What If We Stopped Telling Our Kids They’re So Smart?

by Dr. Stuart Grauer on February 8, 2013

(A topic I have addressed regularly for some years now)

    “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to to continue to fail in good spirits.”

    I love Robert Louis Stevenson quotes, although I’m not sure this one is 100% true. All the same, it’s got an important message.

I often hear parents attempting to encourage their students, and proper encouragement is of course of the greatest importance. Parents, teachers, and other adults shape young people’s mindsets by what they say about successes and failures, and perhaps even more by how well and deeply they listen to and understand their students.

One of the most common parenting errors, in my own opinion and in the opinion of countless experienced educators and psychologists, is to explain to your child that they “should” have done better because they are “smart.” We love and admire our students so much, it sometimes feels natural to feel this way.  Nevertheless, praise for being “smart” leads kids to believe that learning should be easy – or that if it feels difficult, maybe they’re not so smart.

Praise for focusing and sticking with a task fosters a much more positive mindset – effective effort is what we best praise. When kids are not doing as well as they can, it is important for them to understand that they can change their mindset and even their intelligence if they work hard. Qualities like perseverance, resourcefulness, intellectual curiosity and grit are what they need at times when we do not find them to be “measuring up.” How can we properly encourage these qualities?
    For one thing, we must embrace struggle. What a tough challenge for caring parents and teachers! How students manage failure and hardship is an important indicator of their future success, more important than what we think they “should” achieve. But if a student is “so smart,” why would he/she have to struggle? When we try to protect our kids from failure, or to cover them over, we are not making them stronger, we are making them weaker. The genius physicist Niels Bohr once said, “An expert is someone who has made all possible mistakes in a field and there are no more to be made.” Think of perseverance and response to failure as forms of intelligence that we develop our whole lives.

Telling ourselves we “should” do well because we are so smart is not an honest look at what is going wrong, and shows no understanding whatsoever at what we are really going through as learners. Personally, I’d be okay if we banned the word “should” (and “you need to…”) from all of education.

Christian P. at the Middle School Inventor’s Showcase!

    Here in the San Diego North County, it is useful to understand that affluent kids have distinctive challenges. People tend to think challenges are centered around low socio-economic groups, but among affluent kids rates of depression, drug use, and other responses to stress can be enormous. Think about:  pressure from colleges, club activities, sports and other “college-resume building” activities. Equally tough, and even harder to face, is this: emotional distance from parents is huge and not understood in our demographic. Growing up in an affluent neighborhood is associated with rates of anxiety and depression two or three times as high as experienced by working or middle class kids. How do we react to their scholastic struggles? “You should do better, you are so smart” is not going to cut it.

Dream parents are attuned. They seek to learn from their kids what those kids want to overcome (rather than telling them how to overcome it). They are master listeners who truly appreciate the wisdom of their kids and they divine that wisdom out of them. Advice, well, that’s just bad news, unless it’s specifically asked for. Our belief that they can achieve and find their own way is of deep and fundamental importance to them. They can find a way. Believe it! Show them you believe it. Through their struggle, they develop their character. Especially in independent education and safe, caring learning communities, our kids have a chance to find their voice and passions, to develop the uniqueness of their character… if we can find the courage to let them.

One school leader recently said, “The bad grade that gets you into a different college might be the best thing that can happen to you.” Our kids can overcome social distractions, family issues, a so-called “bad” teacher now and then, an illness or injury, or any other such excuses. Our kids can do it and it’s our job to believe they can.

None of this is guaranteed to be easy. My own, grown daughter, reading this article, gives me a grade of “a solid B+.” But I’m working on it! Parenting is an ongoing practice and there is no perfection. Nor is this information intended for those dealing with students who suffer from mental illness or drug abuse issues.

In sum, where we might go wrong in parenting and schooling is when we equate narrow measures of short-term success with long-range happiness in education and life. Let’s make sure our kids know that we all think their success is the achievement of a rich, meaningful, productive and courageous life and that they can achieve this.

Once kids reach adolescence, they are capable of metacognition: they can analyze their own thought. And what do they “need?” Our kids need empathy and understanding for their own selves. They need to succeed for purposes that they develop for themselves, not just to please their parents or to meet their parents’ expectations. They need us not to answer their big questions, only to help ask them. They need to know we understand their aspirations. They need to create those aspirations from something deep inside of themselves. And they will.

Stella with a snowball on a frosty January morning!

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Laura Shioli February 17, 2013 at 10:04 am

Hello Dr. Grauer

I really enjoyed your post of “We Stopped Telling Our Kids They’re So Smart”.

There is so much competition among parents and students to have the best grades and the best test scores, that we do not encourage students to embrace the struggle.


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