I once heard that problems need to be understood in the context of development: losing your favorite teddy, for example, can be as devastating for a three-year old as losing your house can be for an adult. Reflexively, we might say that this is a trite comparison, given the downstream consequences of losing a house, but this misses the point that allows us to empathize with the devastation a three year old can experience.
I sometimes have to remind myself of this when my kids experience emotional extremes over small things. Take my six-year old, for instance: the other morning, I asked him to put on his socks and shoes while I dressed his little brother. Five minutes later, I found big brother still sitting by the door, barefoot and pouting. As I approached, he threw the socks across the room and started crying.
"I can't do it!" he wailed, "I'm dumb!"
Usually, we wouldn't use socks as a diagnostic tool for intelligence. Yet for him, seeing everyone except him do this so effortlessly must be endlessly frustrating and full of import about his own ability. If you follow this blog, you'll know that one of the themes I often write about is that we can view our abilities as either fixed or as something we can grow and develop, with the latter view being more adaptive for coping with frustration (see, e.g, this blog and this blog).
Here, with socks of all things, was a perfect opportunity to reinforce the idea that we can grow our intelligence- an idea that he had only nodded to, but I could sense was not really getting, when frustrated with math, reading, or drawing.
A key aspect of the "grow your intelligence message" is the implications it has for the experience of difficulty. If one believes that abilities and intelligence are fixed or wired in, then experiencing difficulty on a task can only mean one thing: that one must not have the correct wiring, genetic makeup, or inherent ability to succeed at a given task. It's very easy to come to this conclusion in the face of failure: I received a message from a student of mine the other day who apologized for not doing well on an exam, and she remarked "I must not be cut out for this."
However, if one believes that intelligence is malleable and can grow with practice, then the very psychological meaning of difficulty changes-- difficulty now indicates that you are activating your intelligence, that you are flexing and practicing your skills. Difficulty is to ability like water is to a growing plant. As such, you become resilient in the face of trouble. A study by fellow PT blogger Heidi Grant Halvorson (Grant and Dweck, 2003) showed this clearly among pre-med students taking a very difficult science class-- those who didn't do so well in their midterm but who had learning goals did much better in their second exam, compared to those who were not focused on their grade, rather than on learning.
So I gathered up the socks and showed my six-year old, slowly, how to put them on: you make sure they are not inside out, you line up the heel with your own, you open them up with your thumbs so that your foot goes in more easily (as we did it, I realized I had forgotten how hard it actually is to put socks on! So many things to keep track of). He looked at me with a pained expression as I told him, "It's good that it's difficult, because it activates your intelligence!" The same reaction as with the reading and math and coloring. I tried other ways of saying it. "See, trouble is good!," I tried, "It turns on your intelligence!"
I had basically already put his socks on while we practiced, but as I stood up to chase his little brother down, I actually took his socks off again. He stared at me as I handed the socks back to him.
"Here," I smiled, "have some trouble."
He looked at me with wide eyes, and then the most amazing thing happened.
He cracked up! Just started laughing at what I had told him.
At that moment, I knew he got it. He finally understood what I meant about trouble and practice. He still put on his socks all wrong, but I was a proud, proud daddy.
So, as the end of 2011 rolls around, and you think about your new year's resolutions, consider a class that you know will be difficult, a gym routine that will be a challenge, or a new skill that you fear you may not be cut out for.
In short, go find some trouble. And a pair of nice socks to go along with it, so you can remember this post.
Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.