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Kids and the "S-Word"

Not until adulthood did I realize that being told I was smart could be detrimental. I heard that particular word — "smart" — frequently as a small child. My parents, grandparents and extended family told me. Their intentions were good; yet, eventually, "smart" became an albatross around my neck and a mountain much higher than Everest.

Not merely an identifier, "smart" was also a self-expectation. Over time, I contributed to those expectations, measuring myself against relentless, unwavering metrics. So often, our most pressing, demanding critic takes up residence in our minds — and does not leave.

Then I found insights from a professor at Stanford University about the kinds of praise that most benefit children. The central idea struck me as an epiphany: Parents should not repeatedly call their children "smart" but, rather, compliment them for their work.

Every reason for this is persuasive.

  • Children see "smart" as a fixed value. Either you have it, or you don't. Because smart is often a term mentioned by loving parents, children take that word as gospel.
  • When a child is labeled "smart," it is possible for him or her to erect towering expectations, often impossible to reach. Any failure to reach those goals can make the child's confidence and self-image plummet.
  • The opposite side of the coin is if a child believes he or she is smart, she or he may coast without extending effort. It is the equivalent of living on cruise control, without truly revving one's engine.
  • The 10,000-hour theory provides proof. Spend that much time on a skill, and you are likely to build substantial expertise. While that particular number is not a definitive baseline for mastering a skill, the idea makes perfect sense. Practice — especially joyous practice — is about the intersection of work and passion.
  • As  president Calvin Coolidge once noted, nothing is more common than talented people who show no sense of determination (read: work). Similarly, many determined, hardworking people have succeeded because of their work ethic, rather than their innate intelligence. Consider Thomas Edison and many other great inventors. Their entire careers were founded on trial and error, sheer perseverance and dogged belief in their mission.
  • If your child struggles in a particular subject but makes a concerted effort, praise that work. The time your child devotes to overcoming a challenge will pay dividends in the future.

This does not mean you should never call your child "smart"; simply do not default to that word as a description. When your child receives a high grade or an award, celebrate the effort and devotion to that skill. That achievement was based on work, talent and passion.

Ultimately, work becomes a kind of muscle memory, and a child hones the ability to focus on an effort without realizing it. This becomes the foundation of inner drive, a quality to be fostered.

I have taken this advice to heart with my children. I may still call them "smart" on occasion; yet, I am intentional about praising their work and helping them understand how the Bible speaks to perseverance. Here are a few examples.

  • "…endurance produces character, and character produces hope." – Romans 5:4-5, CEB
  • "My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance." – James 1:2-3, CEB

Life will confront children with various struggles (and opportunities in disguise), in everything from school to finances to relationships and more. The question is: How do we respond to these challenges?

During these conversations, take a moment to deliver key guidance that is useful for all ages. Perseverance is the backbone of all accomplishment and spiritual growth, and determination empowers the world's breakthroughs. Drive and grit propel people to succeed as they grow because, really, what is more disappointing than a soul who doesn't seek new horizons?

Brett McArdle works as the Content and Branding Manager for United Methodist Communications. He lives near Nashville with his wife and two children. He divides his spare time between creative writing, fitness and discussing the greatness of Alabama Crimson Tide football.

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[Posted November 21, 2017]