The S-word (subtitled: why we don’t tell our kids they’re smart)

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Depending on your outlook, this is either a good or bad outcome of our general parenting approach.

Chris and I have one strict parenting rule in our house: we don’t say the “S” word to Connor (and we won’t to Daphne, either).

“Shenanigans!” You might say. “Surrender your silliness, you sly sycophant!” And while I doubt you’re actually saying that because weird, it’s none of those many S-words you just mentioned.

And it’s not that S-word. You know which one. (I know you know which one. And you know I know which one.)

The word I’m talking about here is: “smart.”

I can hear your questions and angry jeers now, and I’m starting to think this is all getting a little too interactive, especially considering these peanut gallery comments are entirely in my head. “Are you insane? Not telling your own son he’s smart? Do you want him to think he’s dumb? Do you want him to have a complex? Is this some sort of insane experiment? What do you think you’re doing?!?

To which I reply: whoa now, imaginary commenters. Calm down. You’re getting a little heated. Hear me out first.

This aversion to the s-word all started when I read this post/article on Khan Academy about why the author never tells his son he’s smart. After that I fell down the rabbit hole and came out with two very important concepts that, when connected, led to this one rule in our house.

Concept 1: Language Matters.

We know – and have known for a while – that how we speak and interact with our children matters. Many studies have shown that a large part of the education achievement gap has to do with the fact that disadvantaged children are exposed to far fewer words and less interactive language than their more advantaged counterparts in the earliest years of their life. And while that’s an entire discussion that has filled books written by people far above my pay grade with many socioeconomic factors at play (how we as a country treat new parents in the workforce/parental leave, school funding, culture wars, crime, health, education affordability and the growing disconnect between the education of the economic scales, etc. ad infinitum) that bag of beans is not what I’m actually here to talk about. What I do want you to take away from my research and my ramblings is this one thought: language matters. And what we say sinks into kids’ brains in ways we might not have realized.

I want to note many middle and upper-middle class parents have arguably taken this idea to a new overcorrected extreme and now narrate their child’s every move, all day, every day. “If disadvantaged children don’t get enough language, then my child will obviously benefit from the most language ever” seems to be a common ethos in modern (middle-to-upper-middle-class) parenting. I see this on the playground, and actually have written about it before here. Pamela Druckerman talks about this a lot in Bringing Up Bébé, as does Julie Lythcott-Haims in How to Raise an Adult. These are both books about parenting that struck deep chords with me, but also point out that while yes, language is good, children learning to be themselves in their own minds as well. It’s sort of like SPF in sunscreen: there are marked advantages to the SPF number in sunscreen to a point (SPF 30). After this, the advantages are negligible and probably not worth the cost of purchase. Talking and narrating to your children at points during the day indeed is advantageous, but after a point the costs of your sanity-prohibitive and both you and your child need some quiet time, too, since children also need the skill of self directing and experimentation on their own. Do you want someone chattering in your ear the entire time you’re trying to work out a problem? Neither do your kids. They need time to figure out problems for themselves as much as they need times of interaction and play with you.

(*I included an excerpt from Bringing Up Bébé at the bottom of this post that more clearly demonstrates this overcorrection. It is potentially my favorite passage of the entire book.)

But the overall point is language does matter. Children hear and understand more than they can express, and language comes with time over repeated instances and circumstances. So now that we have that down, let’s go on to the next foundational concept to our weird rule, and then I’ll connect them.

Concept 2: The difference between a “fixed” and “growth” mindset

First, the definitions.

I knew for sure that language is important, probably because it’s not particularly new information. What was new information for me was the concept between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.”

Stay with me. I know it sounds like jargon.

Essentially, when you praise someone (including yourself) for something they have done the praise is about one of two traits: a “fixed” trait or a “growth” trait. A fixed trait is one that exists no matter what you do: you’re born with it. Intelligence, physical attractiveness, and “natural talent” are all examples of this; you’re given a finite amount of this trait by the gods/your genes/luck and that’s what you have to work with your whole life. Growth traits are ones that, as the name implies, can be grown/cultured. Hard work, learning things, curiosity, stick-to-itiveness (real thing.), and “grit” (Angela Duckworth’s work about grit is fascinating, by the way) are all examples of growth traits.

When you start to tackle a problem or project and think to yourself, “I’m smart enough to do this,” that’s an example of a fixed mindset. You’re thinking about drawing from your pool of fixed amount of talent and using it. When you instead think, “I can work hard enough to do this,” or, “I can learn to do this,” both of those mentalities are utilizing a growth mindset. You’re thinking instead that you can grow to do something, regardless of innate talent or intelligence.

Next, why a fixed mindset is nicht so gut. 

“Okay, fine, cool, growth mindset is different. But why does it matter? If a person is smart or talented, then they’ll just succeed no matter what, right?” Well, it turns out that’s not necessarily true.

What actually happens when you have a fixed mindset is kind of fascinating yet also eventually debilitating**.

The first result is that with a fixed mindset you become less and less willing to try things that are increasingly difficult, which means less experimentation and much less willingness to stretch yourself. If you have been told repeatedly that your achievements are due solely to your intelligence (as opposed to your hard work, experimentation, trying again after you failed, etc.), you’ll go on fine for a while because your talent probably is enough to get you through what you need to do. Eventually, though, you will run into something difficult. It’s life, and it’s a sign of good things – you have progressed to a point where you need to be challenged and stretch your limits. However, if all you know is that you’re “smart”, what happens is you’re less likely to want to risk trying the difficult thing because your intelligence/talent/fixed trait might be called into question. “But, if I fail, that means I’m not actually smart,” is probably not the actual thought you’ll have, but it’s subconsciously there. You’ll be inclined to take the least risky/easiest path. And greatness isn’t achieved on that path, it’s achieved on the edges. It’s achieved in those places where the struggle is occurring. The hard thing is, though, those stretch zones are filled with mistakes and hard work. And if you’re never praised for having figured things out, or working hard, or, yes, failing and trying again, then you won’t know those are the qualities that will get you through them.

The second result of a fixed mindset is intrinsically tied to the first one but is worth breaking out on its own: people who are constantly praised for their intelligence/talent innately typically do not handle failure well. “Okay, like, who can?” you might be asking. Which, fair. Failure can feel like a punch in the gut, especially if you’ve tried hard at something. However, when you have a fixed mindset failure takes on an even bigger meaning. Instead of seeing failure as a sign to try something different or work harder, if all you’ve been praised for is your talent it means that you are a failure, not just what you did. It suddenly means that you’re not all that smart, after all, despite all praise previously indicating that you are. If you have a growth mindset, you’ll be able to frame it differently: you have found something that doesn’t work and can try something else. You can work harder. You have found yourself in a place where you need to stretch yourself, and that’s where greatness happens. When you fail, it’s not that you’re stupid or untalented, it’s simply an indication that something didn’t work. Doesn’t that seem better than you yourself not being intrinsically good enough? Of course it is – and is why when people with a fixed mindset fail it’s a catastrophe. A while back, Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, had a great video about how her father asked her every week what she had failed at, because he was determined for her to see failure as a good thing. It meant she was stretching herself. It meant she was trying something new and was challenged enough that she wasn’t able to sit comfortably on her laurels. It framed her entire view about failure not as a personal insult to her intelligence or talent, but that instead it meant that she was trying and working hard enough to be able to fail. I cannot encourage watching it enough.

(Finally) bringing it together

I’m pretty sure by now you know where I’m going with this.

We now know that language matters, and we also know that fixed mindsets aren’t good, but what does that mean in practical terms? What does that actually sound like? That’s where our rule comes in.

What we say to our kids impacts them tremendously, and while they won’t be able to express this for a long time, we can help frame their growth mindsets from the get-go through our language. When Connor figures out how to put the puzzle piece in his puzzle correctly, I don’t praise him for being smart, I praise him for working hard to figure that out, or trying, or working through it. Telling him he’s “smart” ends the conversation, and it’s a habit I certainly don’t want to fall into for when he’s older. Remember, language matters, and early language matters more than we may even realize. I wouldn’t ever tell him he’s stupid, but I also do not want “you’re so smart!” to be the only praise he hears and knows. When he fails at something I praise that, too. I tell him that means that he was trying something new, or that next time he’ll learn from it.

Look, I’m 30 years old and arguably better at building block towers than my two-year-old, but if I only praise him for being smart enough to build the tower, or – worse – if I prevent the tower from toppling I’m doing him a disservice. The learning in building block towers is twofold: the first part is the skills to build it, the second (arguably more important part) is learning that when it falls down – i.e., when it fails – what went wrong wasn’t life-ending, and that he can do something different next time to improve on it. I might show him or help him in the process, but I will not do it for him after that. He can stretch himself to his next level of greatness. If all I tell him is that he’s smart, he’ll never want to try anything new because he’s afraid of failing. He’ll only do what he knows he can do or has been shown to do with great amounts of assistance.

I want Connor to always know that working hard and figuring things out is what gets him ahead, not innate intelligence. Even if he is incredibly intelligent – which of course I believe with all my heart he is as I am a mom and have mommy goggles on no matter what – eventually he will get to a point in either his academic career or other career where he is met with people who are also all incredibly intelligent or talented. What will distinguish him then isn’t his past abilities to have easily done things, get good grades, or his intelligence. What will distinguish him is his ability to work through problems, accept failure as a barometer of what to do next time instead of as a defeat, and then try again with the new information at hand. No amount of intelligence can overcome a fear of failure or fear of being perceived as “not smart.”

Is it strange we do have this super harsh rule in our house? It sure seems like it sometimes. No matter how many books or articles I read (which I’ve listed a bunch at the bottom, if you’re interested) I sometimes feel very alone in this endeavor of not telling my child he’s smart. However, knowing that I can in some way help foster a growth mindset in my little one from literally birth is something so powerful I can’t help but try. I want him to know that he’s capable of doing anything, and not just capable of what his intelligence allows.

And so, with that, our shenanigans are up. We slyly subdued ourselves and stopped saying “smart” to our kiddo. Seriously.

 

*Footnote: Bringing Up Bébé excerpt

This is a quote about the constant narration and how far to the “other” extreme parenting in America has become from Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman that also brings in my favorite parenting reference book, The New Basics by Michel Cohen.

“American-style parenting and its accoutrements—the baby flash cards and competitive preschools—are by now clichés. There’s been both a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. So I’m stunned by what I see at a playground in New York City. It’s a special toddler area with a low-rise slide and some bouncy animals, separated from the rest of the park by a high metal gate. The playground is designed for toddlers to safely climb around and fall. A few nannies are sitting French-style on benches around the perimeter, chatting and watching their charges play.

Then a white, upper-middle-class mother walks in with her toddler. She follows him around the miniature equipment, while keeping up a nonstop monologue. “Do you want to go on the froggy, Caleb? Do you want to go on the swing?” Caleb ignores these questions. He evidently plans to just bumble around. But his mother tracks him, continuing to narrate his every move. “You’re stepping, Caleb!” she says at one point. I assume that Caleb just landed a particularly zealous mother. But then the next upper-middle-class woman walks through the gate, pushing a blond toddler in a black T-shirt. She immediately begins narrating all of her child’s actions, too. When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down. “You’re upside down!” she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. “We came to the park! We came to the park!” she chirps while he’s drinking. This scene keeps repeating itself with other moms and their kids. After about an hour I can predict with total accuracy whether a mother is going to do this “narrated play” simply by the price of her handbag. What’s most surprising to me is that these mothers aren’t ashamed of how batty they sound. They’re not whispering their commentaries; they’re broadcasting them.

When I describe this scene to Michel Cohen, the French pediatrician in New York, he knows immediately what I’m talking about. He says these mothers are speaking loudly to flaunt what good parents they are. The practice of narrated play is so common that Cohen included a section in his parenting book called Stimulation, which essentially tells mothers to cut it out. “Periods of playing and laughing should alternate naturally with periods of peace and quiet,” Cohen writes. “You don’t have to talk, sing, or entertain constantly.””

(Here’s a jump back for your convenience.)

 

**It is worth noting growth mindset thing is sometimes used as a panacea, especially around education. Let me be perfectly clear: it won’t help children being over-tested or put to sit in chairs for 8 hours a day without recesses. Or children who have increased lead in their blood because of the city’s drinking water (not just a Flint, MI problem, by the way). Or children who come in hungry because they might not get food in between leaving school and getting breakfast at school the next day. Or crumbling infrastructure. These are just a scant few of the structural problems facing our education system, and these are problems that no amount of a growth mindset will fix. Arguably, though, putting children into a constant fixed mindset puts them at a double disadvantage.

 

P.S. In case you’re interested in any of the articles or books about this that I linked above…

Books: 

  • Bringing Up Bébé: My favorite book about parenting that ties in food, sleep, praise, and everything in between in a completely delightful easy-to-read narrative.
  • How to Raise an Adult: Think Bringing Up Bébé but for Americans, with a strong focus on the back end about the push for the “best” colleges. Written by the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford who realized all of a sudden these kids had little to no skills on their own without their parents, and how we got to that point.
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance: Angela Duckworth is so charismatic but talks a lot about how to have more grit, and why it is so important in our lives, and how the hard times are where we find greatness.
  • The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success: This really goes into the “failing is a really, really, really good thing” idea and explores examples of failures of all sorts and then how we can all fail better.

Articles: 

Video: 

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