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Different Kinds of Smart

by Elizabeth S. Leaver

At some point not too long ago, a piece along the lines of “see that silent mom who isn’t really participating while everyone else is talking about her child’s achievements” made the rounds on social media. It was a bit painful to read, because that mom is me.

It’s not because I’m not proud of my son. I am. It’s because he doesn’t, at 17, always meet the generic measures of success for his age. He’s an average, not particularly motivated student. He’s not an athlete. And despite society’s allegedly growing recognition of kids’ different strengths and abilities, I don’t always see much evidence of a true shift in perception of what makes a child smart, or brag-worthy, beyond academic success and being good at sports.

My own story couldn’t have been more different. I was a highly self-motivated student whose parents never had to remind me to do my homework or study. I had the grades to match, and my report cards were an enormous source of pride for my parents. I constantly overheard, and was told, that I was smart.

Yet as time has gone on and my son has grown, I’ve realized that that type of success didn’t actually make me “smarter” than he is. I was simply good at school, the way another person might be good at singing. And because I was good at it, it wasn’t hard for me to be “successful” at it, for the most part. As such, I’ve come to feel that tying that adjective—“smart”— to kids’ academic lives alone does them a true disservice. What if kids were all judged by another single measure, like, for example, their ability to paint? How many people would be considered “smart” if that was the gauge? (I certainly wouldn’t have.)

Where I sometimes struggled outside of the classroom, my son is socially capable in ways I wasn’t until I was much older. He’s quick-witted and well-spoken. He’s a fair and kind listener to his friends—I can see turning to him for insight and advice in the not-too-distant future. He is able to put voice to his feelings in a way many grown men cannot. He’s a talented, and largely self-taught, musician. And these are just a few of the things he is much smarter at than I was.

Academic achievement is certainly worthy, and I don’t wish I had come of age differently; I’m proud to think back on my hard work, and I think kids who work hard in school do deserve to feel proud. But all kids, all people, have strengths that should be celebrated. My son is every bit as smart as I was—whatever may have been on our report cards.

Elizabeth S. Leaver is a senior editor at School Family Media, SchoolFamily.com's parent company. She lives in the greater Boston area with her family.

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Comments   

#1 Winston Sieck 2015-09-03 03:21
Nicely said. Your story reminds me of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. It describes a number of different ways in which a person can be smart, including music and interpersonal. Here's a post that describes it in more detail: https://www.tecweb.org/styles/gardner.html

It's a solid, modern theory, though the description can be pretty cerebral. Your story about your son really brings it to life.

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