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

One thought on “Why I Don’t Tell The Boys They’re Smart & Handsome*

  1. I feel as though we had a discussion about specific versus generic praise once, and concluded that the specific is much more memorable, thus it is more meaningful and leads to true character development.

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