As parents, it is natural to want our kids to be “smart.” I admit that when my son’s first-grade teacher told me she wanted him to be tested for the gifted program, I couldn’t hold back a dopey grin. It strikes me as sort of odd, to be so proud of something that is really not my doing. It isn’t as though I hand-selected his genes or take his spelling tests for him! But in a culture that values intelligence and achievement, it does feel good to know my kid has it covered.
But when Zip’s teacher told me how kind he is to his classmates, how much they like him and how well he gets along with others, and that he doesn’t flaunt his intelligence even though his peers recognize it – well, that is when I started crying. (Yes, braggy mom moment to kick off a post about humility – I do see the irony here!)
When push comes to shove, having a child who is well-liked and gets along with his peers is a thousand times more important to me than having a kid in the gifted program. I want my child to be happy, and research has shown over and over again that IQ isn’t correlated with happiness – relationships are.
Research also suggests that gifted kids are more likely to struggle with being accepted by peers and getting along. Their cognitive skills may be far ahead of their social development, and that gap can result in behaviors that turn off classmates – coming across as bossy, opinionated, or controlling. Or, some gifted kids have a more mature understanding of social relationships and higher expectations than their peers. This maturity can also result in behaviors that aren’t well-received by other kids, especially if the smart child frequently criticizes others’ choices or behaviors.
The challenge (part of it, at least) is raising smart kids to be confident in and enjoy their intelligence, without creating little smarty pants! Here are some of my thoughts on raising smart kids to be humble and keep their intelligence in perspective.
1. Don’t tell your child how “smart” she is.
I was definitely guilty of this when Zip was little. We do it all the time as parents, right? Tell our kids they are smart – it’s an easy adjective to throw around. But research has shown that frequently telling our kids they are smart can actually backfire when it comes to creating healthy self esteem. When kids identify strongly with being smart, they may “protect” that identity by being perfectionistic, less likely to take risks (for fear of failing), or going overboard trying to prove they are right (the know-it-all). Even if your priority is for your smart kid to do well academically, telling her how smart she is really isn’t the way to go.
Instead, talk about how your child worked hard, exercised her brain, or used good problem solving skills – anything that helps your child take pride in the process involved in success. (I love this video about how to respond when a child asks “Do you think I’m smart?”) Focus your child’s attention on having fun and the joy of learning.
Along the same lines, avoid bragging to Grandpa about how “smart” your child is in front of him. Instead, tell her how hard he is working or invite him to tell her about his favorite book. Again, you want to your child to know you are proud, but without “smart” being the end-all-be-all.
2. Point out that everyone has strengths.
Yes, it is great to do well at school or be a strong reader or have an aptitude for math. In the classroom, these are often the things that stand out. We talk with Zip about how school may not come as easily for other students, but maybe something else does or maybe they have another special talent. Maybe they draw well or dominate at kickball. Maybe they are especially compassionate or sing like a rock star. Each person is unique and special in his or her own way. Back this up with real life examples of people who excel in different ways.
And, just as we don’t want to be made fun of for the things we don’t do so well at, kids who have more difficulty with schoolwork should never be made to feel badly about that! We have, from time to time, talked about this very directly.
3. Handle the desire to be “the best” carefully.
Developmentally, elementary school is a time when kids want – and need – to master new skills. It’s one of the reasons they will spend hours drawing or making up songs or shooting hoops in the driveway. They want to be good at something and maybe even the best. I want my kids to feel good about their talents and their efforts, but not focus on being “better than” others.
Just like parents should avoid labeling their children “smart,” avoid talking about who is “the best.” Instead, emphasize that practice and experience are ways to become better at something, that we all have our own strengths, and that there can be many ways to be the best (looking at the varying styles of famous artists is a great way to make this point). Encourage your child to have fun and enjoy his passions, rather than worry about being “the best.”
4. Emphasize social skills and empathy for others.
There are two things we tell our boys before they head off to school each morning: “Learn something new and be kind.” Or sometimes it is a variation like, “Do your best and be a good friend.” We try hard to emphasize learning to get along with others as being an essential part of the school day, just as important as book learning.
5. “It is more important to be kind than to be right.”
It is a work in progress. I recognize that, at 8 years old, it is natural for a kid to want to be right and the best at something and smart. Over the past couple of years he has only become more confident and self-assured, which isn’t a bad thing! But my hope is that with these strategies in place, my smarty pants will also be the kind of person who makes others feel good about themselves, and will understand that how we make those around us feel is truly more important than what we know.