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Why I Don’t Tell The Boys They’re Smart & Handsome*


You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  

-David McCullough, Jr., You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements, p. 308

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.

-Romans 5:3-4

I pounced the moment it hit my inbox. What self-respecting parent could resist this subject line: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart? Sal Kahn wrote the article. He’s the genius founder of the online learning academy that bears his name.

Kahn describes reading with his newly literate 5 year old. His son labored over a word (“gratefully”):

He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, “Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.” I smiled: my son was now verbalizing the tell­-tale signs of a “growth­ mindset.” But this wasn’t by accident. Recently…I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows… 

I get that. Early in motherhood I remember reading “process praise” is better than “person praise.” That is, telling Sam, “I like how you didn’t quit when your Lincoln Log roof fell in,” is preferable to, “You are such a clever little guy.” Praise persistence over natural success.

Maybe it’s intuitive that this is a higher quality praise. Or maybe not. Praising Jen’s silky long hair, Michaela’s long legs or Michael’s strong muscles comes naturally. I can live two months on a good compliment, Mark Twain said. Any kind’ll do. My happy meter rises as much if Jim commends a fetching smile or faithfulness to a troubled friend. Alas, charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting. But (incoming “process praise,”) the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Kahn’s point is spot on regarding intellectual growth. My own tearful grappling with x and y left an indelible mark. Not the A in Ms. Beaumont’s Algebra I, but the process by which it came. To get over my Letters don’t belong in math mental block required Dad and I to mutually endure the kitchen table tutoring until until I could think algebraically. I finally understood that letters were symbols, and as such they could be manipulated with certain rules. Seeing through letters to symbols, I could solve once perplexing problems.

Praising perseverance and grit builds mental muscles more than praising innate traits. And embracing the “growth mindset” will help us take on, not turn from, challenge.

In Kahn’s words,

…the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.

Our physical and emotional dimensions weren’t within Kahn’s purview. But we know “process praise” and the “growth mindset” it fosters undergird physical abilities and emotional resilience. Both are partly inborn, but both can be built with effort. Free throw percentage and fluency playing Bach’s Inventions, to dealing with long lines and flawed friends only improves with endurance. To grow, we must struggle along.

However, not everyone realizes this. Dr. Carol Dweck…has found that most people adhere to one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. Fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed by genes. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure

Can we also extend Kahn’s work to the realm of faith? Is a “growth mindset” prescribed in the Scripture? Does God encourage with “process praise”? How does Christ commend us? 

Divine praise and apostolic encouragement are not based on aptitude and innate traits. It’s man who looks at outward appearance. When God saw man that he had made, his very good is more a commendation of Creator than creature I think.

Scripture is replete with commendations of Spirit-empowered perseverance and persistence in the face of trials.  Perhaps the best known is Romans 5:3 where Paul rejoices in his sufferings. If that’s not a growth mindset, I don’t know what is.

As for “process praise”:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…(Revelation 2:2) 

Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. (2 Thessalonians 1:4)

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:7)

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:3) 

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12) 

And the anchor verse for this blog:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

Is this picking process over product? Does “process praise” promote imperfection? Is it akin to “fuzzy” new math, where critics allege 3 times 3 can equal 10, as long as a student can explain how they reached the answer?

I don’t think so.  Here’s why.

When we consider Him patiently enduring and for the joy set before us press on amid problems, we are changed. Pressing on to perfection, we work out this salvation while Christ works it in us. Persistence becomes, at the great day of the Lord, perfection. He has perfected those who are being made holy, will all be past tense. It’s not just the process, then, that God will praise.

Our doing and being meld. So that after you have been faithful, you can be said to be faithful.

I stake my life on this praise. To hear my Master say,

‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 
Matthew 25:21

*Disclaimer: While I don’t tell the boys they’re smart and handsome I do occasionally tell others that they are. If you are one of those others, I beg your pardon. Maternal braggodocio dies hard

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Strong Fair Horses

His delight is not in the strength of a horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.       
Psalm 147:10-11
  
Percheron mares, aged 3 and under 4: Please enter the ring, sounded over the arena loudspeaker. 

His pleasure is NOT in these strong horses? resounded over my bemused brain.

What is it about draft horses?

Their stable is just inside the east gate at the Walworth County Fair. We enter through that gate. So we stop and see the draft horses. We all stop. And I gawk.

Entranced.

By such immense strength enveloping exquisite equine form. By burly, bulgy backsides and shimmery, sleek shoulders. They bear witness. Divinity designed such elegant power.

In the case of the yesterday’s Percherons, French breeders played a role. In harnessing living, breathing strength:

From the war horse (heavy saddler) to diligence horse (heavy coacher or light draft) to the true horse of heavy draft, the breeders of Le Perche sculpted away on their beloved indigenous breed for hundreds of years, altering the animal to meet the demands of the times and to entice the buyer. (http://www.percheronhorse.org/origin/default.html)

Entice they did. I stood in awe of Belgian Drafts, Clydesdales, and Percherons. And their Creator. To lay eyes on these beautiful hulks is to marvel.

So why did God say his pleasure is NOT in the strength of a horse? He praised them to Job (39:19-24), asking:

Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust? 
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength;
He goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
he does not turn back from the sword . . .

What does God mean, then, when he says he doesn’t take pleasure in horses? John Piper’s explanation is helpful:

God is not displeased with horses and legs, but in those who hope in their horses and their legs. He is displeased with people who put their hope in missiles or in make-up, in tanks or tans, in bombs or body-building. God takes no pleasure in corporate efficiency or balanced budgets or welfare systems or new vaccines or education or eloquence or artistic excellence or legal processes when these things are the treasure in which we hope or the achievement in which we boast.

To feel secure and take pleasure in visible strength is only natural. Patriot pride swelled my heart as I watched the Blue Angels this spring. I felt secure. Big bank accounts and low blood sugar have a similar effect. But aegis of God they are not.

They’re false security. But worse.

When we swell secure with anything less than the Lord, we not only dig broken cisterns, but forsake the Living Water (Jeremiah 2:13). Buy our own-save our own-be our own strength, while we reject God our strength.  

Strong fair horses point past themselves. They point to a God who is not impressed by sheer strength. God helps those who help themselves doesn’t have a Bible address. Almighty God is not dazzled by military might and financial force. Or delighted by our healthy lifestyle and a BMI under 25.

…but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, 

in those who hope in his steadfast love. 

To swell the heart of God fear and hope in Him. Both. Together.

Matthew Henry writes that fear and hope not only may, but must concur:

In the same heart at the same time, there must be both a reverence of his majesty and a complacency in his goodness; not that we hang in suspense between hope and fear, but we must act under the gracious influences of hope and fear. Our fear must save our hope from swelling into presumption and our hope must save our fear from sinking into despair.

Oh, for this holy, God-exalting fear! Not the slavish fear of God that mistrusts him, recoils at his majesty. Perfect love casts that fear out. Nor is it an apprehensive fear that the shoe is about to drop; that some sickness or sorrow will inevitably overwhelm body and spirit. Fear not for I am with you. And it’s definitely not a fear that his love will fail and run out. Not a chance! They will never perish, His sheep, and no one can snatch them out of His hand.

But, dear Friends, there is another fear that ought to be cultivated—the reverential fear which the holy angels feel when they worship God and behold His Glory—that gracious fear which makes them veil their faces with their wings as they adore the Majesty on high! There is also the loving fear which every true, right-hearted child has towards its father—a fear of grieving so tender a parent—a proper feeling of dread which makes it watch its every footstep, lest, in the slightest degree, it should deviate from the path of absolute obedience. May God graciously grant to us much of this kind of fear! – Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) taken from: The Right Kind of Fear, Sermon No. 2971, September 2, 1876. 

John Piper describes a place where this right fear of God commingles with hope:

Hope turns fear into a happy trembling and peaceful wonder; and fear takes everything trivial out of hope and makes it serious. The terrors of God make the pleasures of his people intense. The fireside fellowship is all the sweeter when the storm is howling outside the cottage.

And why God delights in us when we’re there, hoping and fearing at once:

Surely it is because our fear reflects the greatness of his power and our hope reflects the bounty of his grace. God delights in those responses which mirror his magnificence.
God has pleasure in those who hope in his love because that hope highlights the freedom of his grace. When I cry out, “God is my only hope, my rock, my refuge!” I am turning from myself and calling all attention to the boundless resources of God. http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/the-pleasure-of-god-in-those-who-hope-in-his-love

Some would argue that these heavy horses have served their purpose. No more armored knights needing trusty steads. No more cavalries needing war horses. In city and in country replaced; by taxis and hundred horsepower tractors.

But still.

Strong fair horses were truly glorious. I get why Solomon broke the command and multiplied horses and chariots. There’s security in strong horses. I think that’s why God chose them. It’s a lesser to greater argument: but trusting those gams will let you down. But, He who hopes in me will not be disappointed.


It’s a wondrous loop. A ride I never want to leave. I fear and hope in God. He gets the glory he deserves. I find security in His unfailing love. His grace is exalted.

Better than a ride on a Percheron, I’d venture.

Some boast in chariots, and some boast in horses; 

but we boast in the name of the Lord our God. 

Psalm 20:7