It’s OK to Tell Kids That They’re Excellent


More attention for gifted studentsMy son, who is in third grade, brought home a perfect score for his most recent test. On the bottom of the page, the scores were divided into three categories: 0-49 was “below standard,” 50-79 was “progressing” and 80-100 was “meeting standard.” “Look, Mom,” he said to me, “I’m meeting standard!” Meeting standard. Yay. How nice.

A quick aside—I am not a helicopter parent. I don’t push my son to earn grades, because grades are subjective. I want him to grow up confident in what he’s good at doing, not neurotic about being the best at everything.

I read a great column in Newsweek a few years ago by a mother who had two children: one autistic, and one gifted. She wrote that while her autistic son received daylong intensive individual instruction, her gifted daughter got a three-hour-per-week pullout. Her argument was that if her gifted daughter received as much attention as her autistic son, then maybe her daughter could find a cure for autism. Her major point is that too often, educators assume that gifted students will be “just fine on their own.” Instead, they should be pushing those students toward greatness.

America is thirsty for kids like my son that can succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Maybe if we weren’t afraid to praise kids when they do kick ass in these subject areas, America’s reputation for innovation wouldn’t be slipping away. I appreciate the importance of not over-praising our kids. However, when they’re really good at something, particularly something that our country needs them to be good at, shouldn’t we let them know?

As an adult, I’ve learned that our education system doesn’t necessarily prepare you for success. In a world where a college education costs tens of thousands of dollars, if you’re entrepreneurial enough and talented enough at something, then you don’t need to shell out $50K to put a credential on your resume. Higher education is turning out too many graduates that aren’t qualified for today’s jobs anyway. In some cases, particularly in technology-related fields, universities are two to three years behind what’s going on in the industry. College dropouts Steve Jobs and Ronald D. Moore, as well as dreadful student Albert Einstein, didn’t need a traditional education to be successful.

The hard truth of life is that not everyone is excellent at everything. Instead of pushing down kids that are excellent at something, the rest of us should cope with our averageness in certain subject areas. Because his school isn’t pushing him toward excellence, my son has to depend on me, a single mother with limited means, to find enrichment opportunities for him. I’m glad that educators want to help students that struggle. At the same time, I wish that they were pushing my son to reach his full potential.

“Meeting standard” seems like tepid praise for earning a perfect score, particularly since my son is strong in math and science. On one hand, we should recognize the unique value of every student. On the other hand, we shouldn’t hesitate to let our kids know when they’re excellent.

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