“You’re SMART”

where ideas are found

You are not smart,

You are you. You are a direct reflexion of the effort you put in.

Someone may appear smart once they accomplish something. Someone may appear otherwise if unable to. Could it be that accomplishment is based on effort and failing based on giving up? Einstein is regarded as one of the “smartest” people in history. His school teachers would disagree. He was known to struggle in school, he barely passed his classes. What changed our opinion?

Years of silent practice.

So why not say this to your toddler?

They do not understand what it means to be smart. At four years old they are just at the beginning stages of understanding what it is to BE anything. To BE something, a toddler learns the concrete characteristics about their body. That which they observe. They learn that they are a boy or a girl, they are short compared to their parent but tall compared to the dog. They learn by direct observation. The objective qualities about what they see.

So what is wrong with the word “smart?”

I’m not trying to argue that it is a bad word, but let me ask you this. Do you think a toddler who learns by direct observation will understand what it means to be smart? This is an abstract idea, it is an opinion. Toddlers have not formed their opinions yet. Between four and five is when they start realizing that broccoli tastes the way the word sounds. (sorry broc)

When does being smart mean something?

When a teenager is told they are “smart” they perk up and smile and you get the sense that they appreciate this statement. When I tell my 4 year old she is smart, she simply stares at me with a puzzled look, then continues on.

What is going on here?

Is it just a lack of understanding, limited vocabulary or is it the way toddlers learn?

It might be a combination of all these and more. A 4 year old has spent a grand total of 2 years trying to understand everything their world has to offer. Think about it. Everything a child encounters is a new experience. You can hear Anabelle’s excitement the first time she sees a bee up close. Bzzzz

That is what I love about pediatric patients. When I walk into an exam room with a 3 or 4 year old, they will never be in the seat next to their parent. They will either be spinning the stool, tapping on the computer keyboard or climbing on the exam table. I love seeing their curiosity in overdrive. Sadly the parent’s patience is already exhausted.

Parents, don’t tire yourself to restrain your child too much, let their imaginations and curiosity run wild for a moment, even in my office, it’s okay.

So when can I call my child smart?

Let’s look at some of the milestones in child psychology and brain development first.

Do you know why the game “pick-a-boo” is so much fun for a baby? Your baby loves seeing your face, research has shown that a newborn will spend more time looking at a picture of their mother’s face than at anything else. When you look them in the eye and they see the love in your face, and suddenly, as if by magic, you disappear, their minds are blown. They are wondering what just happened, “I know my mom’s face was just there, right there, I saw it with my own eyes.” And then, as if by a miracle, their mother’s face reappears out of thin air. They are so pleased that they will make that little sound we love so much, a little baby giggle.

By three, this game is old and retired. Saved for the next baby.

So what happened?

It’s called Object Permanence. A baby has not figured out that an object still exists even if they do not see it. If you put their cup behind a piece of paper they will wonder the same thing.

You see, a child’s mental development occurs in stages. From holding an object to object permanence to defining observable characteristics and much later, to understanding abstract ideas.

Being smart is an abstract idea.

You and I know that when we think someone appears smart, it only means that they have worked hard, despite failure and upsets, they continued, they tried different methods until they figured out what worked for them.

So what is a better option?

According to research done by Carol Dweck (link below) she discovered an answer. She studied the effects of telling children they are smart.


Here is what she did.

She took two groups of children and asked them to build an easy puzzle. Once completed, she praised group A by saying “wow, look you finished the puzzle, you are so smart.” For group B she told them “wow, look you finished the puzzle, you must have worked hard.” Then, she gave them a harder puzzle. Again, the children went to work. To her surprize, group A gave up quickly. Group B on the other hand kept struggling until they figured out the puzzle.

So why the difference?

This is because being smart is intangible, it is not based on evidence, on a directly observed cause and effect relationship. “Working hard” makes sense to a child. It is something that the child can see for themselves, they can understand that based on previous experience, that trying over and over they might get good results in the end. They just saw how “working hard” helped them to finish the easy puzzle. Now, they are willing to test this theory with the harder one.

It’s a fascinating book, she took these experiments further with even more surprising results.

This my friends, is a fact of life we have to share with our children. We only discover this after years of self doubt. Hard work may just be the cornerstone, the fulcrum, the secret ingredient to success.

Some say you need luck. Some say that by working hard you create the opportunity for luck to find you.

Here’s a video the girls love to watch, A bug in your life.

Follow your curiosity

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