I know it’s meant as a compliment, but from time to time, I get thrown off when a family member calls me “smart,” either to my face in response to something I said or did, or on Facebook, in a comment under some post I have about a project I’m working on or something going on in my life. Occasionally I get this from a friend too. I could never quite put my finger on what exactly it was that bothered me about this remark, until I had kids. Then it hit me:
Don’t just call me “smart,” because that judgment fails to acknowledge that I am dedicated to what I set out to do, and that I work very hard to reach my goals.
I’m not the only one with this theory. In a book published a few years ago, NurtureShock, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman presented a startling theory that counters the common perception that parents’ frequent praising of their children for being smart, i.e., having the innate ability to solve problems and figure things out, can actually backfire and hinder their confidence. As one reviewer summarized it:
[T]he research is clear: Labeling kids with even positive innate attributes can undermine their confidence in their own ability to tackle difficult problems. Stanford University’s Carol Dweck observed that children who were told they were intelligent shied away from greater challenges, while another group of kids who were praised for their stick-to-itiveness attempted to solve more-difficult problems and often succeeded. This, Dweck has theorized, exemplifies the difference between a “fixed mindset,” in which the mind is viewed as a receptacle of a certain amount of inborn talent and intelligence, and a “growth mindset,” in which the mind is regarded as a muscle that can become stronger with effort.
This makes complete sense to me. As a kid, I apparently showed some high levels of intellectual ability and achievement, and was consequently labeled “smart” and ushered off to my school district’s gifted and talented program. My parents and other family members also lavished me with praise for being “smart” and remarked constantly about my good grades and seeming ability to soak up knowledge like a sponge. That annoying kid with an arm stick straight in the air, wanting desperately to explain the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite? Yeah, that was me.
But when I got to 8th grade, school got hard, and my self-confidence plummeted. Well, specifically, math got hard. Algebra to be even more specific. Or was it pre-algebra? Whatever. It was all terrible. For the first time in my life, a basic grasp of the concepts eluded me, and I struggled—silently, in fear of being found out—to maintain the A average that I had always achieved so easily. I failed. Well, not literally. In my junior year algebra class I had something around a C average. But to the kid who had been called “smart” all her life, I was a failure.
This situation disturbed me, since before then, good grades had always come to me effortlessly. And ah, there’s the rub. If Bronson and Merryman are correct (and I believe they are), then instead of feeling dejected and inferior to my peers in the highest level math class, I would have asked for help and kept trying my best until my efforts paid off, not through sheer effort alone, but also due to my ability to hold my head up high and keep trying until I accomplished my goal.
But to go back to why it annoys me when a well-meaning relative or friend quips how smart I am on Facebook: Maybe it’s because of an audience, and maybe it’s because I cringe at the reminder of those bad old days when “smart” seemed to no longer apply, at least when it came to math. But it’s also because, even in the areas where my apparent smarts seem to really shine, I work really freaking hard at what I do. Whether it’s raising my children, representing my clients, putting dinner on the table or being there for a friend, I commit, and I don’t feel that I rely on some innate ability or talent to get the job done. Instead, I rise to the occasion and put my best efforts into whatever it is I’m doing. I do this because these things are important to me, and they deserve every bit of my time, attention, and blood-sweat-and-tears that I can muster. If I’m not willing to give this much of myself to a particular task, then it’s just not worth doing.
So, please don’t call me smart, unless you happen to be in the process of giving me an IQ test. Instead, call me focused, call me determined, call me passionate or dedicated—just call me anything but “smart.” And when I fail, as I occasionally do, acknowledge that I gave it my best, so that instead of feeling the opposite of smart (dumb), I can pick myself up and try a different approach, or move on to something else, but at least retain my confidence and self-worth. This is what I want for my children as well. Although, secretly, I do believe they are super smart.
Wonder where they got that from.
Image Credit: La cancre – The Dunce by astridle, deviantART.com