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 meant that “things were easy” for me early in school. Things were easy because my parents (who were both teachers) taught me a bunch of school stuff before I started 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 moved through the school, maintaining that particular image of “smart” became a burden. I had to continue making it all look easy. It got really hard to be perfect and fast and to never need to ask for help.
I had to hide the fact that I struggled. I thought that 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.”
The big question: why weren’t our teachers aware of this?
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. It feels bad to have to study, re-do work, or slow down in order to pull of an A.
Now, different students react in different ways:
- Some aren’t bothered by the increase in 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, “Oh, I didn’t even try.” This option feels better to them than trying really hard, and ending up with a B.
- 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 for me, I was no longer 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 certainly not what I needed to hear.
This feeling is pervasive. 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.
I think this is a huge blindspot in K-12 education. We don’t stay in touch with students after college and ask what we could have done better. So we assume all the straight-A kids were just fine (and all the “behavior problems” became lifelong criminals). 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 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?