I was one of the lucky kids who pretty much breezed through school. Reading and writing were always my greatest strengths, and I was even able to skip the standard freshman Algebra I and junior English classes in high school. I was in the gifted and talented program starting in fifth grade. Throughout my childhood, my parents, my teachers, family members, and friends told me I was smart.
Trust me, my point here is not to toot my own horn, although I’ll admit that it was pretty nice. It’s nice to hear that you’re smart. It feels great to get A’s on tests you didn’t even study for, or on papers you didn’t write until the nights before they were due. You start feeling like you’re a genius—maybe even impervious to failure. And there’s the rub.
I got all the way to my senior year of high school and had never once, in all of my schooling, earned less than a B in any class. But then, having skipped that Algebra class, I wound up in Calculus. I’d been lucky in my Trig class the year before—I’d had a nice teacher who had been an easy grader. I’d easily passed and thought I might have this math thing licked. But Calculus was a whole new ballgame. My teacher was a gruff old man whose style of explanation did not easily mesh with my language of understanding. I found myself having an all-new experience: The feeling of being hopelessly lost in class. I agonized at home, trying to get my mom (a hopeless effort) to help me figure out ridiculously hard problems. I spent hours on homework that only wound up covered in red marks. How did people go through this all the time? How could they stand how terrible this felt? I was earning a C—a grade that for many would have been completely satisfactory, and which I logically knew was totally acceptable, but which might as well have been an F in my book. As the semester’s end approached and we began registering for second-semester classes, my teacher called me to his desk and said, in as kindly a way as he could, “Listen, do you need this class?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, I see you’re struggling. You have all the credits you need to graduate, and be on the honor roll, even. You don’t have to take Calculus, you know.”
My first thought was, Wait a minute… Wouldn’t that be cheating? Can I really just take the easy way out?
Would my parents be disappointed? No, as it turns out, they were just fine with me dropping Calculus, and had marveled that I’d hung on this long. Instead, I could preserve my high GPA, take easy classes like Library Aide or Drama, and solidly maintain my reputation as a smart student. I dropped Calculus like a hot potato, miraculous escaping the first semester with a B-, and sighed relief at my narrow but successful escape.
It certainly wasn’t the only time in my life where I’d shied away from something I wasn’t good at. I avoided math and science classes in college after finally earning my dreaded first C in freshman biology, vowing never again to force myself into subjects that weren’t my strength. I never tried out for any sports, feeling ashamed at even the thought of not making it onto a team and being not entirely confident in my physical abilities. My one audition for a school play was so humiliating that I never once tried again, and even now feel sort of sick thinking about it. I don’t even like to play games, really—a fact I also attribute to my fear of failure.
Now that I have a child in school, though, it’s as if this fear is double—maybe even triple. When she earns a “check” instead of a “check-plus” on her homework, my hackles come up and I immediately think, “What the hell? What more could she have done? My daughter is a GENIUS, don’t you people see that?!!” My level of outrage over my daughter’s first-grade homework is all out of proportion to its level of significance.
I’ve been reading a lot about this whole concept of being “smart.” When my daughter, Olivia, started kindergarten, a friend sent me an article by Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, who writes about his own son and the need to quit telling our kids that they’re smart. Khan writes, “Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows. Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach.”
Further research led me to an Atlantic Monthly article describing this latest body of research. The writer states the thing that defined so much of my early life: “When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing.”
Fellow RMB contributor Jennifer Duval wrote similarly a while back when she spoke of “grit”—the idea that perseverance and the willingness to stick it out against adversity are much greater predictors of future success than earning A’s or having natural talent.
This made such good sense to me and my husband that we began persevering to stop telling our daughter she’s smart.
This is not to throw my parents under the bus for telling me I’m smart—they gave me the best praise they could think of giving me, and it is instinctive to want to praise your children. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to avoid giving this particular kind of praise. When we see Olivia read a challenging book, use a difficult word in the correct context, make a particularly astute comment about society or human nature, or crack a clever joke, our first instinct is to reply, “You are SO smart!” But we squash it, choosing instead to tell her that she’s done a great job, made a great point, or done so well at pushing through to get the answer.
We tell her we’re proud of her effort. We tell her that it’s smart to ask questions and to work hard when the going isn’t easy. But we’re conscious not to say that she’s smart, for fear of what that might mean to her down the road.
We’re endeavoring to praise the struggle, not the outcome. Sure, a “check-plus” on her homework gets a high-five because it means she went above and beyond. But we are over the moon with delight when she struggles through a difficult task, not demonstrating natural talent but slogging through, accomplishing something in a rough way that took a while but was a hard-won accomplishment.
This past summer, a friend with a piano taught Olivia how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and she got so frustrated that she couldn’t play it just as easily in response. She stamped her feet, pouted, cried, screamed, exclaimed “I give up!”, and then returned to try one more time. When she finally got it after nearly a half hour—the tune sloppily assembled but technically containing the correct notes—we all got to our feet and cheered, as if we could visibly see her brain growing. And she walked a little taller that day.
I love that she pushed through the uncomfortable to risk failure in order to learn. I see her doing that more and more, and I know she’ll be better off for it. I hope she’ll grow up knowing that a hard C is better than an easy A any day. I wonder what I could have accomplished if I’d chosen less often to take the easy, failure-free route.