Sophie’s teachers recently gave us a priceless gift: “Sophie is a wonderful kid and such a hard-working student. Have you had her tested for the special math and language arts electives?” they asked during her recent parent-teacher conference.
Although I was incredibly grateful for their comments, I felt oddly uncomfortable and bumbled my response. “I had her tested at the beginning of 3rd grade and she didn’t qualify then. I haven’t had her tested since,” I sheepishly admitted. Left unsaid was that I didn’t think she’d be accepted into the classes if I had her tested again, and truth be told, Sophie was perfectly happy sticking to the arts electives. “You should definitely have her tested again,” her math teacher replied as her English teacher nodded her head in enthusiastic agreement.
I left the meeting more than a little surprised. As I drove home thinking about the teachers’ comments, I had a fleeting, yet intense and disturbing, epiphany.
I underestimate my nine-year old daughter.
I’ve never thought of Sophie as studious or ambitious. She’s always been my gentle girl, my innocent child, my daughter who loves to draw and paint and sculpt and who is usually more interested in reruns of “SpongeBob SquarePants” and the well-being of her stuffed animals than reading or writing stories or decoding math problems.
I often subject my two girls to comparison, like many parents of more than one child. But I think I’ve made assumptions, particularly about Sophie’s capabilities, that sell her short. Chloe is the more driven, self-motivated child. The perfectionist. The one who will spend hours trying to solve a complex math equation or write a story, and who has occasionally frustrated herself to tears until she rallies to finish what she’s set out to accomplish. Sophie has always been less concerned with perfection – she simply wants to do a good job. If her response to a reading comprehension question is essentially correct, she doesn’t fret about stray spelling mistakes. If she shows most, but not all, of her work on the way to solving a math problem and still arrives at the right answer, she’s content.
I’ve rarely pushed Sophie beyond what I’ve perceived to be her academic capabilities. Yet I’m constantly encouraging Chloe to challenge herself. How unfair is that? Isn’t it one of my roles as a mother to help both of my girls realize their full potential? To take them out of their comfort zones so they achieve more than they think they can? Has my more passive approach to Sophie’s education held her back?
Just because Sophie is a more sensitive child than Chloe doesn’t mean she’s less wise than Chloe. Are my own biases getting in the way of Sophie’s intellectual growth? Have I subconsciously equated Chloe’s more pragmatic, blunt and matter-of-fact personality with innate intelligence? Conversely, have I equated Sophie’s warmer and more empathetic personality with lesser smarts?
If I’m honest with myself, the answer to all of those questions is yes.
Shame on me.
One of the things I’ve noticed about Sophie is that she is full of pride when she grasps a new concept or breezes through her homework. In what is a milestone for her, she is now able to compute complicated multiplication problems in her head without the assistance of pencil and paper, something I certainly was not able to do when I was her age.
Sophie is deliberate. She generally doesn’t rush. She takes her time (in part because she is also easily distracted) to read, to do her homework and understand new concepts. It’s occurred to me that, in some cases, her learning might actually be deeper than Chloe’s because of her slower pace.
Could Sophie be the tortoise to Chloe’s hare?
The morning after I told Sophie about my meeting with her teachers, she came downstairs with a grin on her face and said, “Mom, I can’t stop thinking about what they said about me. It makes me feel really good.” She was still talking about it a week later, when guests began to arrive at our house for the Thanksgiving weekend. “Did you tell Grammy what my teachers said?” “Did you tell uncle James?” She asked me the same question, plugging in different names, several more times.
Trapped in the shadow of an older sister who learns quickly and without struggle, perhaps Sophie had diminished expectations of herself that I neglected to notice or address because of my own perceptions of her.
We will, of course, heed the teachers’ advice and have Sophie retested for the special electives. Perhaps the second time will be the charm. And if not, that’s fine, too. Her teachers have confidence in her. Thanks to them, she has new confidence in herself and I’ve learned an important lesson about being a parent. I set the bar for Sophie too low because I’ve always gauged her capabilities against my experiences with Chloe. But Sophie is not Chloe.
And now I know the bar needs to be raised.