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The "S-Word" - Don't Call Kids "Smart"!

Over the past decade, I've happened across several articles/people/instances urging adults to stop calling children "smart."  They warn that by labeling them "smart," students will become lazy. Children will begin to believe they are somehow intrinsically better than "non-smart" kids, and their self-value will come from labels rather than actions. And if a child believes himself to be dumb, calling him otherwise will violate his trust.

Teachers woefully express their regret and challenge themselves to never use the S-word. They offer suggestions, though, such as emphasizing a child's efforts and accomplishments. When a child gets a 100 on a spelling test, you should say, "Wow! You really studied hard" rather than "You are so smart!"

The logic behind this argument makes sense, and I have wrestled with this idea when interacting with my own children and students. This is not entirely bad advice: questioning our words and their impact is always important. I have certainly increased the amount of effort-based compliments I give, and I make a point to acknowledge hard work....but still I willingly, regularly, and purposely call students "smart."

Let me tell you why:

1. If you don't call them smart, who will?
Your AP and GT students are acknowledged often, probably daily, for their intelligence. They are being groomed for success; they are being told they are the best of the best - they are the future- they are the brightest. And they believe they are! What about the others? How often are they called smart?

2. How often do you think they are told they are stupid?
All kids are told they are stupid. Kids call each other stupid all the time, and they don't use teacher-friendly, politically-correct terms when they do it. They don't say things like, "I think you're a great person, but I'm not happy with your choices." They use words like "stupid," "idiot," and "retard." Wouldn't it be nice if we could balance that out for them?

3. Nobody believes they are dumb more than they do.
Kids who struggle will be the first to say they are stupid. They will be quick to label themselves when making even a little mistake.

4. If a child can believe they are their label, why not let that label be "smart"?
If being labeled smart makes kids lazy, believing they are stupid makes them quit.

5. If they believe they are stupid, why should they even try?
If being labeled "smart" leads students to believe their worth is internally-based on something outside of their control, wouldn't being labeled "stupid" do the same thing?

6. Absence speaks loudly.
I acknowledge that adults aren't calling children "stupid" with any sort of regularity. But children still hear the absence of positive labels. They may recognize that nobody calls them "dumb," but they also notice that nobody calls them "smart."

7. They like it.
Some students never hear it, and many won't believe it. But they all like to hear it. Even if it's just once, they can know somebody, at some point in time, believed in them

If you want to change a student's self-belief: Don't throw the word around meaninglessly. Wait until he has accomplished something significant. It doesn't have to be monumental, just a significant achievement for him. Then look directly at him and tell him emphatically, "I knew you could do it! You are really smart. I always knew you had it in you."

This week, I challenge you to find a child who is struggling. Wait for the moment when she does something great. Use the "S-word." Now watch. Can you physically see her confidence? Did her lips curl up in something resembling a smile? Does she have more energy? A little bounce in her step? Is she willing to try just a little harder? 

Let her believe, even if just for a moment, that she is absolutely brilliant!


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