The One Word You Shouldn’t Use With Your Kids

No Gifts

My friend Henry is a great teacher. He’s taught the advanced science classes at one of California’s most high-performing middle schools for about a decade. The kids in his class are bright, hugely motivated, and high achieving — or, as the school calls them, gifted.

Which is precisely the problem.

“Every year is the same,” Henry says. “The kids walk in on the first day of school and they are convinced they’re brilliant and can solve any problem. It takes a solid month to relieve them of that idea, to show them how much they don’t know, and how hard they really have to work. Then we start making progress.”

Gifted,” he says. “I don’t like that word.”

Me neither. Not in sports, not in school, not in anything. I’m starting to think it’s the cultural equivalent of high-octane junk food — a convenient, sugary idea that creates an artificial ego boost (mostly for parents), while leaving behind a quiet, substantial cost.

In fact, you can add it up:

  • 1) Kids who are told they’re gifted tend to take fewer risks. Being called gifted grants kids a status worth preserving. Why take any risk that could jeopardize that status? (Check out the research of Carol Dweck if you want more on this.)
  • 2) Kids who are told they’re gifted tend to produce less effort. Why should they, if they’ve already achieved the desired status?
  • 3) Kids who are told they’re not gifted are demoralized. Why should they try hard and risk failure, if they don’t really have control over the outcome?
  • 4) Studies show that a surprising majority of prodigies end up reverting to the mean. In addition, our best predictions about who will succeed and who will fail turn out to be consistently, colossally wrong. (For examples, read here and here.)

The deeper problem here is practical. The idea of the Gifted Child is baked into our culture, and so we haven’t developed a handy vocabulary for telling the deeper, more complicated story — a story that has to do with resilience, character, opportunity, social support, and, above all, effort. So here are a few ideas to help you avoid using the G-word.

  • Don’t say anything. Except for the fact that it feels sort of nice, there’s no compelling reason to label anybody “gifted.” So don’t.
  • Praise kids for their effort, and the time they put into preparation.
  • Use words like “proficient” or “experienced” or “high-mastery” — all of which are kinda clunky, but which at least avoid the “born magical” vibe.

Another way: design learning to promote mastery. At my daughter’s school, students are permitted to re-take math tests over and over (for one week) until they achieve a score 90 of or above. Which sounds crazy, until you see kids who scored an 75 or a 85 diving back into a test, excited to improve. Used this way, tests stop being a verdict, and start functioning as a lever for more effort and progress.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that we’re all created equal. Genes do matter. There are certain people who perform way above the norm. But the gifted child narrative is wrong because it takes the spotlight away from the real gift: the fact that developing talent isn’t a lottery you win, but an effortful process that you can control.

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