Please, please stop telling your kids they are smart.  This is not a joke, and no, I do not think your child is stupid.  You may think, “but my kid IS smart!”  Did you ever stop to think, what does smart even mean?  Are those labels really sending healthy messages to children and adults?  What kinds of habits are you reinforcing when you use these labels?  How were you labeled as a child and how did it affect your upbringing?  Do you still consider yourself to be the “smart” or “stupid” one because of what you were told as a child?  I’m going to share with you why telling kids they are smart is actually very stupid.  I’ll even share with you how it has affected my life.

Child Head
Credit: Charly W. Karl, CC-BY via flickr

What does it mean to be "smart?"

What does it mean for a child to be labeled as "smart?"  Are they good at following directions? Do they get A’s on exams?  Do they make up their own dances and songs?  Do they build their own forts?  Are they reciting the state capitals?  Seriously, what does "smart" mean?  Can you name a child that isn’t "smart?"  Is a child not "smart" because he doesn’t sit still at school? What about a child that isn’t in advanced classes?  How about the teenager that doesn’t attend college?  Or worse, the kid who flunked out of school; is he/she not "smart?"  I would argue that each child, or person for that matter, has their own unique gifts to offer the world.  To expect those gifts to be the same for each child or to say one is better than the other is just plain dumb (that’s an appropriate use of the word).  If everyone had the same gifts, it would be a very boring world with very little variety.

Is being "smart" really that useful?

I think most people would say someone is “smart” when they are very knowledgeable, but being knowledgeable in and of itself is not a great attribute unless you happen to be a contestant on Jeopardy.  In the real world you need to be more than just “smart.”  You also need to be able to implement your knowledge. Say you are stranded on a deserted island and you know ten ways to start a fire, well that isn’t very helpful if you can’t actually start the fire!  We’re all impressed with the 5-year old who can recite every president, capital, etc. but is that really useful?  If my 40-year old boss came into my office and starting reciting these facts, I would most certainly call him insane and possibly ask that he get his head checked out.  So why is it so cute when a kid does it?  Maybe us adults are just entertained by these remarkable behaviors, in a similar fashion to a freak show at the circus, and are doing so at the child’s expense.  Teaching children to apply knowledge is absolutely necessary.  For example, communication is probably one of the greatest skills needed in this world.  Without effective communication, your knowledge will never be shared with others.  You could come up with the “greatest” invention, but if you can’t tell others about it and sell it, then that invention isn’t very great is it?

Does it help a child to call him/her "smart?"

Telling kids they are “smart” only reinforces outcomes and not the process.  Hard work, determination, team-work, etc. are behaviors that should be rewarded or fostered, not the outcome.  I’m not saying the outcomes aren’t important, of course they are.  But, if your child struggles with math and they work really hard and get an A or B (yes B’s are acceptable) on an exam, you could say “good job, you worked so hard on that exam and it really paid off.”  You’re emphasizing that hard work leads to positive results; not the positive results themselves.  If your kid came home with an A, but they cheated on the exam and you say, “great job, you’re so smart!” they think “as long as I come home with an A, I’m doing well.”  This is especially important for children who struggle with a certain subject/activity.  If your child isn’t very good at something but they still enjoy doing (I know you may not believe it, but no child is good at everything), encourage them to work hard at it.  It doesn’t necessarily matter if they master that skill, only that they are able to get better and to not give up.  When you only enforce outcomes, you are really encouraging children to only focus on the things they do well and to avoid the difficult things.  As adults we face all sorts of challenges.  Teaching children to not fear those challenges will translate into their adult life.  If they’ve been taught well, they may actually enjoy learning something new and see it as a fun challenge.

A "smart" kid story

What do I know?  I’m no child psychologist; in fact I don’t have any training on the subject.  But, I do know what it feels like to be that “smart” child.  I was "smart!"  I’ve been told it my whole life.  I even have a PhD in engineering to add to my “smart” credentials.  It has taken me awhile, but I can say that being told I was “smart” all my life has led to some terrible habits and very negative self-talk.  I now hate the label of “smart” and usually correct people (if I’m comfortable with them) on using it.  I used to love being called “smart” until I found out what it feels like to not be “smart.”  I can literally recall the exact day and time of when my “smart” world came crumbling down on me.  The day I lost my identity and had to put myself together bit by bit.

It was a summer day in August.  I was eagerly awaiting my PhD qualifying exam.  I say eagerly because I was “smart” and I loved tests.  I was as cocky as cocky can be when I strolled into that exam.  It was a two-hour oral exam with three professors.  I had studied a bit, but I was “smart” so I didn’t need to study very much.  Well the test did not go as planned.  In the longest two hours of my entire life (thus far), I was ripped to metaphorical shreds, piece by piece.  Question after question was asked of me and I did not know the answers.  Sure I knew some of them, but not everyone of them.  And when you’re used to getting A’s and being the “smart" kid, it felt like I didn’t answer one correctly.  Now this isn’t just my opinion.  Afterwards I had to have a special talk with my advisor about my “unexpected” performance.  I was beyond embarrassed.  Heck, I was certain that I was a completely worthless human being.  Who am I if I’m not "smart?"  You see I had defined my self worth by my outcomes (A’s) and not my hard work.  In fact I rarely put in much hard work because certain things (i.e., math) come easy to me.   

I learned at a young age to focus on those things that were easy because I got attention from teachers and parents when I did them well.  I can’t control the fact that they come easy to me.  I did not work hard, I did not study and I worked by myself.  Sure I was able to get a college degree, but when I’m faced with a task that does not come easy (i.e., writing) I completely break down.  Usually I’ll start with saying something like “writing is stupid, who needs that?!” or “I’m just not good at writing” and that was my excuse instead of working to improve upon those skills.  You see I had come to mock hard work because I thought I was so special for not needing to do any.  Well in order to finish a PhD, you need to write a dissertation.  There are no short cuts, there are no ghost writers, just plain honest hard work.  The writing was brutal to say the least because writing DOES NOT come easy to me.  I worked so hard, usually complaining the whole way through and with many edits from my advisor, but I did manage to finish.  What’s most surprising is the fact that I developed a new appreciation for writing and actually admitted that I kind of liked it.  What if I could write well?  Yeah, it did not come easy to me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it?  I struggle everyday to tell myself that I can write because of the years of telling myself I couldn’t.  Looking back on all my accomplishments I have realized that I want to be admired for my hard work, determination, helpfulness and not for being “smart.”  So please, don’t tell your kids they are “smart,” tell them they are so much more than a label.