The Other S Word

You already know the bad “S” word. But there is a much worse “S” word: stupid. When this really bad “S” word gets into people’s vocabulary, they are in real trouble. This really bad “S” word begins to dominate how people think of the world…and themselves. I do my best to rid my patients of this most atrocious curse word. I would much rather that they use the other “S” word. So how does this “really bad” “S” word get into someone’s vocabulary?

The origin of the S word

The “S” word is not natural. We learn to use it, unfortunately, because it is used so often in our culture. In fact, it is used so often that it has lost its meaning. The Latin origin of “stupid” has to do with being surprised and then confounded, and later came to mean dull or ignorant. I like this Latin origin as it speaks of what “stupid” really is: failing to understand. And it is when people don’t understand something that they find the word stupid to come to mind. This not understanding something has huge implications for children in school: kids start using the S word early in school…because they don’t understand something. Like math.

Math is stupid. I hate math.

It begins like this. The kid doesn’t immediately understand something in school like, say, math. My PhD and otherwise very bright wife has some trouble with math. Today she asked me if 2/3 plus 2/3 equaled 1 ½. No, I said, 2/3 plus 2/3 equals 1 1/3. That seems so simple to me that I used to be amazed that people couldn’t add fractions like this, or perhaps even numbers like 23 and 46 quickly in their heads. But many people can’t, and perhaps most people can’t. Does someone’s inability to add fractions or complex numbers easily make them stupid? Hardly. It just says that they haven’t had good math teachers, like I did, who nursed them from 1 + 1 into 3/8 + 1/9, and then on to algebra. I just love algebra. I love to find those algebraic questions at the back of magazines. They get me back into X’s and Y’s. But I had the opportunity of having a very good Algebra teacher in ninth grade (kids are now dong algebra in the seventh grade; kids in Russia start in third grade). But many very bright people “hate” math, and really hate “word problems.” Both Deb and another good PhD friend, Boris, refer despairingly to word problems that “always had something to do with a train going at some speed from one city to another.” “Who gives a s— (the other S word)? Deb and Boris both asked me. I do. They don’t. Does this make me smart? Does their disinterest in X’s and Y’s, or adding complex fractions for that matter, make them stupid? I think not.

So if at least two PhD folks don’t particularly like math, and we are sure that they aren’t stupid, why does “stupid” come so easily to kids in school? Stupid comes into a child’s vocabulary from “external factors,” something outside of him, and then it becomes a part of him. Maybe some other kid in the class is better at something, like math. Or it comes, God forbid, from a teacher, or God forbid, from a parent who thinks that adding fractions is easy, and then dares to say something to the child about how “easy” fractions are. However it gets into the vocabulary of a child, it eventually becomes part of the child’s regular understanding (or misunderstanding) of something. Then things really start to deteriorate.

From bad to worse

It starts like this; parents begin hearing a sequence of statements using the S word:
 Reading is stupid
 Homework is stupid
 Teachers are stupid
 The kids in school are stupid…and eventually,
 School is stupid

All of these statements are based on a most profound statement that is usually not stated: I am stupid. Some kids who struggle with some aspects of school actually use the S word in this way, but most of them “project” their feeling stupid to the things in the outside world. We psychologists use the term “project” to mean that something I find offensive about myself I see in someone else. I am reminded about Jesus’ statement, “Before you comment on the splinter in someone else’s eye, note the log in your own.” So when you hear your kid talking about reading, homework, teacher, kids, or school being stupid, know that your kid feels stupid him/herself. That is the root of the problem.

If we want to use the S word for ourselves, we could all say we are stupid in some way. I, for instance, could certainly say I am stupid with art, music, and beauty for sure but I could also say that my basketball playing is stupid even though I do it three times a week. I am the worst player on the various courts I play, but the guys I play with are quite skilled and usually about 30 years younger than I am. So is my basketball playing stupid, or are these guys just much better than me? In music, art, and beauty, however, I might fall more easily into the stupid category because I’m not good at any of these things. The best I can do in music is to play a very bad Irish tin whistle. But we don’t think of people like me who are not good at music or art to be stupid, just not talented in these areas. I might do better in reading, writing, and speaking. But even in these areas I am far from accomplished compared to the likes of speed readers, popular novelists, well published researchers, and great speakers. Fortunately for me is the fact that I do pretty well in these words-based areas and have never really felt stupid. Not so for kids who struggle with reading.

Is it all about dyslexia?

No, the S word is not about being dyslexic. Dyslexia, by the way is difficulty in reading. In fact there is also a-lexia, which means an inability to read. And this is actually different from illiterate, which means someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to learn reading. But the difficulty with reading goes much beyond reading. It has to do with two important facts: (1) school is mostly about reading, and (2) many kids have other talents that cause them trouble with reading. The first of these problems is easy to see. Let’s face it: if you don’t read, can’t read, or hate reading, school is going to be very hard for you, at least in America. I estimate that 50% of school age children “hate” reading, and maybe 75% don’t like reading much.

Not only is school inordinately about reading, reading is taught with “subvocalization,” which means speaking the words you read in your head. Most reading is taught with phonics where a child learns to read a letter first, then a blend of two letters, then a part of a word, and eventually a whole word. There is another way of teaching reading, namely the “whole word” concept where kids are taught to memorize whole words rather than reading setters, blends, and syllables. This way of teaching reading is to have flash card with the entire word on one side and a picture on the other side. The kid then flips the card back and forth seeing the picture and then the whole word. Further discussion is beyond the scope of this essay. But consider that your child might do better learning whole words than letters and syllables. This is the way that speed readers actually read. They do not subvocalize.

Talents other than reading

I frequently see kids who are, say, very good athletes, good at music, good at socializing, good with music, and good with their hands. But they hate reading. Why do they hate reading when they do all these other things so well? Because school is 90% reading, and 10% everything else. What is everything else? Everything the kid is good at. The problem these children have is their gifts or their talents: music, art, drama, athletics, and the like. Consider what it is like to be, say, a truly talented dancer and musician but also just fair or average at reading. What does the kid want to do? She wants to dance and sing; she doesn’t want to read. So over time she gets better at these non-words-based activities and less good at reading. She might be reading three grades below her grade level but if we would look at her creative skill, she might be a genius. So the problem with these talented kids is that they are so good at one or more things, and only average at reading, that they begin to feel the S word: reading is stupid…and eventually, I am stupid. And they get into adulthood with this S word in the back of their minds. And they end up fighting reading the rest of their lives.

Adults who feel stupid

This would be the majority of adults. This is the cause of all “defensiveness” with people when they encounter something they don’t understand, especially words and math. They feel stupid, even though they are not stupid. I have seen scores of people, most of them men, in this category of feeling stupid but not being stupid. I tell these people that there are three kinds of learning: linguistic (words; reading, writing, speaking), visual (including art), and kinesthetic (hands-on, but also music, and athletics). Then I ask these folks how they learn, and universally they say: visual and kinesthetic. Then I ask them what school was framed in learning: linguistic. This helps me dislodge the S word from their vocabulary. Try the same with yourself and with your kids.

Further reading
1. My 4-8-12 blog
2. Articles on dyslexia, whole-word reading, and kinds of learning