I was sitting with a friend's daughter the other evening, talking about Doctor Who, Harry Potter, and, eventually, the upcoming school year. She's going into sixth grade. At the risk of sounding cliched, she reminds me a little bit of me at her age, except she can text and that wasn't really a thing when I was in sixth grade. She's a pretty bright kid, near if not at the top of her class, but as she informed me, her one weak spot is math. The funny thing is, she doesn't really mind.
I knew that was coming when she mentioned it, because we had just been having a conversation that lies close to my own near and dear experience. The "smart" talk. It's awkward, being that person. And yes, I get it, probably everyone has some single label affixed to them at that point in their lives, but it sucks a little bit to be that person whose friends are super excited when they get higher scores on tests. You're the benchmark, so I guess there's a hidden compliment in there, but that doesn't make it feel better. And there's also that feeling you get when everyone else does poorly, and you wish you could just silently cherish your good grade and move on, but you don't have that option because everyone wants to commiserate and you just squirm when asked, and they look knowing and even if there's no resentment, you're still the excluded outlier. So when she told me that she doesn't want people to call her smart, I totally got it.
The thing is, I still don't like it when people call me smart. What does that even mean? How can it be used? It's too vague to be helpful, but we spend so much time attaching percentiles and scores to it. And then, after teaching kids for 18 or so years, maybe more if they go to college, that smart is something worth being, they're left without any context in which that word has meaning and in which they can be placed on some kind of scale. Being "smart" only gets you so far, and then there's the real world, where we all have to survive, and the smart people don't necessarily have an advantage in that space.
"Smart" is a lazy term for people who don't want to take a moment to consider exactly what sort of skill a child or even another adult is using. Tell them they're good at asking questions, at critical thinking, at creative problem-solving or connecting the dots. Those are all specific observations, and they help inform another person's self-conception in a meaningful way. Maybe there is some kind of raw intelligence that corresponds to this smart word, but it's rather hard to pin down, and probably does more harm than good when repeated ad nauseum.
So as I get to know my friend's daughter better, I plan to honor that cringing feeling and not call her smart. I hope to discover and praise many other, more specific and concrete traits and skills, because it is good to know thyself. And if she takes a guilty pleasure in not being good at math, well, I'll be happy to help her understand difficult problems, if she wants the help, but I'm certainly not going to be the one pressuring her to bring her Bs and Cs up to As for the sake of a well-rounded report card. For one thing, that would be promoting a terrible values system, but that's another story entirely.