SEL Skills Articles

My Mom’s Advice: “Get Some Dumb Friends!”

Last week, I received an email from a 30-in-30 subscriber: Her son is a junior in high school who struggles academically. He refuses extra help from a tutor or teacher, insisting he can do it on his own. He has an older brother who does well in school with relatively little effort, so the young man is likely feeling inferior. This ended with, “Can you help?”

Well, I hope I can. Ultimately, this is an issue of confidence (or lack of it) with a heaping spoonful of sibling rivalry. However, once the confidence is addressed, this young man’s tendency to compare himself to his brother will fade away.

“Gosh Sue, Get Some Dumb Friends, Will Ya?”

I heard this sound-bite in high school, courtesy of my mom. She saw that I was always comparing myself to my friends (who got straight-As without trying) and tried fruitlessly for years to convince me that I wasn’t as dumb as I thought. I guess she was exasperated one day and ran out of more empowering things to say. But, she managed to speak my language and I finally got her point.

I’m certainly not suggesting that this young man get a “dumb brother.” I am simply sharing my own story of feeling inadequate as a student – and my mom’s desperate attempts to get me to HEAR her message.

What finally worked for me -and this has been backed up by everything I have ever read about developing confidence in students- was to get involved in something I could do well. It took the pressure off of school, gave me something else upon which to focus, and slowly built my confidence to a level where I could finally say, “Okay, I KNOW I should be able to do better in school…I’ve got to be missing something!” That’s when I discovered study skills.

For me, that activity turned out to be working in my mom’s medical office. I started helping with some minor tasks, but one summer day, Mom’s two employees each had separate and very serious, family emergencies. They were each away from the office for several weeks.

At thirteen years of age, I was the only one available to fill their shoes. I’m sure Mom’s patients were slightly alarmed to be escorted back to an exam room and have their height and weight measured by a 13 year-old, but in reality…there was nothing hard about that. (Heck, my six-year-old could do that! Society just doesn’t give youngsters as many opportunities as they can truly handle.)

Nonetheless, I managed the phones, made appointments, checked patients in and out, did the filing, billed the insurance companies, and cleaned the office that summer. And, I did a decent job. At least, Mom’s practice didn’t completely fall apart. I don’t know how many jobs she had to clean up in my wake, but together, we managed to keep things afloat. And I slowly began to discover a “niche” in my life; something I did well that actually mattered in the world.

This young man needs the same thing. Perhaps he already has it, but never recognized it for what it is. He may be good in sports, but brushes it off because “sports don’t matter.” Maybe he’s a valued employee at his part-time job, but doesn’t see the connection between being a reliable “burger-flipper” and being a successful adult. Maybe he’s an exceptionally kind person, but brushes that off because kindness doesn’t earn “As.”

If that’s the case, then I need to introduce him to my “pal,” Howard Gardner. Dr. Gardner is a professor at Harvard that developed the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In short, the theory states that the human brain has the capacity of at least eight different forms of intelligence, all of which are nicely suited to a variety of different career paths and opportunities. The problem, however, is that schools primary focus on only two of those intelligences (math and language). As a result, society tends to view “intelligence” through this narrow lens.

If this young man struggles with math and language, then the culture of school and society make him feel that he is not intelligent. However, if he can begin to recognize his strengths in any of the other six intelligences, he will quickly develop a new mental pattern defining his own strengths and “smarts.” I would encourage him to do this online inventory of the Multiple Intelligences.  Click here to visit the site.  It is a very insightful resource!

I believe so strongly in making students aware of the Multiple Intelligences that I made it the first section of my book and curriculum; it is always the first topic of discussion in any classes I teach. Students’ vision of themselves are instantly transformed. It is quite powerful!

As a business owner, I frequently listen to podcasts of other business owners trying to navigate the world of self-employment. One theme that repeatedly surfaces amongst most SUCCESSFUL business owners is that they were horrible students. I once heard a multi-millionaire say that he felt the best entrepreneurs were “C” students. His rationale: students who earned “As” and “Bs” were good at answering other people’s questions, but not so good about creating their own.

Hmm…good point!

How many of your former high school classmates seemed to have everything going for them in high school, but turned out to live lives that were much less than you would have expected?

School success does not – and should not- define a person’s level of confidence. At least, not in this young man’s situation. There are several alternatives, if he is willing to adjust his perspective.

Are you an educator looking to teach your students soft skills they can use in the real world to be successful?  Sign up for our “How Do I Feel?” Curriculum Kit, that includes one of our soft skills modules, in the blue box on the right of this page.

-Susan Kruger


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