A week or so before school went back, when saying goodnight to Ben (aged 9) I saw he'd written "I am a looser" on his drawer. He's always been a "glass half empty" kind of kid, so I'd been expecting this kind of thing at some point. Still, my heart broke a little bit.
A bit of probing suggested anxiety about going back to school and being bad at stuff. The particular stuff he flagged was drawing, but I'm guessing it was sort of a generalised fear of publicly sucking. Still, drawing was an excellent example. Sucking at drawing is quite different to sucking at spelling. No-one hangs your spelling list on the walls in the classroom. In fact, even the person sitting next to you is pretty unlikely to look at your spelling. The things Ben sucks at are dancing, singing and drawing*. Everyone in the class is gonna know you suck at those things. Therefore, there was absolutely no point in attempting the whole "You're not that bad at drawing", because if he was already feeling bad, condescending to him, when he knows the truth, was only going to make it worse. Further, pointing out what he's good at doesn't help, because his talents don't stop it feeling awful when his stick figures are hung up next to a perfectly detailed scene.
I was going to go with my go-to solution when feeling bad about not being able to do something - "If you want to be better at it, you just need to practise" - but he hates drawing. At which point, the answer become obvious. Ever since he was tiny, he's had no interest in drawing, colouring, or pretty much any visual art. Which, of course, is why he's crap at it. He's never done it. I explained to him that I could get him books that show the basics of drawing, and he could do lots of practice and his drawing would improve, BUT, he doesn't want to. Outstanding talent aside, the main thing that makes a kid good at something is interest in it. He was looking pretty skeptical, so I switched to his talents. He's good at science. He protested that he doesn't practise science, but he does, and has done since he could talk. He asks how everything works. He's been building and refining his model of the world since he was two. He's been practising incorporating new information into his models and beginning to identify dissonance for years. Kids that don't share his interest in that sort of understanding (possibly because they're too busy capturing the awesome beauty of the world), find science much harder.
After an hour or so of chatting, he was prepared to rub off "I am a looser" (once again, see footnote). It's quite empowering to realise that the main reason you're bad at something is that you're not all that interested in it. It's an unfortunate illusion created by those early years of school, that ability is innate. The practice is invisible, because it's just what the kids like doing. Kids see differentials in abilities, but they can't see the effort that went into it. If they focus on those examples, instead of the ones where they see the practice (like learning an instrument), it's easy for them to believe that if they don't pick something up straight away, they will never be able to do it. Ben has a tendency to ignore the visible practise, as did I when I was a kid. It took until I was much older before I realised that if I stick at things for long enough, I can be capable at them, regardless of whether I'm any good at them to start with. I believe many beers and games of pool may have finally illustrated this point to me. I'm hoping that I can keep this message explicit as the kids grow up, and make it very clear that if they are really bad at something, that's probably their choice, and that is a completely valid choice. There are only so many hours in a day.
Of course, he's still going to have to draw stuff. We talked a bit about how he can draw in a cartoon style that requires minimal effort, but looks both ok and intentional. Along with the deep and meaningful, he's gonna need some survival skills until he doesn't have to draw anymore.
* and spelling, as it happens, but that doesn't seem to stress him.