One of the comments that my co-author, Mark Lowenthal, and I hear a lot from parents in our practices is “My kid is smart, but…” The “but” could be that their children get very upset when they make mistakes, or they have trouble getting along with other kids, or they constantly argue with adults… These parents know that their children are bright, but they worry because they also know that it takes more than school smarts to create a satisfying life.
Smart kids tend to get a lot of attention for their accomplishments, and sometimes that can eclipse the development of other essential life skills. When everyone around them keeps telling these children how smart they are and how much they could or should accomplish, they may come to believe that their performance is all that matters.
It’s ironic that the children (and adults) who are most frightened about not being good enough are often the most capable. These children may become extremely anxious before tests—even though they’re very competent academically. They may spend way too much time on assignments, trying to make them perfect. Or they may react in the opposite way. They may show minimal effort or refuse to do anything where they aren’t instantly successful, because they don’t want to risk exposing any weaknesses. To the outside world, these kids may seem confident, but their parents often see the other side: their stress, suffering, and even emotional melt-downs.
Focusing too much on performance can also carry into the social world. These kids may worry about every little thing they said or did—“I shouldn’t have said that. She’ll be mad at me. They’ll think I’m weird.” They may also feel that they will only be liked or loved if they are somehow impressive. When children believe that their worth is measured by their achievements, they tend to view other kids only as admirers, competitors, or obstacles. That’s a lonely way to go through life. Admiration is a cold substitute for closeness.
This book is about helping children develop inner strength and outward empathy. The world tells bright children that their performance matters; they need us, their parents, to tell them that they are much more than the sum of their accomplishments. They need to know that we love them for their kindness, curiosity, imagination, determination, and sense of fun. Qualities like these aren’t necessarily impressive, but they matter deeply.
Adults often say things about kids like, “I want her to reach her potential” or “He’s not working up to his potential.” This is a very narrow view of potential. It makes it sound like there’s some lofty gold ring out there that our kids will either jump high enough to reach or else fall short. But life doesn’t work that way. In real life, there are lots of choices, lots of chances, and lots of paths.
“Potential” becomes a burden when we see it too narrowly, as a predestined calling to greatness. This causes children to be weighed down by other people’s expectations. It limits their ability to explore and discover and sometimes even mess up and try again. A narrow view of potential focuses on an imaginary future ideal rather than the real child in front of us.
Smart Parenting for Smart Kids is a book for parents who understand that potential is not an endpoint but a capacity to grow and learn. Nurturing children’s potential, in the broadest sense, means cultivating their humanity. It involves supporting their expanding abilities to reach out to others with kindness and empathy, to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to find joy and satisfaction in creating a life that is personally meaningful…and so much more.
Every day we hear dire news: lay-offs, economic decline, wars, environmental crises, appalling acts of greed and betrayal by business and religious leaders… So of course parents wonder, “Is my kid going to be okay?” It seems like a very scary world that we’re sending our children out into.
Now, there are two ways to handle this very understandable anxiety. The first way—which we don’t recommend—is to carefully monitor our children’s current performance and make sure that they face no difficulties now, in the hope that this will somehow guarantee that they will continue to do well and face no difficulties in the future. We could check their homework or talk to the teacher if they get a bad grade or talk to the other parent if they have a conflict with a friend. This strategy fits with our natural instinct to protect our children, and at least in the short-term, it may help us to feel less anxious, but it leaves our children vulnerable.
Another approach—which we do recommend—involves focusing more on growth than performance. This means allowing our children to struggle, so they can develop coping strategies. It means not rescuing them from ordinary disappointments, so they can discover that setbacks are unpleasant but tolerable and often temporary. We can empathize, we can coach, we can explain—these can all be very helpful—but we need to be careful not to do for our children what they can do for themselves. We want to help our kids develop the internal tools they need so they can work hard, get along with others, deal with difficulties, and make what they wish of their lives. This approach is harder than the first one, because it means we need to tolerate our own anxiety and trust that our children can and will learn to cope.