The Weight of the Word

“You’re so smart!”  We’ve all said it.  We say it with the best intentions.  We mean well.  We feel that saying that builds confidence, encourages kids to live up to to their best, and reminds them how great they really are.

But it does more.

“You’re so smart” carries a message.  You need to always be smart.  You are good at everything.  Shy away from risks, because it might be revealed that you are not as smart as I once thought.  Struggle doesn’t feel so good when you’re being told “But, c’mon, you’re so smart at this.”  In fact, it feels worse that failing and having someone tell you how dumb you are.  That might sound crazy.

smartBut when a kid is struggling and hears “You’re so smart,” that struggle feels worse.  It causes internal thoughts like, “But, I thought I was smart, why can’t I do this?”  or “They are not going to think I’m smart anymore.”

Smart is not something that people talk about gaining through effort.  It’s something people just say you are.

Effort on the other hand, is born through struggle.  Trying. Reaching. Thinking deeply. Working around problems.  Effort feels so good when you finally make it as far as you could, and that effort? It’s celebrated.  Not because you are “smart”, but because of hard work.

What if the very idea of ‘gifted’ is so caught up in the weight of the word ‘smart’ that people just never to get to see what it’s really about.  If we know gifted learners are just wired differently, then is it really even about being ‘smart’?  It’s about thinking differently.  It’s about perceiving deeper.  It’s about an intensity that causes you to question things at a harder level than some even understand.   Things like ‘being smart’ and simple phrases that we grow up feeling we have to live up to.

I never thought I’d write a post that seems to be saying, ‘Stop with the compliments.’  But, I’m just realizing how it’s not even really a compliment.  It’s more of an unfair expectation.

  1. Hi Krissy, I was just brought to your site for the first time as your blog was another fellow music educator’s example blog in a class I’m taking… anyway, your post was timely for me as I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I wanted to tell you that I heard a report on NPR a few months ago that addressed this as it applies to messages parents and teachers send their kids in the U.S. as compared to in Asian countries (not sure, but specifically Japan, I think?). It boils down to, generally speaking, in the U.S. we tend to praise kids for their end result, and in Japan, they praise the process. They gave an example of students coming to the board to show a math problem in both places. In the U.S. a student was chosen to give the example who had the correct answer and had mastered the problem. In Japan, a student was chosen who was struggling to come to the board. The student did not mind coming to the board. They were not embarrassed, and the other students were supportive and helped them figure it out. The persistence, work, and effort were valued and praised. The report spoke about attitudes of successful students and grown-ups around the world and argued that this difference in the messages we send make a huge difference in the confidence level of the person and their ability to strive for excellence without fear of failure. I also read another article somewhere that I took notes on and tacked it to my bulletin board. It was called How to Raise a Genius, and the fifth and final point was “Stop telling them that they are smart”. To paraphrase, it reduces independence, creates fear of failure, and stifles the need to try hard. Instead, praise effort, hard work, and “figuring it out”. I just wanted to share that with you as it seems we as a society may be on the brink of noticing your point and changing the way we talk to kids. I think “clever” is a better word because it means you are a problem solver. Thank you for your thoughts.

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