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The Teacher Called My Son a Dream Student, But I Refuse to Call Him Smart

Being labeled smart has a lot of drawbacks. It places a person on a pedestal, and if they take risks, they might fail, and lose the their smart status. Plus, when someone is gifted, they shouldn't have to work hard... right? Stupid people have to put effort into something. Or at least that is what's commonly understood.
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We were at Tristan's first grade parent teacher conference. My wife (Mel) and I were in the little chairs, sitting at a big round table. Across from us was Tristan's first grade teacher, Mrs. Kay. Tristan was playing with Legos on the other side of the classroom.

"I don't have much negative to say about you're little guy," Mrs. Kay said. "He's kind of a dream student." She went on to tell us about how he's doing math at a second grade level, his reading speed and comprehension was more than double what it needs to be for a kid his age, and he responds well to redirection. "I think he has a very bright future," she said. "He could easily go on to become a doctor." She used words like brilliant and very smart.

I was a little surprised by this feedback. I wanted to say to Mrs. Kay, "Do you realize that you are talking about a kid who likes to smell his own farts?"

But I didn't. Instead, I thought how, in first grade, I was not like Tristan. I didn't do well in math, reading was something I hated more than anything (fact: I never read a novel until I was 21 years old), I often cried when criticized, and I ignored orders. I was a handful. I didn't want to have kids because I assumed they would grow up to be little shits like myself. Plus, my mother often tells me that she hopes my son is just as horrible to deal with as I was. She chants it like a curse.

I knew that he didn't get these qualities from me. They must've come from Mel. However, I must say that Mel is bright. But she isn't a doctor. I think it's safe to say that both Mel and myself are of average intelligence. And I think I could say the same for our siblings and extended family on both sides of our families.

The teacher went on for some time, praising Tristan, going through his report card showing how he is above or on pace in all subjects. The only thing negative she had to say about him was that he has poor handwriting.

By the end of the meeting, I was bursting with pride. I don't know if I'd ever been so proud of my son. Once we'd gathered our things, shook the teacher's hand, and walked to our car, I thought about Mindset by Carol Dweck.

I work at a university, and Mindset is a hot topic around campus. Just last week NPR ran segments on Grit, an idea related to Mindset. There is also an amazing Ted talk on the subject of Grit and Mindset by Angela Duckworth.

Mindset is a way of looking at learning. In a nutshell (I urge you to read the book yourself; I really can't fully sum up the idea in a blog post) it's a way of teaching students that intelligence is not a fixed thing. A person is not an IQ text, and people are not born with a static intelligence. Rather, Mindset teaches that the brain is more like a muscle and, if worked on, will grow smarter over time.

A big part of Mindset is to not tell students that they are smart, or gifted, but to rather complement them on their work ethic. Help them to understand that intelligence comes from hard work and not God's gifts.

Because, you see, being labeled smart has a lot of drawbacks. It places a person on a pedestal, and if they take risks, they might fail, and lose their smart status. Plus, when someone is gifted, they shouldn't have to work hard... right? Stupid people have to put effort into something. Or at least that is what's commonly understood. Things should come easily for smart people, and if you have to put effort (a lot of effort) into your learning, then you must not be smart. And mistakes? Well... smart people don't make those either. All of these ideas are, in fact, not true. Accomplished and intelligent people work very hard and make many mistakes.

Mindset teaches that anyone can do well (or even excel) in any subject with enough effort, and the right mindset.

This is an idea I can really get behind on a personal level. In high school, I was in remedial English. When I first started college at age 22, I didn't know how to type and I'd never read a novel. I hand wrote all of my papers during my first semester of college, and then Mel (this was before we were married) typed them. However, my spelling was so poor, and my handwriting so confused, that she couldn't read my writing. We spent a lot of late nights with Mel at the computer, and me sitting next to her, reading my paper out loud while she typed.

Now, 10 years later, I hold an advanced degree in English and work at a university. If you are looking at the distance from zero, then I've come a long way, and it's all because of effort: long nights of teaching myself how to type, forcing myself to sit down and read, failing time and time again, finding ways around obstacles, and learning to pick myself up and try again. I strongly believe that intelligence has a lot more to do with work ethic than genetics.

I've been using Mindset with Tristan for some time, and I must say that it's too early to tell if his success truly is because of this strategy, or if he really is just the right mix of genes. Perhaps I will never know. But what I do know is that I hope Mindset is working, because if it is, then it tells me that regardless of our genetics, we can all do amazing things.

But I must say, after meeting with Tristan's teacher, I had a difficult time not telling him that he's smart. In fact, I didn't say much to him about his report until we got home, and I'd had some time to think about how to respond.

Tristan was in the tub. It was around 9:00 p.m.

I leaned down on the lip of the tub.

"Tristan," I said. "I want you to know that I'm really proud of how hard you've been working in school. You've put in a lot of effort and it seems to be paying off."

I was trying to have a moment with him. He was looking up at me, and I went to say more, but stopped once he let out a bubbly tub fart, took in a deep breath, and said, "Mmmmm, that smells good."

And in that moment, I thought about how his teacher called him brilliant, I thought about Mindset and the hard work of learning, and realized that he is going to have to put in a lot of hard work if he is going to grow up to be a doctor.


Clint Edwards is the author of No Idea What I'm Doing: A Daddy Blog. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook.