In a previous article, I thought about the definition of “smart” and how it becomes a synonym for “things are easy” at school. In this article, we’ll look at the ramifications of believing that “smart” should mean “things are easy.”
When “Smart” Becomes A Burden
I was “smart” in school starting from day one of Kindergarten. This means that “things were easy” for me early in school. Things were easy because my parents (who were both teachers) taught me a bunch of early school stuff before I entered school. So in school, I wasn’t really learning. I was just showing what I already knew – and being rewarded with people telling me that I was “smart”
Of course, as I advanced through school, trying to maintain that image of “smart” became more and more of a burden. I had to continue making it all look easy. It got really hard to be perfect and fast and to never ask for help.
I had to hide the fact that I struggled. I thought working for an A was cheating. Because, after all, “smart” kids don’t need to study. So I pretended that I didn’t have to work. I pretended that I understood things that I didn’t. And I never asked teachers for help, because “smart” kids don’t need help (I call this the curse of the kidney table.
The irony is, I know now that all of the “smart” kids were frantically trying to appear smart by making it look easy. I know this because I’ve talked to my “smart” friends who are now adults. Each one of us was putting on a show to appear “smart.”
What Happens When It Gets Hard?
If you’ve been “smart” from Kinder through 5th grade, it’s an enormous identity crisis to realize you need to ask for help, start to study, re-do your work, or slow down in order to perform well.
Different students react in different ways:
- Some aren’t bothered by needing to increase their workload. I would imagine they were praised for effort, not just grades.
- Some kids sandbag. They fail on purpose. Then they can always say “I didn’t try.” This option feels better to them then trying really hard, and ending up with a B+.
- And others become teenage workaholics, putting hours and hours of work in at home to maintain the illusion that it’s easy rather than just asking for help at school.
I’ve written before about the Impostor Syndrome I felt in college. I thought I didn’t belong. I thought that, since school was now hard, it made me “not smart.” And I needed to hide it! I was intensely embarrassed.
What did my parents say to cheer me up? “Oh Ian, but you’re so smart!” Well-intentioned, but not what I needed to hear.
This feeling is incredibly common. Many gifted kids will eventually question whether they “deserved” the label. They’ll wonder if they faked it, had a lucky day, or somehow tricked their teachers.
Try this: get in touch with the “smart” students you taught who are now adults. I think it’s a huge blindspot in K-12 districts that we don’t stay in touch with our top students after college and ask what we could have done better. You can also read other folks’ work in this area. Here’s a summary of some findings of what grown-up gifted kids say.
Our “smart” praise needs to change. “Smart” (as our kids define it) becomes an impossible burden to live up to. And it can lead to both underperformance or stressful overachievement.
As I wrote last time, try to remove “smart” from your vocabulary and praise the thinking or action that actually impressed you. What did the student do that made them appear smart?
Finally, if you haven’t read it, Carol Dweck’s Mindsets is a great (and easy!) read about praising kids for specific effort rather than final results.