A college Freshman I know was assessing his various classes. He mentioned in passing that his roommate sleeps late and never goes to class. When I questioned that, the answer I got was, “Oh, but he is really smart!” Apparently this meant that he reads the book, or the lectures on line, and then aces the tests.
Another young man who has been very successful academically shrugged off any praise or credit he might be given by saying he just works hard. “I have classmates who are really smart. I’m not, so I know I have to work harder to get these results.” In his mind working hard was not as praiseworthy as being innately very smart.
What do these young people mean by “really smart”? In the first instance, the student referred to has the kind of memory that retains just from reading the information needed for tests. He reads the material before the exams and then gives it back as required. (Doing well on tests is also a skill.) But one might question if this is what is meant by education, and what the end result of this process might be.
The other young man quoted was referring to an ability to grasp certain material easily – or so it seemed to him. Not so much remembering facts, as seeming more readily to understand complicated ideas or concepts. Undoubtedly, there are people who seem naturally to excel in one area of study or another. But while their success may seem effortless to others, that is rarely the case.
What is striking, however, is the attitude expressed in both these examples that having to work hard means you’re not really smart, and conversely, if you are really smart you don’t have to put that much effort into your success. Being smart is more valuable and praiseworthy than having to put in real effort. This seems to be a rather widespread attitude.
A father of a much younger child told me that he realized recently that he was not helping his daughter by praising her to the skies for any small achievement. He saw that she was starting to believe she should immediately excel at anything she tried, whether in sports or academics. As new tasks became more challenging she was starting to feel inadequate when she didn’t immediately succeed. Unrealistic praise was having the opposite effect of its intention.
If anyone still remembers, the Chinese Tiger Mother criticized American parents for being overly concerned about their children’s self-esteem. I think of one of my teachers during my professional training saying that the pleasure a mother takes in her child’s accomplishments is an emotional nutrient for the child. I have since observed that the feedback this gives to the child’s growing sense of self is as important as vitamins are to the growth of the body.
Of course, the opposite is true too. If we convey the idea that a child is not living up to expectations, that message is received as well. Children may too readily take this to mean that they don’t have the “right stuff” and that there is no point in trying.
When our children begin to be transformed from infants to people, we burst with pride and excitement at each new development. When they sit, stand, take their first step, begin to talk, we marvel at each new accomplishment, as if each child reinvents the wheel. On the other hand, when they begin to walk, we don’t believe or suggest they could or should run in the marathon. Neither do we tell them they are geniuses when they begin to learn to read.
Hopefully, the message we give is that they have taken a step towards achieving a goal – sometimes an important step – and in time by taking one step after another they can reach their destination. That is a hard message to deliver in the current climate when achievement is measured by test results rather than by the true acquisition of knowledge. This helps promote the idea that those who are good at learning for the test are “really smart”, just as the teachers who successfully teach for the test may be considered really good.
Perhaps as parents, the solution lies in being realistic with our children – as well as ourselves – both in our praise and our encouragement. We can show them how each step they have taken fits into a process of achieving what they are trying to accomplish. At times it can be helpful to remind them where they have come from as well as where they hope to go. Even if they don’t get there, by continuing to try they can get closer to the goal.
Many studies have shown that children and adults, too, who believe that they can affect the outcome of what happens to them, are more successful in many situations than those who think that things are outside of their control. We can help our children learn that the effort they make is really part of being “really smart”.