Saturday, January 24, 2009

a kind of compliment I fail to take well

I had a flu last week, which, as it faded, gave way to a good, old-fashioned head cold. Yesterday I was completely miserable, but it was my day to supervise lunch and recess at the children's school. I only do this once or twice a month, so it was just bad luck it fell on a day, a rainy day, when I was sick. I washed some Benadryl (to reduce blowing my nose) down with a Red Bull (to combat the Benadryl's drowsiness) and took some acetaminophen as well (general headache), dressed warmly, washed my hands really well to reduce contagion, and headed off.

It was an easy day, where I was just called upon to rip open a lot of catsup packets and open one stubborn Tupperware for the children. I didn't see any tears or tricky social situations requiring adult intervention, thank God, as I wasn't feeling up to those.

But then I got myself into one of those tricky social situations where I just fail. The other mother on lunch duty was someone I really like although I don't know her well. She's one of those people who are almost too good to be true: stunningly beautiful in a conventional, skinny blonde way, from a wealthy background, and with such lovely manners and personal warmth that you can't possibly resent her for having it all. She's charming and highly likeable. But then the conversation took a particular turn I have trouble with: she came over to me and said, "Your daughter is so brilliant!" She had chaperoned a field trip to the San Francisco dump and told me that "Iris knew things the guy from the recycling program didn't know." (I had previously heard from another chaperone that Iris had awed the crowd by knowing what "molybdenum" was, or maybe it was "manganese", and its particular role in recycling).

I tried to smile and move the conversation along, saying generally about my own children, "They're so much smarter than their parents" and "It's not anything we did", but the conversation kept going back on its tracks.

"Oh, no," demurred the other mother. "We were talking and we were all saying, 'They must be doing something right at home.'"

I felt tired and stupid from my cold and blurted out, "Actually I'm a horrible mother," but thankfully then some catsup packets needed to be opened and the conversation was over.

I'm having a lot of trouble accepting compliments about nine year-old Iris Uber Alles's smarts. I don't want to take any credit for the lucky combination of sperm and egg (in the Sober Husband's family of origin, there is the scarily smart Sober Husband, but there was also a severely mentally retarded brother who never functioned beyond the level of a toddler. That's a pretty clear illustration of luck's role in combining the genetic material of two particular people). Next, I personally despise those smug mothers who speak in awed tones with pauses where they look at you expectantly, awaiting your homage to their children's "gifts." More importantly, Iris is already teetering on the brink of being obnoxiously conceited, and I don't want to add to that.

At our parent-teacher conference, the teacher informed me, in a deadpan voice, that at the beginning of the year, Iris had informed the entire class that "I am extremely advanced" and already knew most of what would be studied that year. I covered my head with my hands in despair when I heard that reported back. Oh, Iris. The other day Iris said with pride, "Many people say I am the smartest in my grade."

I don't think I need to worry that her confidence needs bolstering. What I do worry about is that she's going to offend and upset the girls who are struggling with the material. And there are a lot of girls in her class who are struggling with the curriculum; there are girls who are seeing the "learning specialists" and who find it hard.

I don't think I would have these conflicted feelings if Iris were a gifted athlete or preternaturally beautiful. I don't think in those instances, I'd be so averse to taking credit or worried about the effects of her bragging. I'm worried about her being a Lisa Simpson, so smart and yet so lonely.


Anonymous said...

More often than not, the Lisa Simpson -- like you said, so smart yet that intelligence alienates her-- usually experience something that humbles them. But you may be able to avoid the shock of that by starting now, as I'm pretty sure you probably have.

My roommate now also went to middle and high school with me. While we were both seen as "the smart kids", he was (as I would later tell him to his face) an arrogant ass.

Hopefully like him, she'll grow out of it.

- Kendall

emily said...

Oh, that's hard. I had a bit of a lonely childhood for that reason, though as I was fortunate to find a few friends that weren't fazed by my dazzling intellect ;-) and had their own areas of exceeding talent, which helped to keep me grounded. But the best thing that happened to me was taking a class in college that I just couldn't coast through. I failed, it was devastating, and it was the best thing that ever happened to my ego.

Silliyak said...

Maybe challenge her with with different knowledge/skills. Music (auditory), dance (Kinesthetic), i.e. find her "weaknesses" and try to develop them.

hughman said...

take her to finishing school so she gets finished. then you can have afternoon tea parties.

Joyce said...

I concur with finishing school. : ) Tea parties, you know.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you handled the situation with the other mother pretty well.

I've found that usually the best way to handle a compliment, even if I don't feel it is deserved, is to humbly say "Thanks. That's so kind of you to say," or something along those lines, and then just move the conversation along to something else.

The other part about the child becoming overly arrogant and alienating folks, etc. is a tough situation.

How to strike the right balance? Not too sure.

Perhaps you can encourage her to be smart and to even have a self awareness of her intelligence, but at the same time instill in her just how intelligent it is to show some humility. In essence, show her that intelligence comes in many forms.

One may develop intelligence in mathematics, or science, or music, or language. Similarly one may be intelligent in one of these fields and be an idiot in another.

If she can grasp that concept, perhaps she can be shown that intelligence in social interaction is something that can also be developed, and that when she says or does things that come across as arrogant and alienating it is just as unintelligent as saying 2+2=7.

Just my rambling thoughts.

Good luck. Sounds like you have a smart kid.

Missy said...

Oh, honey, welcome to our world. The older one started reading on her own, at about age four, and was reading at a second grade level before kinder. (Important note: She's sixteen now and is NOT headed for valedictorian.) I had so many people as "what did you do" but I had done nothing differently, than, the other parents who also read to their children regularly, etc, etc. It was awkward.

Eventually, many other children will catch up to Iris, although Iris may always be at the top of the class. That's a good thing to remind Iris of and just keep in mind mentally. You're already handling it well with humility and grace. Not much more you can do to be better there!

Our second DD is at the top of her class in sixth grade--we have always talked to her about how people are smart in all kinds of ways. I really think that children will respect plumbers just as much as doctors if they are taught this. The only thing younger DD despises now is people who don't work hard or apply themselves, and she is rather merciless in this.

The worls is rather tough on kids who are smart and work hard. Younger DD hasn't had nearly as much glory and cookies and milk for her hard work as she's grown older. She has had some downright nasty side effects. Thanks to teachers who held her up as an example (No thanks!) some friends see getting higher grades as something to celebrate.

Having a very bright child has its challenges--she shouldn't have to develop her weaknesses just because her strengths are so good. She just needs to know that her strengths are equal to the strengths of others, and respect that. And Iris needs to know it's okay to be proud of her efforts--not her ability.


Missy said...

Please forgive the typos and grammar errors in my post--there is a rather large cat on my lap along with the lap top!

The Stute Fish said...

People who believe in parenting over luck don't know how to listen to people who are telling them about the role of luck. You can't get a difficult kid and magically parent them into a well-behaved, socially-adept school-smart one. You can get an easy, bright kid and fail to fuck them up. Or you can get a difficult kid and do your level best and not make things worse and maybe make them a little better. But luck (and inherited privilege) are things that people who believe in the Healing Power of Good Parenting have difficulty crediting.

Anonymous said...

As the smart kid in my class, I was often able to see where the "sticking point" was, which was causing others to not understand. I would ask a question particularly at that issue (even though I knew the answer), such as "isn't the something causing the whichit to frumble?" In other words, I *think* I had a child's understanding of where the hard bits were, which sometimes the teacher didn't realize. So I would help other kids understand something by explaining it in different words than the teacher had used.

Perhaps Iris could excel at that!

Anonymous said...

I'm just amazed that she hasn't gone through the humbling experience of being taunted by her classmates for her smarts. Going through public school in the 80's myself, that's what kept me humble...or at least quiet...I knew I was smarter than many of the other kids, but still wanted to fit in. She's still so young, I wouldn't worry too much. If she keeps applying herself she's eventually going to find a subject that's not so easy for her, and maybe peers that she can better relate to.

Sherry said...

I loved this. I remember a little girl who came home from kindergarten and told her father that she didn't want to go back to school because they were all dummies. This little girl grew up and is wonderful.

Amy said...

Iris is already teetering on the brink of being obnoxiously conceited...I'm worried about her being a Lisa Simpson, so smart and yet so lonely.

Then you need to teach her how to help people graciously. Maybe you could send her to the house of the lady with the lovely manners. Call and say you're embarrassed (to explain running away), compliment her sincerely on her social graces (as you've done here) and enlist her help in passing some of her classiness on to your daughter.

Iris brags bc she wants an ego boost (Don't we all!) but as you've pointed out, in the long run it's not likely to make her happy. Tutoring the other children will give her an appropriate way to win friends, get her ego petted, and instill the lesson that those who are especially lucky have the responsibility to share their good fortune with others.

Anonymous said...

Oh don't worry, I have many really smart friends who manage the EQ department quite well too. Of course there are the arrogant jerks, but they're few and in between.

hughman said...

i have to admit, dear amy, while tutoring other children is a fount of good intentions from what i've read about iris i don't see that going too well. she may use her power to bully them or be sarcastic. at the very least i see a frequent rolling of eyes.

again, i advocate taking her out of her comfort zone to an area where her intellect isn't the first priority. maybe ballet school or politics. oops, did i say that?

Anonymous said...

GodsKid & Amy,

You know... Those tactics get to be so tiresome for a really smart kid. I did the same thing that GodsKid describes in Jr. High. Not because I cared about the whether the other kids understood, but because I knew if we could just get over the "sticking point" we'd be able to continue. Continuing the lesson was slightly less boring than waiting for the other kids to get it.

I had an English teacher that would always call on me at the end of the period to read aloud. I was always embarrassed because I never stayed on the same page as the class. I was reading at my own speed and was many pages ahead of the class. After a while, he'd say, "Alan, please start reading for us at the top of page 112." I always thought he was trying to bust me. Of course, all the kids would snicker as I scrambled to find the right page and begin to read. I found out later he was calling on me so that we could finish reading by the end of the period and I was the only one that read fast enough to get to where he wanted to be by the end of the class. I guess him telling me the page number was his way of saying, "I know what your doing and it's OK."

So, I don't think it should be your daughter's responsibility to help the class get the lesson. Nor does she need finishing school or an ego boost. She's 9 (or so...) She's gonna say goofy crap. And she's bored. Bored as hell. It's only going to get worse, probably, until high school.

Give her challenges at home, so that her study skills develop properly. Make scarily-smart Dad take her to work and help solve some of his challenges. (I have some suggestions!) Talk to her teachers. Find out if her boast that she "already knew most of what would be studied that year" is a boast or actually true. If she's bored, school's just torture.

And feed the kid some meat before you ruin her brain!

the Drunken Housewife said...

Alan/GoatsePants, haven't you paid attention to the posts about how Iris is the alpha vegetarian in our home? Just today she was telling me about how her art teacher also calls herself a vegetarian, "but like MomDude, she EATS FISH sometimes", said with the utmost moral superiority. This is the child who at age five blasted her father over the phone for leaving some cans of beef stew on the porch. "But I didn't bring it into the house," he said weakly, to which she riposted, "THE... PORCH... IS... PART... OF ... THE ... HOUSE!!!" at the top of her lungs.

the Drunken Housewife said...

More substantively: the teachers at her private school, which is the most academically demanding school we could get her into and which is widely regarded as extremely rigorous academically, are trying to challenge her. Last year we got an arrangement where Iris didn't get any math homework whatsoever from her teachers, and instead she did independent studies with her father, who started her right off with a volume of Euclid. This year, as in prior years, we have voiced our concerns to her teachers, and they ratcheted up the difficulty of her work in the fall.

Luckily there are a handful of extremely bright girls in her year. One of the teachers told me some time ago that "we might go years without seeing a student like Iris, but in this year, we have several." I'm really happy about that, as it gives the teachers a small group to break out & give more demanding work to. However, in the end there's just so much they can do to tailor the curriculum to a given student.

Aunt Sher, I love it when you post! Those other kids were dumb, though.

Caroline said...

Ah yes. The bright bulb amid the dumb bunnies... a hard mix to balance. Parents in previous generations (I'm thinking Puritans through Laura Ingalls Wilder) had an attitude of "pretty is as pretty does" which I am trying to promote in my own house, although that's more along the lines of, "there's lots of ways to be smart." I want my daughter (not as advanced as Iris but still pretty sharp) not to see herself as morally superior to her classmates just because she's brighter than they are. So I praise and encourage her to do what she's good at, but when she brags, I try to tone it down with a statement like, "Everybody's good at something, honey, this just happens to be yours." I'm also trying to make her more aware of the fact that no one wants to play with the girl who smells like pee, too, but that's another story (she often waits too long to go potty and then doesn't wipe very thoroughly or change her panties, so when I said there's lots of ways to be smart, I meant it, and this is one way in which she's NOT the brightest in the bunch!).

Anonymous said...

Just like you don't want to take credit for Iris' IQ, you have to let go of the urge to control her EQ. All you can do is put out the tools. It's up to her to pick them up and make something with them.

As a former smarty-pants, and mother to another, one thing that keeps hitting me as wrong is the idea of squelching her pride in her true talent by reminding her of her deficits. Yes, you want to take opportunities to encourage her to develop her social skills, but is the right time to do that when she's trying to celebrate some intellectual success? I suspect this will just engender resentment and entrench her disdain for lesser mortals.

Anonymous said...

You've pierced my anonymity, so I've changed my name...

You eat SeaKittens?!?! The horror!!!

the Drunken Housewife said...

I so winced the day PeTA made that announcement, the "sea kittens" one. The only person I know who took to that is Iris Uber Alles.

I gave up all seafood and was a strict ovo-lacto vegetarian for many years (indeed I cut waaay back on eggs for a long time, too). Then when I was pregnant, I craved fish so badly, and I rationalized eating it with some crap about how I needed those fish oils to build the fetal brain (thus creating the maddening Iris Uber Alles). Over the last year or so I cut way back on fish-eating and feel guilty about it. Crabs and lobsters, though, I don't mind eating. i think of them as bugs, bugs of the sea. Iris told me off for eating "the muscles of a corpse" when I was eating lobster, and I reminded her that she'd been swatting flies with an electrified flyswatter. She failed to take the point.