Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Never Tell Your Children They Are Smart

First of all, let me establish what this is not. This is not a debate over whether “smart” or “stupid” people have it harder in life. This is not the rant of a lunatic with a perceived persecution complex. This is not a humblebrag—a smug confession wrapped up in a blanket of humility. This is merely a gesture of solidarity, because I’ve seen and heard countless people mention this very same concern. I’m going to provide some insight about what it’s like to grow up with your entire family and all of your peers constantly telling you how smart you are, and how such praise can ruin you for life. I am using myself as a case study.

I have always been “the smart one”. In my early childhood, I would read prolifically in my bedroom. I would devour one Little Golden Book after the other. My dad taught me how to play Scrabble at around six years old. I would sit down with him to watch Sale of the Century at the same age, because I was genuinely interested in it. At school, I would dominate spelling bees. It suddenly dawned on me that I really enjoyed learning, especially if the topic was related to words or language. I developed a reputation at school. If a fellow student did not know how to spell a word, he or she would ask me to clarify. Words became my forte. In Year 5, I was placed in a Gifted and Talented class, and the only reason for that is because I scored extremely well on the annual South Australian Spelling Test (although, I could never spell seismograph). I hated that “enrichment” class. They assumed that, because I was a good speller, I would be very enthused about plate tectonics and Harry Potter (yeah, sorry, not a fan). I asked my mother to call the school and remove me from the class, because I was too shy to confront the teacher myself. My Year 10 English teacher once announced to the entire class, “Steven is the only one who is allowed to correct me.” Imagine how I felt being placed on a pedestal like that. My teacher was probably trying to commend me on my prowess with words, but it probably only inflated my ego.

Allow me to tell you what daily life is like for me. I feel as though I need to apply very little effort in all things I do. After all, I’ve been told since my childhood that I am “naturally smart”. I can be nonchalant because my super-mega-brain will take care of everything automatically. Because of my upbringing, I feel this constant desire to impress people. I associate being smart with being praised. That’s why, when asked to recommend a good war film, I’ll say “Kubrick’s Paths of Glory”. Now, there’s absolutely no need to mention that Kubrick is the director. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other film with that title. It’s not as though I needed to differentiate between this film and another one. But I say Kubrick directed it because my brain is subconsciously telling me, “Insert that little factoid; the other person will think so much more of you.” It becomes a drug. Positive reinforcement is addictive. In Year 12 English, my teacher mentioned that the original score for Blade Runner was composed by Vangelis. I shouted out, “He’s Greek!” The teacher responded, “Why does that matter?” I was stumped. Literally, the only reason I mentioned that was to show off. People have told me that I’d make a great teacher, but it’s this “teacher” personality type that I wish to shrug off. I just want to be able to have a conversation with someone without inserting meaningless bits of information. Orwell stressed that you should never use a long word where a short one will do, but I betray that tenet. I’ll sometimes insert a fancy word in conversation because I like the way it sounds, even if it’s very obscure. Often, I’m forced to filter my words because I know that not everyone in my presence will understand them. Another thing I feel compelled to do is answer every question I know the answer to. Some students will never raise their hand to answer a question in class. They don’t want to appear as a know-it-all or a teacher’s pet. I am not one of these people. If the answer to a question is lurking somewhere in my brain, I unearth it. A few weeks ago, one of my tutors had to ban me from answering questions because I was the only one putting their hand up. It’s shit like this which contributes to my flawed personality. That tutor created a divide between myself and every other student in the class. I don’t want to feel superior. I don’t believe I am superior. Now, there would be people in that class who silently judge me.  

In educational psychology, there is something known as “academic self-concept”, which is essentially the collection of beliefs a person harbours about his or her academic abilities. Mine is obviously very inflated, but it’s not as bad as it once was. I used to wear the label “Grammar Nazi” as a badge of honour (not a literal badge…calm down). I look back at this period of my life and cringe, but I feel sorry for that confused young man who was only doing what he thought was right. I still occasionally correct people’s grammar, spelling and punctuation, but I do it sparingly, and always very politely. At times, I have suspected I have mild autism because I’ve corrected people even when I knew what they meant. What this all stems from is an intense dislike of being wrong. When I make a mistake, I get extremely disappointed with myself and feel like a failure. And why do I hate being incorrect? I hate it because I’ve been told that I’m just the “smart guy”, as though my very reason for being on this planet is to absorb and expound knowledge. Seeing someone else make a mistake annoys me. Knowing I have made a mistake myself kills me. When those around you constantly reinforce that your most prized quality is your intelligence, moments of stupidity create gaping wounds in the psyche. I feel as though I must abide by correct spelling, grammar and punctuation lest the cosmos explode. A misplaced apostrophe could misalign the Sun, the Moon and the Earth. That’s the best way I can explain it. Perhaps I have an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.     
What makes this worse is that I’m constantly compared with my older brother, who left school in Year 10, and has never undertaken any tertiary study. I go to family functions and my relatives tell me I’m the smartest person to ever come out of the Savona family. Again, such comments put me on a pedestal, and I feel pressure to live up to that role. It’s a burden. Another one is, “You and your brother are so different; one of you must be adopted!” People find my knowledge endearing. They tell me I have a “fascinating brain”, but even a compliment like this makes me feel like a scientific oddity or a test subject. It dehumanises me. I am no longer a person in their eyes. I am a ball of knowledge.  

Let me make this abundantly clear: I am not special. I do not believe I am worth more than people who have never been to university. I do not believe I deserve more respect than people whose grasp of language is intermediate at best. Give me an advanced mathematics or physics exam, and I will prove to you how much I don’t know. I would fail that test miserably. I’d be lucky to answer 5% of the questions correctly. The reason linguistically proficient people are so often heralded as “the smart ones” is because it’s easier to demonstrate such abilities in everyday conversation. If your area of speciality is quadratic equations, good luck trying to work that into a casual chat. In primary school, I adopted the nickname ‘Walking Dictionary’. Today, my friends ask me to define a word, and when I say I don’t know the definition, they literally gasp. Sorry to disappoint, but I am only human. You are the one who has mistaken me for an omniscient deity. I never claimed to be one.     

Here’s how I think you should deal with a child who you think is “smart”. First of all, you should compliment them for individual achievements. If they write a very clever short story, say, “That is so well-written!” The focus must be on the short story. Do not say, “Wow, you are just SO smart!” If you do this, the child does not receive feedback on what was good about the story. He or she just assumes the story is good because it was written by a “naturally smart” person. You should also reward hard work and consistent effort. Make it clear to the child that they have succeeded in something because they put a lot of work into it. If your child comes home from school with a merit award for completing class work to a high standard, do not dismiss the child’s achievement with a petty comment such as “You got another one of these? You’re such a smart cookie!” Say something like, “You deserve it. I’ve seen how many hours you spend doing homework.” Another thing that is absolutely crucial is to never describe a child as “gifted” to their face, unless they are a genuine prodigy. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been called “gifted”. And why? Because I can spell long words? Fuck that.

I’m not saying that being intelligent is a bad thing. In fact, it is a desirable quality that will take you far in life. I’m saying that most intelligent people know they are intelligent. They don’t need every damn person constantly reinforcing it. It’s unhealthy. It lays the foundation for a life of constant disappointment, and can lead a person to believe that everything important in life can be found in a book. The thing about knowledge is that you can easily acquire it, but you can’t just lose it, the way you just forget where you left your keys. You’re going to need some brain damage before that happens. There is no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind erasure process that rids your brain of facts. So, people have told me I’m smart my whole life, and it’s difficult for me to just abandon that reputation, because that reputation is tied to the knowledge in my head.

I end this piece with a plea to people who personally know me. My reputation as “the intelligent one” has burdened me my entire life. Whenever I have spoken to you, it has been in the back of my mind. If you speak to me next week, it will still be in the back of my mind. I hope this revelatory post doesn’t change your opinion of me (unless it’s for the better). I have always been this person. This is just the first time I’ve opened up about it. I hope it’s provided some comfort to people in a similar position.

I think this clip from Good Will Hunting is a relevant one to end on. This, my dear friends, is what true knowledge is all about: