As a professor, I met so many students who had a poor opinion of their abilities to be more than just be average in college because someone had told them early in their lives that they were not smart, capable, or good enough to be successful. These are what I call premature assessments, decisions made about the intellectual abilities of children based on comparisons with older siblings or made before they had hit their educational stride. I remember one young woman in particular that I will call Maggie.
Maggie was in my Introduction to Sociology class, and after the first class, she came to see me because of her concern regarding whether she could satisfactorily complete the many requirements of the course. She told me that she had always been told that she was the least smart of her parents’ two daughters, and that her parents believed that she would not be as successful as her sister. Her older sister, who was considered the only real smart one, had attended one of the state’s most prestigious universities, and was studying at a well-known medical school. Her parents, thinking that Maggie was nowhere as intelligent as her sister, would not pay for a private university; instead, they sent her to a public university.
Maggie had attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools as her sister. Her grades as early as elementary school were less than her sister’s grades at the same age. Therefore, teachers and her parents assumed that she was intellectually inferior to her sister. She spent her whole educational life being compared with her sister, and in consequence, she was not allowed to see her own successes in a positive light. This behavior resulted in her believing that while her sister would become a great doctor, she would be lucky if she finished college well enough to find any kind of job. She came to believe that she was less than capable of achieving her dream of a job that allowed her to help people in need.
As I listened to her talk in my office at our first meeting, I was appalled. Here was a warm, very genuine, and caring person who thought that she would possibly fail my class. She wanted me to understand that she was the “black sheep” of the family, the one less likely to succeed. She told me that she agreed with her parents sending her to a public university, as she did not want them to waste their money on her education. She was in my office to let me know that she would do her best, but that I should not expect too much. She wanted me to understand her intellectual “handicaps.”
I do not know if my mouth closed during the whole time she was speaking, but, in my mind I was thinking, “What a horrible thing to do that to a child, to make them think that they are less than another child, and to never lift them up and make them feel good about what they were good at.” I felt like crying for this wonderful human being whom I suspected was much smarter than she or her parents knew her to be.
When she finished speaking, I told her that I would do everything in my power to help her succeed in the class, and that if she had any questions on the assignments, just send me an email or come during office hours. I told her that sometimes students come into their own after they leave home and that I wanted her to believe that she was capable of the work. Somewhat skeptically, she said okay, and then we discussed each assignment. When she left the office I could see that she was feeling somewhat hopeful.
Well, she turned out to be one of the best students I ever taught in 17 years as a college professor. She wrote some of the best essays I ever read, and when she received the first A on an assignment, she blossomed. By the end of the class, she believed in herself and her abilities, and I had did nothing but encourage her to put the old, premature assessments behind her and judge her abilities according to how well she performed in the present.
As she caught her educational stride, she started to come out of her social shell, applying to be a residential adviser. I knew that she would be a great RA because she had suffered many of the emotional issues that many college students come burdened with, especially those from dysfunctional families where they have not been affirmed insignificant ways. It was easy to write her a recommendation letter, and she got the job.
She eventually won a scholarship from the Sociology department. I left the school after one year, but I stayed in contact with her throughout her college days at the university, and I was not surprised when she graduated with honors. Last year she looked me up on Linkedin and got in touch with me. Needless to say, she has been amazingly successful at everything she put her hand to do. Her parents may be shocked, but I am not!
I am an example of someone who flourished and became more than I thought I could be because of a professor who saw my potential. It had been 18 years from my high school graduation when I started college at age 36. I did not think I could be successful, although my psychologist thought that I was smarter than I believed. My very first essay I earned a C, but the professor wrote a note on it for me to go to the Writing Center and get the help I needed so that I could earn the As I deserved. It was the kindness and faith of Ms. Sullivan that helped me believe that I could succeed despite premature assessments to the contrary, and I was determined to pay it forward and help my students see themselves as winners, never as losers.
Remember that we all have value, and worth, for God made each one of us for a purpose. Psalm 139: 13-14 reminds us, “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.” God never creates junk people, for He created us in His own image.
So, be careful what you say to children about their capabilities, and, parents, NEVER compare children in intellectual, artistic, athletic, or any other capabilities. Look for the things each child is good at and encourage them to be their best in those areas, for we are not all capable of doing the same things. But, everyone born has been assigned a job, and as parents and teachers, it is our job to help children find their place in the world, assuring them along the way that their lives are necessary for us all to succeed.
I have found that when you lower the expectations for children or adults, they will come down to that level. But, when you raise the expectations for children or adults, they will rise to the occasion, no matter what they have been told in the past. It is knowing that someone believes in their capabilities that helps some people overcome the negative influences of the premature assessments made of them that can do lifelong harm. Be one of the positive people in people’s lives.