The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

My brother, Dan Richards, sent me a link to an article recently published by Scientific American entitled “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids,” by Carol S. Dweck. The site’s summary of the article is a pretty good indication of its content. It reads as follows:

      Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
       Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.
       Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.

This is essentially the premise of “The Art of Learning,” a book by Josh Waitzkin (the famous chess prodigy depicted in the film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”). If you consider your interests, skills, and abilities to be static and fixed, then when you fail, you will assume it is because your talents are inferior, . . . end of story. If you consider yourself an individual that is not fixed, but rather, can choose, and can persist, and obtain new skills through hard work, you end up not only being prolific, but also emotionally healthy. Who doesn’t want that?!

By Dan J. Richards
By Dan J. Richards

This attitude reminds me of J.S. Bach’s, now widely considered one of the greatest composers in the western tradition, who said “I have worked hard” he said, “anyone who works just as hard will go just as far.” I remember first finding this attitude laughable. Inspiring, but laughable. I now am a thorough subscriber to this concept. Excellence can be achieved through dedication and hard work, regardless of innate ability.


 Naysayers will here jump in and say “Yeah, but in the end it all comes down to those who possess great talent.” Phooey. I stubbornly maintain that talent is nothing more than a proclivity for work. I maintain this position not because I believe it to be objectively true, but as an artist who has struggled with this issue in the past, I find this position to be the most pragmatic. I find no advantage in imagining myself as a fixed individual, determined by genes and environmental context. The seemingly objective truth regarding this matter is irrelevant. It turns out the old adage you were taught in kindergarten was correct (despite that it used to make my skin crawl every time my third grade teacher would recite it): “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

It is most helpful to imagine yourself as a being that can make decisions, and as one who can achieve great things if you set out to accomplish them and persist through difficulty. There is great wisdom in knowing when to imagine yourself as a being who is acted upon and when to imagine yourself as a being who acts.

As someone who has spent a good deal of my creative life convinced that my abilities are fixed and that the world acts upon me, I can, with confidence, now say that things are better the other way around. I decided to make the change. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was extremely difficult, and emotionally and mentally painful, but I persisted, and I’m pleased with myself considering how far I have come. That self-confidence is potent, and I intend to inject it into everyone that I can . . . including my own kids.

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