Ask the grumpies: What do you say when people in public say your kid is smart or shy?

Ree asks:

I would love advice on what to say when your kid is in earshot and another adult says something like “Ze’s so smart!” or “Ze’s shy!” Because I often hear both, especially the latter, and I do NOT want to reinforce that in my four-year-old. I am both gifted and socially awkward and have no idea what to say in these situations…

This question is great.  According to research by Carol Dweck and others we do not want to help foster a fixed mindset through praise of intelligence (or other fixed traits).  Praise for effort is good, praise for smarts can lead to the bad kind of perfectionism, fear of taking risks, and so on.  Similarly, saying that a kid is shy may reinforce that behavior.

With the “smart” I always focus on, “Oh, yes, DC LOVES to read!” or “The Magic Treehouse books are really exciting!” or “Ze’s been working really hard on hir handwriting.”  I try to enforce that these things are fun and that practice is important, and get away from the “smart” with a gentle correction that way.

In preschool we also talked to the director about teachers not saying that kind of thing and praising effort (which she already knew about– she teaches childhood development at the community college, but some of the newer teachers needed reminders), and that helped a little.

When DC was much younger I admit to rounding up hir age when asked, not so it was incorrect, but giving the most generous rounding I could do (almost 3, rather than 2 years 6 and a half months)… I’m not sure how I feel about having done that.

Over the past year we’ve been avoiding situations with DC’s same-age peers… ze fits in much better with kids about a year older.  This is easier to do because ze started K early (when people ask, we say, “Ze just missed the cutoff, and all hir friends were going to kindergarten,” which is true, for some definitions of “just.”)   People just assume ze is small for hir age.  That has helped a LOT.  Ze doesn’t seem quite so abnormal around other kids when the other kids are at similar levels, even if they’re not really the same age.

In terms of shyness:  We usually get that DC is mellow, which I don’t mind so much, and I always say ze takes after hir daddy.  Ze definitely likes to check out the situation before jumping into it, and the teachers at after-school recently told me ze is always shy at first but then warms up.  So maybe, “It generally takes hir a little while to warm up to people, but ze will be fine.”

Dear grumpy readers:  What would you do in these situations?  What advice would you give?

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21 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: What do you say when people in public say your kid is smart or shy?”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I would say something like, “Wow. I’m so surprised that you would render an unfounded and unsolicited opinion like that about someone else’s child.”

    I don’t have kids, so grain of salt, but this is my general way of dealing with officious f*ckebagges who think the world owes them due consideration of their ignorant self-aggrandizing opinions.

  2. ARC Says:

    “Shy” is another one that bothers me. I tell them outright that she’s not shy, she just takes time to warm up to new people.

    Not sure about ‘smart’ though as it’s always a compliment :( Sometimes we follow up with something like “she has a lot of focus, and pays attention to things around her” but not sure if that accomplishes anything, really.

  3. Alyssa Says:

    I also hate the shy thing – mostly because it’s considered a negative trait. People jump to it right away if Evan doesn’t immediately want to interact with them. He usually takes 10-15 minutes to warm up to a situation, but then he jumps right in. I usually tell people that he’s an observer and likes watching people (because who doesn’t? :D).

    We haven’t encountered the smart comments, since he’s only 1.5 years old. But, I do agree that the “smart” label can lead to imposter syndrome-like feelings (not wanting to take risks for fear of failure, not feeling like they can make a mistake, feeling they are not smart, etc.).

  4. Calee Says:

    We’ve given the 5-year-old license to be “shy” in new situations but also encourage her to be brave. (“Did you see me mom, I was really brave when I put the money into his banjo case!”) When it comes to the smart comment,the only thing worse is when our she’s compared with our abnormally charming toddler son. I absolutely hate it when one is pigeonholed as the smart one and one is the cute one….
    I have no tips but I’m appreciating all the answers!

  5. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    A related problem is the quid pro quo of parental bragging. All parents like to brag about their kids, but the problem with highly gifted kids who do well in school (not all do) is that the bragging doesn’t fit in with the social rubric. A parent says “I’m so proud of Jane for getting an A on her paper.” If you respond with “I’m so proud of Simon for getting a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal at age 15!” it’s not going to win you friends.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes, we’ve got a couple posts* on this. When I mentioned the isolating silence in an RBOC I got a really nasty commenter being a total bitch. Which, of course, lead to another post… When leechblock lets me in I’ll dig up those links.

      Anyhow, parents of gifted kids, you’re not alone, and feel free to brag all you want on this site. We won’t “one-up” or whatevs, but it’s nice to talk about your kids once and a while. We want this blogsite to remain a safe place for that kind of thing.

      *see the links in this post for the two posts leading up to it

  6. Rebecca Weinberg (@sciliz) Says:

    For “smart” I often try to emphasize that my kid enjoys the pursuit (we got it when I told him what floor we needed to go to and he pushed the correct the elevator button. I just said “oh he loves elevators!” and they said “they usually do!” and it was warm and fuzzy). This may be a defense mechanism to prevent people from assuming I “push” my kid, but I think it also emphasizes an important lesson “if you do what you love, success will come” (yeah, there may be limits to that, but it’s good enough for now).
    That said, I tend to vigorously reinforce when people randomly praise my kid for being “helpful” though. I *love* it when random people at the grocery store exclaim over how helpful my kid putting all the groceries on the conveyer is. I suppose there are limiting effects of praise on any front, and maybe it will remove his natural inclination to help if he *doesn’t* get praise for it later? But overall, it’s a much happier comment than those that focus more on his personality.

    We don’t usually get “shy”, but we get it a lot more now than before. I usually just say something like “kids are so unpredictable, I never know when ze is going to be in a shy mood”- I don’t know if this is helpful, except inasmuch as it posits that “shy” is a “mood” and not an “inborn character trait” (which is how I think of it).

  7. mareserinitatis Says:

    I’m really glad you’re discussing this.

    My older one is so smart that people think he’s just eccentric. So…no worries there. :-) (That’s both good and bad.)

    Younger one – this has started to happen, and I have had no idea what to do. The one that surprised me was when he figured out what numbers/letters refer to which teeth at the orthodontists office just by listening while doc was talking to the tech. The orthodontist looked over at me and the, “You know he’s really smart, don’t you?” I just sort of smiled and didn’t say much. Guess I’d never really thought about what to do because I’ve been fighting people on getting them to recognize that older one was smart and so was stunned into silence by someone blurting it out about the younger son. Fortunately, younger son is a role-model behaviorally, so most of the complements we get are on his behavior. This makes me terrified he will turn into a passive, compliant adult. I feel like I can’t win. :-)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      All the men in my family are passive compliant (brilliant, responsible, sweet, caring, etc.) adults (well, except my dad… he’s really an exception compared to all my uncles and the men in DH’s family). It works out just fine when they marry strong women of good character. (It’s sad when they marry strong but horrible women… there’s a post on that in the archives too that I’ll have to link to. They say that uncle never had a sense of humor to begin with though, so maybe that kind of marriage was inevitable. Still, we wish he’d married someone who was hard-ass about ending poverty rather than say, ending gay marriage.)

  8. feMOMhist (@feMOMhist) Says:

    there was a point when we asked people not to say that in front of fMhson because he’d started claiming to be smarter than us and his teachers! Now I just try to emphasize that he is good at some stuff and not good at others. fMhgirl is getting lots of love for being the most advanced reader in her K class, but she hasn’t busted out with “i’m smarter than you” so we’ve let those comments stand. Plus I think people encourage girls to act dumber than they are (boys get the social pressure but to lesser extent) so I figure we should reinforce the smart chick stuff before she is all up in the no one will like me if I’m smart phase
    I myself try to refrain from comments about kids’ looks or brains and instead say things that are specific such as I like your shirt or that is a great picture.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I used to do the “good at some stuff but not at others” but realized that was a horrible thing to do in front of my kid, especially if I want ze to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. If ze is bad at something it is only temporary if ze works at it. So we focus on effort and enjoyment now.

  9. chacha1 Says:

    Wow. I’m so glad the only comments I get are along the lines of “your cats are so cute!” They know what the word means, but it doesn’t give them a complex. :-)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC has this thing where ze “talks with hir eyes” when someone makes that comment. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Both our cat who gets that comment and the one who gets the, “She’s so big” comment seem to be unfazed by either.

  10. eemusings Says:

    Just wanted to say I’m really enjoying this topics.

    I have very Asian parents so I never was allowed a big head, but I definitely did get remarks along these lines (ESPECIALLY the shyness. I think eventually everyone else caught up to me; I’m definitely not gifted these days) but my shyness + introversion is still a millstone. My mum would sometimes reprimand me for not looking people in the eye (I still find this uncomfortable) but never really did anything to help me in that regard.

  11. femmefrugality Says:

    I think “feeling shy” or “acting shy” would be better than “is shy.” We’re all entitled to our feelings, and what’s happening immediately doesn’t necessarily define who we are as a whole.
    I wouldn’t mind someone calling DC smart. I think in this day and age putting a value on intellect is so important. Then again I was not aware of any research evidencing syndromes over it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      good point on the shy

      Unfortunately the “smart” label causes kids to be less likely to take risks and to have perfectionist tendencies (the bad kind) because they feel like if they make a mistake they’ll be seen as not smart, which is scary when you think you’re smart. There’s a big area of research on it. Mindset by Carol Dweck is a good read. (It’s her pop culture version of the research.)

      • Leah Says:

        I haven’t read a lot of research, but I definitely agree with the concept. I was always told how smart/clever/etc I was. I did work hard at school stuff in elementary because it was easy and fun. My working hard was not increasing the quality of my work but rather just outputting more quantity. I still wish someone had sat down with me, even then, and showed me how to do even better. I got my normal schoolwork done quickly, and even the pullout stuff was easy.

        It wasn’t until sophomore year, when I took advanced physics without the requisite math, that I stumbled. Our teacher wasn’t the best, and we were using a college level textbook in IB physics. I definitely stumbled (as in, did not get an A). I had an A first trimester, then a B, and then a C. I literally started making plans to kill myself — that’s how much of a life jolt it was. That is when I had to start learning that I couldn’t always be perfect, and it was okay to stumble some. I still struggle with perfectionism and the imposter syndrome, which was especially vicious when I tried and did not get a PhD (stopped with my MS). Lifelong struggle. So, yes, I work especially hard to praise the work a student did rather than praise their intellect. Intellect means noting if you don’t work hard to utilize that intellect.

  12. Cloud Says:

    Hmmm- I’m late to the party (I’m on a vacation-like thing at my parent’s house, except we’re all getting over nasty colds and the toddler’s been having issues with constipation, so it seems weird to call it a “vacation”).

    Anyway, we’ve had lots of opportunities to try to figure out how to handle this recently, because Pumpkin is the only kid in her day care class who is reading. And she is undeniably and obviously reading, at a level such that I’ve stopped looking exclusively for easy readers and started just handing her various picture books to read, too. Just about every parent in the day care has said something about it, sometimes in front of Pumpkin and sometimes not.

    When they say something in front of Pumpkin, we’ve been trying to say some variant of “she got interested in reading and practiced a lot.”

    When she’s not in earshot, we might be a bit more expansive and say that she’s gone in spurts of interest in language skills, and in the last spurt, she figured out reading. Before that, she’d been “right on the edge” (which is where most of her classmates are, I think) for ages. I have no idea if this is the right thing to say in terms of not being a jerk. I’ve only “clicked” with a few of the other parents at day care, to be honest. Depressingly, the only ones we’ve clicked with are the other science/engineering geeks. As my husband says, the others are the ones who were the “cool kids” in high school, and we are no more at ease with them now than we were then….

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hope you all feel better soon!

      It helps when they learn that they can read silently.

      We would talk about Starfall. We would get a lot of passive-aggressive comments about how kids that age don’t need to read. (“But reading is so much fun!!”) But then they’d always make sure to get the starfall info… so I dunno.

      Now that everybody else is reading it doesn’t really matter what DC is reading. Nobody seems to notice, which is kind of nice. We recently got complimented on hir mastery of being able to read signs and we didn’t mention that ze has been able to do that since ze was much younger.

      Yeah, we tend to mainly click with the university peeps and the occasional doctor. Part of that though is the class culture around here. When they think I’m just a mom (and my husband is the breadwinner) they’re more willing to talk to me.


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