My 9-year-old son still asks me for help with his homework, but he clearly also suspects that he is smarter than I am. I’m not really sure if this is a product of the culture he’s growing up in or my parenting or just the hubris of childhood. I don’t remember if I had similar thoughts when I was a kid. But I know my son is looking down while looking up.
It’s been this way for a while. No matter how many times we tell him we have completed the third grade already (also, college), he remains convinced we can’t follow his more complicated thought processes. As nurturing parents, we are respectful and encouraging. We tell him he’s very smart, which he is, and that when he’s wrong it’s mostly because he’s rushing, which it is, or because he’s ill-informed, which he sometimes is on account of being a child.
I won’t call him dumb or anything, but I will call him out. Spell this hard word! What’s 374 multiplied by 37? What are the capitals of all the old Soviet Republics? Watcha got smart guy? (I want to say smart ass, but that’s a bit much.) When he fumbles and stammers — I take no pride in this — I get a satisfied look on my face and start getting close to him. I’ll wag my head at him tauntingly and get right up in him. I interrupt him with monosyllabic grunts to keep him from saying nonsense.
Then I bear hug and spin him around and dump him onto the couch. It feels good when debates devolve into wrestling. I think it’s important for him to know my love isn’t contingent on his being right or smart or anything else.
Also, I really don’t want to argue with my obstinate 9-year-old when he’s being a little shit. Roughhousing is a good avoidance and coping mechanism.
Sometimes, if I manage it right, I’ve got the kid giggle on the couch before he gets to the deadliest word of all… “actually.” Listening to a child say “actually,” is like nails on a chalkboard and your the chalkboard. This is a word that should be banned from the lexicon of all children. It will only be reintroduced for their use after these kids have grown up and had children of their own. My son says it like he’s the one explaining how things work. It’s just so ballsy and condescending. And he doesn’t know what condescending means.
I will give the boy credit though. He says things with such easy conviction that you almost have to think twice about it before remembering he’s only nine and wrong. He does have a good memory and notices truly unremarkable things to a remarkable extent, so I wouldn’t put some of his obscure factoids past him. A certain dinosaur’s height and weight? He could be right. The favorite food of a six gilled shark? He probably knows. Anything to do with a pack of cards, consisting of eight pieces of cardboard that in no way should cost $5? He’s the expert. And that’s cool. I want that for him. Developing expertise through passion is great.
The only problem with encouraging this sort of thing is that it also encourages extrapolation. He thinks that because I don’t know Pokemon, I need the world explained. This leads to agitation. I suppose it’s age-appropriate, but it still drives me batty.
So I choose to look on the bright side. Maybe he’ll be a lawyer or a critique. Maybe he’ll be on the debate team. Maybe his self-assurance will help him in the end. That would actually be pretty sweet. In the meantime, though, I’ll be wrestling the kid on the couch.
Garth Johnson is a dad and a carpenter in Fairbanks, Alaska.