I had a parent once approach me with the following:

“My daughter has never failed at anything.  She’s extremely bright; everything seems easy to her.   I worry about what will happen when she takes more challenging classes.  How will she handle it if she finds something that is not so easy for her?

Eventually this mother revealed that she could see herself in her daughter.  She also was a straight-A student in the early grades, but when she reached Chemistry and Trigonometry classes in high school, she was met with extreme discomfort.  Instead of persisting, trying to get help with these subjects, admitting to her parents and teachers that she was struggling, she stopped trying.  She was in the midst of an identity crisis.  She had always been known as “The Brain,” and could succeed at everything she tried.  Now she questioned herself..  What’s going on?  Maybe I’m actually NOT smart!  Her solution was to drop the difficult classes, identify with students who were not so bright, put up a new face that said:  I’m done with all that high-achieving stuff.  That’s for the egg-heads.  I just want to do the bare minimum and then go out with friends.

On further discussion, the mother said that her parents had made such a big deal of her being “smart.”  When she learned to read at an early age, her parents had her read for relatives and friends who came to visit.  Everyone exclaimed about her smart she was.  This became her identifying label.

It would have served her better if her parents had simply enjoyed her reading with her.  She must have felt a growing sense of competence, as with accomplishing whistling or snapping her fingers!  Her parents might have said, “You can read a lot of words all by yourself now.  It looks like you really like to read.  Is that right?”

When we assign the labels “smart,” or “bright,” to a child when she is successful we are saying, “Because you can do this, you are smart.”  When the child encounters a more challenging task, it just stands to reason that she might say, “Because I can’t do this, I am NOT SMART.”  This is what Martin Seligman (The Optimistic Child) calls a “stable attribution“.

If we think of “smartness” as stable, that means it doesn’t change.   It is a characteristic that remains in us, not malleable.

If, however, we attribute our accomplishments to conditions that are malleable, our whole outlook changes.  We remain in control of how well we perform.

Suppose 4-year-old Jack is reading along and comes to the word “traffic.”  The “tr” blend and the length of the word make this one a challenge for him.  If he has often been evaluated for his reading ability (e.g., “You are so smart!”) he might fear how he will now be evaluated (Yes, they pick up on this evaluation thing pretty quickly!).  But if the parent is sitting beside him, just noticing Jack’s own feelings of competence, the evaluation doesn’t come into play.  It might go as follows:

Jack:  I don’t know this word.

Mom:  Wow.  That’s a new one for you.  And it’s tricky.  Let’s sound it out together.

Later, Mom might later share with Dad, in Jack’s presence, “We found a new word today in Jack’s book on trucks.  It was a hard one, ‘traffic.’  We had to work at that one, so we sounded it out together and then Jack went on reading.

Again, a common thread this week is the importance of our interpretation of successes and failures.  Our children will follow our lead.

See if you can pay attention to your own attributions and the labels you might give to your child.  Are you aware of any?  Please share!