Many of you have probably read the book The Help, or at least seen the movie. “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” Aibileen, a maid who cares for her employer’s small children, tells her charge on a daily basis. One of the children, Mae Mobley, is a sweet, overweight little girl whose mother doesn’t think she is pretty. Though Aibileen privately acknowledges that Mae Mobley is overweight, she makes it her mission to ensure the child has a positive self concept.
Aibileen may have been a domestic servant, but she had a pretty good grasp on the importance of children’s social emotional health. Recently I “tore a page from her book” and started saying these words to my son. Levi is in second grade and struggles with reading and math, and he’s also needed speech therapy the last two years. When he’s pulled out of class for reading intervention and support, he falls farther behind in other subjects. As a former elementary school teacher, it was difficult to accept that my child somehow fell through the cracks. I’ve read to and with him, provided good books and educational toys and engaged him in meaningful play. He’s had good early childhood experiences in a quality childcare program and outside it with his family. So what went wrong?
As Levi’s parent, I know it goes back to that social emotional piece that Aibileen addressed with Mae Mobley. Despite the fact that Levi was only an infant when his father and I separated, it was a traumatic experience for him and had a profound negative effect on his self-esteem. Up until recently, whenever faced with a challenge, including reading and doing math problems, his first line of defense was to melt down before he even started. His second coping mechanism was to make a half-hearted start and then give up because he didn’t believe he was capable.
But even if he struggles as a student all the way through school, what matters more to me is that he is good with himself as a person throughout his life. Even so, Levi still needs to believe he is capable. Unlike Mae Mobley’s mother, I don’t think he’s unintelligent just because his academic performance seems to indicate this. On the contrary, I believe that because he’s highly intelligent (this is evident in his reasoning and vocabulary), he processes differently.
And that’s where Aibileen’s strategy comes into play. Every day since my first parent teacher conference, in addition to working with him in the areas he needs, I tell him, “You are kind, you are smart, you are important.” Just typing the words makes me tear up because they describe him so perfectly. Better yet, they’re working. Levi is melting down less and trying more.
Walking this path with my son has reinforced something I thought I’d learned as a teacher. Academics play a huge role in our children’s lives, but so does social emotional health. What a relief to embrace this fact: It’s OK for Levi not to be the best student in the class as long as he knows he’s wonderful being the best Levi he can be!