Every child needs an education, and who isn’t proud of a little precociousness? But we run into trouble when someone’s sense of value comes from how smart they are, especially if “smart” means “always right.”
Too much emphasis on intellect can really mess up developing minds. Even very young students are led to believe they are or aren’t smart based on how they perform in school – which is flawed because academic performance is largely based on what holds their attention, how well they can focus at certain times of day, how much drama is going on at home, and whether their particular talents are recognized as worthwhile.
Clearly, tests and grades can’t define intelligence, but maybe we should have a stab at it. Let’s say intelligence is the ability to figure out how to thrive. If we want to get fancy we’ll say intelligence is the efficiency with which resources can be converted into desired outcomes.
If so, it’s impossible to compare intelligence with any precision because there are simply too many moving parts – who's getting what quality of nutrition, parental attention, exercise, school funding, self-image programming, and so on. Not to mention, the challenges kids face and what they need to thrive are unique and sometimes invisible factors.
So now that we’ve tossed the idea of objective intelligence, what's a better framework?
Let’s teach our kids the truth: humans have evolved to work together. And while everyone is responsible for keeping track of their own needs, no one meets all these needs by themselves. We each have specialized interests and talents. Some people are great listeners, some great mathematicians. Some people like to get messy, others can stay locked up with research all day.
Some people are comfortable calling out bullshit, others live to comfort the hopeless. A robust society needs all of these skills, and applying our strengths while cooperating with those who lack them is the true essence of being smart.
Now let’s talk about what intelligence isn’t.
Intelligence isn’t having an opinion on everything. It’s not being a busy body or feeling entitled to declare what others are doing wrong. And it sure isn’t putting data and soundbites above lived, emotional realities.
Yet in the adult world we can all be a little too quick and happy to weigh in on things we’ve never experienced. Some issues really need our attention, of course, but we should always question our motives – am I putting forth an opinion because I believe I can help? Or am I just trying to be right?
As parents it’s on us to convey that being smart doesn’t mean being right; it means wanting to know when you’re wrong. It’s an attitude of receptivity when you’ve misunderstood or misremembered, or when you simply hadn’t realized how complicated something was until just now.
We get to be the first to condition our kids’ interpretations of their emotions; let's not squander that opportunity. We can teach them that the intense feeling they experience when they’re called out for being wrong isn’t something to fear and avoid, but a big cosmic belly laugh trying to tickle its way out.
We can raise them to love having their minds blown.
Talking the talk is swell, but you know kids really only mimic the walk we walk. So model an open mind by consulting multiple news sources, courting diverse friendships, and counting to 10 before defending yourself. If you have a debate in front of your kids, end it by asking yourself aloud to name one point you learned or are excited to look into.
Use small talk at dinnertime to challenge the stigma of wrongness by asking your kids to describe something they were wrong about lately. Congratulate them for noticing it, and think of examples you can share that won’t erode their trust in you as a guardian.
And for goodness sake, forgive your own ignorance – as in, accept that having a partial view is inherent to the human experience. There is much that each of us will never comprehend, because people truly experience life differently and yield different insights.
With a little humor, humility, and some common sense manners, our kids will embrace the giddy truth that life never has to be boring no matter how old they get as long as they’re always willing to be surprised. Such kids will grow into adults who are smart in the best possible way: comfortable calling out wrongness when they see it, whether in themselves or life at large, and extremely willing to forgive mistakes and carry on.