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If you’ve been counting on your child being accepted into your district’s gifted program… or if your child is already proudly a designated member… or if your child was passed over or not even in the running to be called “gifted” … here’s a news flash: being labelled gifted or even smart isn’t the best thing that can happen to your child. It might even be the worst.

Labels like “gifted” and “smart” are just as limiting as any other labels people hang on children. They imply that a person IS something, all the time and forever. Labels like these indicate that a person is special without ever having to do anything to become special. And that’s where the trouble starts.

As noted scholar Eleanor Duckworth has pointed out, a trait mindset is less useful to a person than a growth mindset. In a trait mindset, a person is just born that way. They are naturally smart or athletic or artistic. They don’t have to work at it; things just come easy for them. Or not. One either Is or Is Not a particular labeled person, now and forever.

This means, of course, that if school comes hard for a child, under a trait mindset he expects it will always be hard. So there is no point in trying and he gives up. And – this is the kicker for gifted students – if school comes easy, there is the fear that someday it will be hard. There’s the fear that someday the child will be exposed as not-gifted and thrown out of the program or denied a prize. The gifted child, too, just like the struggling child, finds it safer to not try very hard. Labels and a trait mindset mean that all students work at less than their full capacity. For some children, labels make them give up. For other children, labels make them play it safe.

In a growth mindset, a person is working towards becoming smart or athletic or artistic. This takes effort and it’s expected that there will be triumphs and setbacks in just about equal measure.  A growth mindset is better for struggling children, who are supported in believing that practice will eventually pay off. But it’s also better for “gifted” and “smart” children, who are supported in taking chances and stretching their learning into difficult subjects.

If your child has avoided being labeled by the school or her teacher, good for her! If your child has acquired a label, either a conventionally positive one or a conventionally negative one, it’s time to take action.

  1. Avoid playing into the label game yourself. If you still have time to make a choice, think long and hard about nominating your child for your district’s gifted program, just as you would think long and hard about a move to any special needs category. In any event, avoid calling your child “smart” or “gifted” in exactly the way you’d avoid calling your child “dumb” or “slow.” All labels are limiting, even ones that appear positive.
  2. Encourage your child to take chances.  Let your child take on tasks that seem difficult. Obviously, you’ll advise against challenges that are out-and-out dangerous for someone of your child’s skill level, but don’t warn your child away from trying the things that might just be challenging. Avoid being overprotective.
  3. Let your child struggle. A growth mindset starts from the idea that a person doesn’t know everything and has things to learn. Learning is sometimes difficult. The road to knowledge is often bumpy. Don’t be too quick to lift your child over the bumpy parts. Let him find his own path.
  4. Reward grit and effort. Some parents want straight-As and blue ribbons, thinking that A students and first-place finishers are the most successful. But the child who must earn top marks to please her parents won’t take on the tough challenges. She will limit herself to tasks that aren’t difficult. This means the straight-A student is often less skilled and less capable than the student who knows how to work hard and relishes stretching her abilities.
  5. Notice when things are in a rut. When your child – or even when you – become complacent, not interested in doing more than the minimum, pay attention. Do what you can to shake things up a bit, especially setting a good example yourself. Remember that your results are not preset, based on a trait that simply Is who you are. Results are achieved through effort and growth.

We all want the best for our children and it’s tempting to believe that what’s best is what’s easy. In fact, the best things in life are never free, but are earned through dedicated effort. Even the smartest child should have to work hard.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.