All the Ways to Be Smart

In a week or two, I’ll be embarking on a full time undergraduate degree course as a mature student. This has got me thinking about the ways we limit ourselves, or are limited by expectations of those around us or society at large. Lots of better informed people have more to say on this that I do.

I can sum up my take on this through a really lovely children’s book. It’s called All The Ways to Be Smart. It’s currently one of my son’s favourites. He requests it most days, along with ‘Maisy’ – a story about a mouse going off to nursery (as I am starting uni, he is about to embark on new adventures of his own). I notice the mouse story is recommended for children age 3+. I’ve learned to ignore age guidelines on books and toys. I prefer to apply common sense to judge which items my child can be left unattended with, and which should be introduced only with careful supervision (for their protection or his!). My son is not even one and a half but he loves books and can recite several along with me. Which brings me to All The Ways to Be Smart.

Known in our house as ‘Auntie’s Book’ as it was a gift from his Auntie E. When the chant goes up for Auntie’s Book, there’s no resting until it’s been taken down from the shelf and read. At a glance you might say the book is aimed at older children. There is nothing shiny or interactive about it, it is certainly not toddler proof in its construction. It has simple rhyming text and charming hand drawn illustrations. It addresses the reader (or listener) directly and begins: “I can’t wait to share with you, how smart you are the whole day through…” it proceeds to illustrate all the ways to be smart, from the caring and sharing, to the imaginative and adventurous.

It’s quite mesmerising, and of course captures something every child should hear from someone who cares for them. I love that he loves it. I was surprised when I discovered, on only about the third reading that he could finish certain sentences. I then began to pause more often and was astounded to discover that he knew so much more than even the bits he initially said out loud. (Did I mention he is not yet one and a half?)

But here’s the curious part. On the second to last page, we are back in the classroom, with two children who have been roaming far and wide in their imaginations. Three huge windows dominate the top third of the page, in front of which the class of children sit at their desks, facing forward hands raised attending to an unseen teacher at the front of the class. The text reminds us ‘Smart is not just being best, at spelling bees, a tricky test. Or knowing all the answers ever… other things are just as clever.’

This is the only part of the book where my son deviates from the text to comment on the scene in his own words. He says: ‘Sit down table.’ I wonder about this. On one hand, it is an accurate description of what he sees. Only he says it with such conviction, as though it is a command. To my knowledge, he has never been instructed to sit down at a table. He sits up at the table to eat, but he is still little enough to be fastened into his high chair for this, unable to climb in or out independently so we have not got to the stage of issuing this sort of instruction to him. What I wonder, is whether at 16 months old, with no experience of a classroom of any sort, my son is somehow imbued with the culture that it is somehow correct to sit down at the table. That this is what children do in school. Sit down table = learning = smart. Could it be so? This so much the antithesis of what the whole book is about that I wonder if these notions are so deeply embedded and transmuted through our culture that one can barely skim the surface with encouraging words set to enchanting rhyme. Or it could just be that I’m reading too much into the toddler chatter. After all, it’s not child psychology I’m set to study.

I will read a million books to my son, about being smart and kind, and brave in ways that are admirable, in addition to the silly ones about robots running amok in a factory. Like many parents I will embrace those books and stories that embody the values our family find important avoid those that promote obnoxious behaviour we would prefer to avoid (unless it applies to robots, they can get away with all sorts). I’m realising as my son grows up, the major challenge is not to recite all the ways to be smart, but to live them. To let him see the values we aspire to at work in the world. And be alert to unconscious bias. That seems like the hardest part of all. If I keep learning, and challenge myself to look and then look harder, think and think again, hopefully so will he.

Images and quoted text: All The Ways to Be Smart, Davina Bell (Author) Allison Colpoys (Illustrations)

ISBN: 9781911617556

All the Ways to be Smart