ve lost most of that fluency in acquiring near-native fluency in English. (Well, it seems close to native to me, but I might be wrong. OTOH English is the language I think in and have for thirty years.) Because English is what I needed to make it in a fiction writing career, where I had neither acquaintances nor help and perhaps not a natural talent for. Perhaps not? Who knows? Some people seem to me to be natural storytellers, but then what I do with characters might seem all supernatural to them. WHO KNOWS? I’m not in their heads.
Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to brag, and I’ll admit readily most of what I’ve done is not through natural talent or intelligence, but through hard hardheadedness, refusal to give up and the sort of determination other people put to more useful ends, like trying to cure cancer or map the brain.
I was thinking about this while contemplating my sons’ generation. These kids are screwed five ways from Monday, and there will be another post on this later on.
BUT the way in which they’re screwed worse is that they were raised with “self-esteem” teaching. Okay, not my kids. I was the horrible mother who would look at the proffered childish drawing and go “You can do better.” Now I wasn’t stupid, and I knew what they were capable of at any given age, but if it was something they knew they hadn’t put any effort into, I knew it too, and could call them on it.
Many people and most of their classmates’ mothers were shocked by this. Didn’t I know I was destroying their self-esteem and their chances at success?
Well, no. I was giving them an honest opinion.
I suspect they resented it as much as I did my parents’ honest opinions, but then when Marsh first showed me his art, when Robert first showed me his writing, and I said “this is good” they knew I wasn’t fooling, and that my opinion was something they could build on. (Marsh’s writing is very good too. Think Bradbury with better plotting. Someday I’ll convince him to publish it. Right now the perfectionist doesn’t consider anything ready to let go.)
But most of their generation PARTICULARLY THE GIRLS are coddled and protected within an inch of their lives and treated as prodigies. And don’t argue with me on the girl thing. If you don’t have kids in school — particularly sons — you don’t know how skewed it is. Most of the work is geared to “a woman’s way of learning”, things are demanded at appropriate ages FOR GIRLS who develop faster than boys (for instance to deliver work on time with no demands. Teen boys can’t do that till about 16, but it’s demanded at 11. If your male middle schooler is floundering, you know why. Add to that that most teachers are women, and women of a certain generation, who feel they are “sticking it to the patriarchy” by “encouraging” girls more and what you have is a recipe for disaster, particularly for girls.
Let’s right now admit men and women are different, with different capacities. If I ever persuade my brain-researcher friend to give you a post on how hormones influence brain development, we’ll have a biological base to build on. But still, statistically across all the various cultures of the world, men and women are different in raw capabilities. Men prefer spacial and mathematical reasoning (well, abstract, where mathematical is iffy) and enjoy danger more. Women are linguistically inclined and able to multitask or work in an “Interrupted environment” better.
Now these are all statistical capabilities, which applied to real life mean very little, and applied to real humans are not predictive. I mean, you’d expect to see more male engineers and more female linguists — and you do — but it means nothing as to whether your own very special male or female apple blossom should be one or the other.
Remember where I said above that NATURALLY I suck at languages (other than native) but I did get to the top of my class in them. In a different leg of pants of time I’m a damn good mechanical engineer which is what I WANTED to be. I was always pretty good at assembling machines (well, mostly disassembling them and streamlining them, ie. ending up with spare parts, but never mind.) It would have taken a lot of work because of my tendency to transpose digits and I might do things by either feeling the parts or cutting them out of cardboard so I could feel them (how I do carpentry) but it COULD be managed.
I’ve known women engineers and women mathematicians who beat out even gifted men.
I’ll add here that I don’t understand the NEED of the cognoscenti in our society to fight natural inclination and make male nurses and female engineers. It seems to me they’re working out some bur under their own psychological saddle, so to speak, by playing with the lives of others.
On the other hand if women want to be engineers and are willing to work hard enough they should stand the same chance as any man. And yet, we have classes that start out with equal numbers of male and female, in engineering, but by the end it is, as younger son puts it “a sausage fest” most women having deserted to Business or Art or Art of Business or Business of Art or whatever.
A lot of these were probably never that interested, and were pushed by parents/teachers. But those that were were handicapped.
Any number of boys quits too. Fewer than the girls, because they weren’t as handicapped.
These kids are handicapped by making their lives too easy. If the school goes out of their way to value “a woman’s way of learning” a woman will never learn to stretch her winds. If even boys are taught “you’re special and unique” and every thing they toss out with little thought is praised, they don’t learn what their blind spots are or to compensate for them.
What this means is that sooner or later they’ll come up against things they’re bad at — the best “rounded” person has things they suck at — and they don’t know what reserves they have, nor how to fill in the holes in natural talent with work.
Yeah, there are places hard work won’t take you. There are natural abilities you can’t compensate for with really insane levels of work. For instance, I’m tone deaf (and mid range deaf.) I remember before the pneumonia that likely made me so (around 12) being able to write down notes as heard from piano. Now? Not all the hard work in the world would get me to do that. I simply don’t hear it.
However, absent physical disability, I have yet to find one single “gift” that you can’t make up for by working harder and LEARNING. Even if that means insanely hard.
But if all your life you were praised for your genius and your “gifts” for which you had to do nothing or very little, you will never learn that you have defects in your abilities. And worse, you’ll never learn to compensate for them.
We’re destroying entire generations, particularly females, by making their lives too easy. And what’s worse, they will have absolutely no resilience when they come up against something that’s actually difficult. The fact that this is being done to the girls particularly by a generation of women who think they’re making it so girls “win” is tragic and scary.
I don’t know if you can learn to work and compensate later on in life. I’d say we’re about to find out. The idea terrifies me more than a little.
Meanwhile, teach your children well. They’ll have to make up for generations scarily ill-suited to the adversity that’s coming.
And make up your mind to it that we’re going to have to work harder and smarter to get this boat to shore. Put your shoulders to it, and let’s do it.