The One Word You Shouldn’t Use With Your Kids

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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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14 Responses to “The One Word You Shouldn’t Use With Your Kids”

  1. Julie C says:

    ” the fact that developing talent isn’t a lottery you win, but an effortful process that you can control.” I love this. Especially right before a weekend of double swim practice for the kids. The Talent Code is a source of motivation and hope in my parenting world.

  2. Anastace says:

    Yes I very much agree! As a piano teacher I seem to have a lot of children like this. Mind you there are some who have genuine inborn musical talent, but as soon as they use that as an excuse not to put effort it, it becomes a huge hindrance to them becoming an actual good musician. For instance, if an 8 year old thinks they know better than a teacher who’s been playing 16 years, well, it just doesn’t help either of us. I learn from my students all the time- kids can have some really cool insights and perspective on life- but if they argue with me over the basics of music, well, I give up after a while. :)
    Thanks for the article! I’ll be trying to apply this principle now. Never thought of it quite this way before…

  3. April Small says:

    I am not going to say that kids who are labeled G.T. as they are in the School District that my daughter does. However I lay their ego boost or the idea that they already know it all,at the foot of the parents. My daughter was identified G.T. in English in 2nd Grade and G.T. in Music in 4th . I knew myself that her reading and comprehension was advanced for her age long before they told me. But as for the G.T. label in Music I don’t believe that anyone at the age of 8,which she was in 4th grade is G.T. ….and to this day my husband and I insist with her that G.T. status does not make her anymore special than the next child .All it should tell her is that her expectations of recieving good marks in school has increase 5 fold….

  4. Matt says:

    Have you run across a good, replicatable way to incorporate this concept of hard work over giftedness, and combine it with the the ignition effect of being lucky/winning the lottery you highlight at http://thetalentcode.com/2009/03/30/opus-118/ ?
    The two seem like they could be somewhat in conflict with each other, but could also be symbiotic if used properly.

  5. Haijin says:

    Agreed. As a violin teacher, I would rather teach a student who is not talented/gifted, but struggles through their hard effort. They are motivated to achieve their goal and very teachable. They motivate us to teach them better and more. I have had talented students, but they rely on their “talent” too much not analyzing their issues and therefore they don’t come up with plans how to play better/what to practice. They play “naturally”, but they don’t play better for years and end up getting behind other students.

    John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby also talks about how it affects to your children when you praise about the kid’s IQ.

  6. Bryan Baz says:

    Do you happen to have contact info for your daughter’s school? I am a middle school math teacher and the multiple test retake idea is an excellent one, I would like to find out more about it.

    Bryan Bazilauskas

  7. djcoyle says:

    Hi Bryan – I’d be happy to connect you. Send me an email at danieljcoyle17@gmail.com

  8. Brett Widman says:

    The problem with the multiple test re-take theory is unless you are constructing a different test for each re-take then the results are not truly valid. Not that I agree with the current testing culture, but these kids get one shot. It’s sad that it’s come to this, but multiple re-takes in no way represents what the kids are going to have to face. It’s great in theory that they will benefit and learn, but that ship sailed when NCLB came about and even more so now that Common Core standards are in place.

  9. Jared Peters says:

    This is an excellent article. I’m a huge fan of Carol Dwek “Mindset”. I personally believe that everyone is “gifted” in some area. The issue arises when we fail to tell people that their “giftedness” is not enough to achieve greatness. Gifts must be cultivated and refined no matter how easy a subject matter may initially come to you. Also, I like the idea at your daughter’s school about make- ups. That type of system more accurately describes what the student presently knows and does not know.

  10. Pat says:

    Awesome article Daniel. Talent is certainly one thing, but I can’t help love the focus you continually place on good ol’ fashion (purposeful)practice and effort.

  11. Marina Kazaryan says:

    Thank you for the article!While I was reading it I felt as if you had read my ideas!I`ve been working as a teacher for 30 years now and from my experience I can say that you are absoluteky right when you say that we shouldn`t label students as gifted. It`ll only do them harm.

  12. I’ve been thinking about it and I so agree.

    ‘Gifted’ is probably as bad as ‘not gifted’, though the second one may trigger the ambition in some.

    Thanks for this, Daniel!
    L

  13. GREAT article, GREAT ideas! I agree with you completely. I do think that SOME children, tweens, teens, etc… may react to labels (positive or negative) differently than the norm, but that is just plain diversity in behavior. You hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. I bought your book, earlier today, and I cannot wait to read it! This all applies to so much in so many domains – thank you for your investment in the learning of all!

    Beth

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