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May 5 2014

Why I Tell My Daughter She’s Pretty, But Won’t Tell Her She’s Smart

By at 11:36 am

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My 7-year-old daughter who, as we previously determined, is nothing like me in personality, also looks nothing like me. Which is why I can say, without a trace of self-interest, that she is a beautiful girl. She has luxurious black hair, olive skin, huge chocolate colored eyes, eye lashes that go on forever, and a perennial smile on her face–just like her dad. I constantly tell my daughter that she is beautiful. (My brother has dubbed her Beauteous Maximus, in Latin).

I know many beautiful women. Having worked in soap operas since 1994, I’d wager I know more beautiful woman than most people. Every year, around Daytime Emmys time, I would leave the house feeling I looked my very best. I’d get to the venue and wonder why I bothered; I wasn’t in these people’s league. I wasn’t in their species. And yet, a majority of these stunning creatures all think there is something wrong with them. Usually because of a lifetime of hearing from well-meaning people–more often than not, moms and dads set the stage for what agents and casting director and “fans” finish–about how they could really stand to lose five pounds. Or get a nose job. Or straighten their hair. Or wear more make-up/different clothes/stand up straight/smile.

I also know women who would be considered objectively unattractive in the conventional sense. And yet their self-image is amazing. Because no one ever told them otherwise.

I know pretty girls, non-actors, regular people with many wonderful qualities, who insist they can’t get a boyfriend until their dress size is no longer in the double digits. And I know women who passed double digits in middle school who are happily married and can pass a mirror without wincing. Heck, they can pass a mirror without bothering to look in it.

Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Except the beholder is usually the person themselves. Everyone else just follows along.

So I tell my daughter that she is beautiful. Because she is.

And I don’t tell her that she is smart. Because she is.

When I’m not surrounded by perfect looking people who don’t seem to realize that about themselves, like soap actors and figure skaters, I write about education–which means I read a lot about education, and I go to a lot of conferences on the subject.

Last fall, I listened to Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck talk about the dumbest thing you could say to a smart child. The dumbest thing that you could say to a smart child is that they are smart.

There are many reasons for why that is but, in a nutshell, telling a child that they’re smart makes them think that putting effort into a project will prove they aren’t. Since everything comes easily to smart people. Telling a child they’re smart discourages them from working hard. (More detail here).

That’s the last thing I want. I’ve written before about how I encourage all three of my kids to fail so that they can learn not to be afraid of it and, most importantly, so they can learn how to–in the words of Fred Astaire–pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.

No one is allowed to be a quitter at our house and no one–but no one–is allowed to believe themselves too good or too “smart” for hard work. One of the side effects of working in the field of gifted education is how many people will sincerely explain to you that their child’s “underperformance” in school is, in fact, a sign of their brilliance, since they can’t be expected to lower themselves to performing the same tasks as the regular children. Those tasks aren’t interesting or engaging, so why should they do them?

More than actual intelligence, the trait that’s been shown to most strongly correlate with not just success in life, but overall survival (you’ve perhaps read my issues with survival?) is gritdefined as “setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached.” Yes, even if parts of it are uninteresting or un-engaging.

If I give my children nothing else, I want–no, need–to give them grit.

So that’s why I don’t tell my daughter that she is smart. Because I want her to constantly be trying to improve herself in that regard. (I never understood the concept of telling kids–or anyone–that they’re perfect just the way they are. What motivation do they have then, to work on getting better?) I want her to fail and to persevere and to develop a thick skin and to know that, no matter what the obstacle, she can get over it. Because she’s had plenty of practice.

And that’s why I tell her that she is beautiful. Because I want her to take it for granted, and focus on the truly important things in life, instead.

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