Stop Telling Kids They Are ‘Smart’ and ‘Special’

Stop Telling Kids They Are ‘Smart’ and ‘Special’

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”Proverbs 9:10

“I am not smart like Sarah and John.”

I cringed and worried that my youngest daughter might not enjoy her God-given destiny with this woeful self-appraisement. My husband and I knew better than to compare our three children. What made her say this? Her grades and test scores were just fine, but the numbers were different than her older siblings. What should loving parents say to encourage their children?

What I saw develop in her over the years amazed me, and demonstrated some powerful insights.

When faced with new challenges or unknowns, Anna would just press in and figure it out. Not feeling she had the natural ability of smartness actually gave her freedom. She did not have to worry about living up to a pre-set standard or reputation. Her risk level to try often exceeded her siblings.

One day, our oldest daughter was fretting over driving to an unexplored location for a medical appointment. A first-born perfectionist and novice driver, Sarah expressed her anxiety at the kitchen table to the family. As I watched, Anna walked over to the phone (yes, on the wall, with a long curly cord) and dialed the number of the office, politely asked for directions, time needed to get there, and parking in relation to the front door. Wide-eyed Sarah listened to the information pouring toward her from the phone call through her 4.5 year-younger sister.

“Thank you, Anna, you are the best sister ever,” she said, grabbing the car keys and walking confidently out the door.

Praise Effort, Not Ability

Natural born high intelligence or top talent tempts children to coast through tasks at an early age. They often whine, “I’m bored,” sending parents on a quest to find stimulation in school and sports to provide their brainy, talented children inspiration and motivation. Arrogance, false pride and selfish demands can result. Exhausting!

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These children sadly come to think of intelligence as a quantity given and likely with a limit, called a fixed mind-set. When faced in later years with something unfamiliar or beyond the easy answer, they may quit and think they can’t do it. They conclude they are just not that smart.

Studies over the past decades tell parents and educators that the best tactic to encourage students is:  focus on effort, problem-solving strategies and perseverance. Teach children that the brain and smartness can be expanded through practice, challenging experiences, and determination-not-to-quit. A growth mind-set spotlights process rather than ability, produces better student achievement, life-long learning habits and overall personal satisfaction.

Better than, “You are so smart,” tell your children (and yourself!):

  • You have done hard things before, you can do this too.
  • Keep trying new ideas and strategies.
  • Think about similar tasks and see if you can remember how you figured it out.
  • Break down the task into smaller parts.
  • Keep reading and maybe study harder.
  • Don’t worry about failure. That is a form of learning too.
  • Good job on that assignment! You worked really hard.
  • What did you learn? The grade is not the most important thing.
  • I love that you did not give up.
  • I am proud of your effort.

To Be or Not To Be…Special?

We want our children to develop self-confidence, absolutely, and be able to move through life’s challenges without panic that they are not measuring up. Besides encouraging a growth mind-set about intelligence, we need to understand the difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism.

In Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell’s book, The Narcissism Epidemic (2010), I read about the results on my own Boomer generation of the 60’s and 70’s culture where everyone was unique and master of his own destiny. Women should be whatever they want, equal to men. Dress style, hair length, music preference, drug use, and sexual expression should be your own decision. Individual trumps community.

Somehow we preached and acted out the specialness message on steroids to our children. Now many members of the next generation believe they are better than others. Yikes. That doesn’t build acceptance for differences, but fosters disrespect, condescension and ultimately harsh treatment of others. We see this happening all around the world, in social media and politics.

Children raised with warmth and encouragement plus an others-focus generally have high self-esteem, enjoy life and see value in others. They recognize there are people more capable and less capable than them in all aspects of life, but they believe they are good enough to matter and have a place in their world.

God Tells Us the Right Answer

When we recognize our identity as children of God, we find that we are unique and special in His design. God has written a great story of our life. Everyone has this inheritance, if they choose to seek God and embrace His plan. King David wrote:

Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV)

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be

We need to choose our words carefully as we encourage our children. Drop the smart and special labels.
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Let’s tell our kids the truth, that they are loved by God and us. But, they must not think of themselves too highly, above others. They are indeed valuable, capable, lovable, and need to take their place in the world. Others are also valuable, capable, and lovable, and deserve a place in the world. Let’s be hardworking, unique individuals together.


♡ Gail Goolsby is a life coach and serves as a Titus Woman for Proverbs 31 Woman.

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4 thoughts on “Stop Telling Kids They Are ‘Smart’ and ‘Special’

  1. Gail, what a beautifully written and relevant article! I have four children who were in the elementary ‘gifted’ program, named Aspire to avoid the ‘gifted’ label (although everyone knew what it was). They were all top musicians in high school as well as being in advanced classes. We tried to take the approach of awarding their efforts. I admit it was hard. My husband and I believed strongly in reinforcing that everyone has natural talent of some kind. But we probably put too much of an emphasis on their intellectual capabilities. I agree completely with your insights! By the way, my children are ages 21-29. I am proud of all of them for their accomplishments, but it has been a long road for some of them. I wish I’d read this article 20 years ago! Thank you.


  2. Thank you, Caroline, for the comments and transparency! Being a parent is so challenging, isn’t it? I remember counseling with parents of high achievers as the Kdg teacher at our local Christian school (which had excellent academics, but no “gifted” emphasis intentionally to allow students to learn from each other and not “skim off the cream.”) We in truth had few learning disabled children so the ability range was not as great as public schools struggle with and allowed teachers to meet most of the students’ needs across the board. Anyway, I loved that our academically talented students could pursue other interests and be good leaders, showing the way for their peers and learning compassion, generosity, and acceptance of others not only those “like” them. Hope your children find God’s destiny for them and how to steward their talents! Blessings, Gail


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