Don’t tell your kids they’re smart!

Kids become attached to the labels we give them. Good or bad.

There have been a lot of articles and studies about this. Rather than recount them all, I’ll just summarize. Then I’ll dive into my own personal experiences.

Telling a kid they’re smart puts a label on them. Because life is life, they’re eventually going to find something that’s difficult for them. When that happens, they’re much more likely to give up or cheat rather than risk people thinking they’re stupid.

Congratulating hard work instills a desire to maintain that label as well. This often results in a strong work ethic. In other words, telling kids hard work is a virtue leads to adults who believe it.

Growing up, I was always called smart. My parents, my grandparents, and my teachers all gushed over how rapidly I picked up new topics.

This screwed me over.

Big time.

I really was quick to learn new things. My dad moved away from a good job in Arkansas and back to Texas so I could skip the 3rd grade. The local school district wouldn’t allow it because the testing came from out of state and he believed that my future was more important than money.

My inflated self image got even worse when I entered the 5th grade. I was in special ed classes due to behavior issues. Most of the other kids were there for learning difficulties. Worse, I was learning math that my teacher didn’t understand. I taught myself algebra and geometry straight from the book because I couldn’t rely on her for help.

Yep, I was “smarter” than the teacher. What I didn’t see was a very basic fact: I wasn’t smarter. I just knew more about one subject. That didn’t stop my burgeoning brain from decided I was a super genius who could do no wrong when it came to academics.

I stayed in special ed classes throughout middle school and part of high school. During this time I would breeze through my school work and then dive into books and music. I was living the dream: going to school but being my own boss.

Then it all came crashing down.

Halfway through high school I moved and my new school didn’t put me in special ed classes. Suddenly I was in the mainstream. I was doing homework. I was learning things I had very little experience with, like Spanish and P.E.

I started struggling, especially in Spanish. It turns out that I love programming languages, but I’m not good with international ones.

I didn’t cheat. That wasn’t my style. Instead I gave up.

I stopped going to Spanish because I didn’t like the work. That opened the flood gates. I stopped going to English because it was boring. I stopped going to math classes because I already knew the answers.

Soon I was skipping school altogether. I hung out with the other kids who skipped. Some were bored like me. Some would rather be getting high.

Every so often I’d show up on test days. I usually still passed the math and English ones. I already knew the math and was able to BS my way through English tests.

In my last high school I skipped every class every day, except for Business Law and Trigonometry. They were interesting enough to hold my attention without being hard enough to drive me away.

I dropped out.

I had no work ethic. Why would I? Everything was supposed to be easy, because it always had been when I was little.

I wandered from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job.

I hung out with the burnouts, which only made sense because I’d become one.

After a few unproductive and self-destructive years I got my GED. I tried college. It was even harder.

I was expected to work every day. I was expected to research on my own rather than have the facts fed to me through lectures. I was expected to go to classes, when I’d learned that I could skip them and still do well enough to pass.

It took me another five years to decide I wanted to try college again. I was lucky enough to get a few great professors. They made me want to come to classes. Even so, It took me five and a half years to earn my four year degree.

I have no idea how life would have gone if I’d been praised for hard work instead. I guess I’m not smart enough to figure that out.

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