What We’re Really Saying When We Call Kids ‘Smart’ | KUOW News and Information

What We’re Really Saying When We Call Kids ‘Smart’

Sep 9, 2014

When your kid achieves something this year, don't reflexively say it's because she's smart.
Credit Flickr Photo/jeweledlion (CC-BY-NC-ND)

So many first day of school pictures today!

In posting one of them, my friend Gwyn revealed that her smiling daughter had actually been more upset than she appeared in the photo.

Not because school had started, but because she wasn’t in the “smart kids” class with her friends. She knew it was for “smart kids” because those kids had said so. They had heard it from their parents.

These are six-year-olds.

They’re smart enough to internalize the tacit message about kids who are not in the “smart” class. They’re also smart enough to observe what else the “smart” and other kids have in common, and draw faulty conclusions from their observations.

And so we begin.

When I tell my child he gets something other kids don’t because he’s smart, the message he internalizes has a huge downside: for him, for his friends and for me.

The downside for me is that it dismisses all that contributed to “the thing” that gets us ahead. For me, it was my dad’s street savvy and the early education my mom gave me. For my son, a father who runs down the street with him and counts to 20; the fact that that people unwittingly spend extra time socializing with him because they find him cute and charming; from my husband’s and my awareness of a testing opportunity to our choice to expose him to it. For so many of us, the unearned privileges we have inherited.

A growing body of literature generated primarily by one of my college professors encourages us to praise a child’s effort rather than innate ability. The takeaway is to avoid learned helplessness by praising effort.

For that reason and for others, I make this plea to you with your wonderful, fabulous, determined, observant and yes, smart children: When your child achieves something this school year, and you’re tempted to say it’s because he’s smart, think about another reason it happened.

Talk about that.

Phyllis Fletcher is managing editor of the Northwest News Network (N3). This post originally appeared last week on her personal Facebook page.

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