Don’t tell my daughter she’s smart. I’d rather you didn’t say anything at all. Please. Smart is like pretty; it is a fortunate trait and a potential tool, but the only thing that matters is what the owner does with it, and in the case of young children, they have done precious little.
When you praise Q, the eldest of our three, for being smart, you enforce an expectation that things should be easy for her and you give her praise for something for which she is not responsible. She didn’t go out and make that brain, she is only lucky that it grew between her ears.
So, Q is smart. Her mind is programmed to accept, organize, and synthesize information. She is lucky that the way she learns is exactly the way traditional schools teach. She’s starting life with a good head and she knows it. Despite the current effort in education to avoid loaded words like “advanced, accelerated, low, remedial,” etc., kids know where they sit on the academic spectrum, and so does she. School work is not hard for her, not really. Sometimes she needs something explained, or gets a math problem wrong, but most of her errors are due to carelessness and one explanation is all it usually takes.
Am I bragging? Hell no. I didn’t build that brain either. I’d love to take credit for it, but the only thing I did toward her agile mind is stay off booze and blow when it was forming. (High five for me!) I’m trying to set up the dilemma I see for this child and us, her parents.
My concern for her is that she learn to work hard, and to see hard work as part of life, a GOOD part. People grow wiser, stronger, and more mature by struggling, sweating, working around obstacles they can’t change, trying over and over, plugging away at a mountain of a task. That is how we achieve, how we conquer challenges, master ourselves, and earn our self-esteem (and there is no other way to get it but to earn it. Everything else is pap.)
Why don’t I just give her harder books? Pester her teacher until she throws an algebra book at the child? Enroll her in “enrichment” classes outside of school? Because she is already good at this kind of work. The goal is not to finish the academic standards first. The goal is to learn to work, learn to listen, learn to strive, to learn that being good at one thing does not make you good at all things. Grit is what I want for her, grit and perseverance, and a little humility to keep it all in line. We require her to do her best work at school and we search for things that will challenge her in new ways, coax her to think differently and maybe even struggle a little.
It is one reason why we make her study piano. (Aren’t we awful, terrible, monster parents?) It doesn’t matter how bright or talented you are, learning a musical instrument is a tremendous physical and mental challenge, and we want her challenged. I sought out the toughest teacher I could find- a Chinese woman in her 60s with nearly ridiculous standards for hand position, correct phrasing, and musical literacy. Q rails against it every day. I often think of tiger mother, Amy Chua, when we practice together. It is hard. It takes a lot of repetition and a fully engaged mind. It requires attention to detail. It is not easy. It is just what she needs.
I don’t know if it will work. I don’t know that it’s a real problem for her. Just please, don’t praise her for something over which she has no control. Note the effort, the quality of the work, the time spent. And if it isn’t that great, don’t say it is.