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Pretty much every day I tell my 2 daughters how smart they are. But research says I shouldn’t. Research says to avoid praises that speak to a trait that could be perceived as innate because when they fail (because, of course, everyone does), it will break their perception of innate intelligence. Experts also say I shouldn’t tell my girls they’re beautiful, and yet I do. It starts the beauty conversation too early, they say, and they’ll think looks matter too much. I’m a data guy, so why do I buck the data for my children? Well, in both of these cases, experts say to focus on effort, hard work, persistence, and curiosity instead of intelligence and beauty. I’ll tell you why my wife and I focus on both.
I agree that we should be praising our kids for effort, hard work, persistence, and curiosity, and my wife and I do. On top of that, our highest premium is placed on kindness.
We frequently use a phrase built around our last name, “Britts are…” to talk about the traits we want to encourage. It’s a standard we hold our family to. And our girls can hold us to the same standards. Britts are Kind. Britts are Brave. Britts are Curious. Britts Do The Right Thing. Britts Never Give Up. Britts Try New Things. Britts Keep Their Promises. Britts Say They’re Sorry. Britts Forgive. Britts Are Thoughtful. Britts Have Fun. Britts Do Hard Things. Britts are Respectful. Britts are Generous. We can use it to teach new traits or to correct ones that don’t match up with our best selves.
They won’t fear punishment for failing the expectations of their parents, they’ll instead feel internal pressure to rise to the standards we have set for each other. And this works when they challenge us back, asking if we’re being brave, or kind, or forgiving in a given moment. Our own moments of failure as parents become teaching moments of how to adjust when you aren’t living up to your own standards, prompted by our kids’ internalization of those standards.
If experts believe “smart” and “beautiful” are dangerous words, how much more dangerous are “stupid” and “ugly?”
Notice we don’t say “Britts are Beautiful” or “Britts are Smart.” But we still tell them they are, just not in reference to a standard, but in reference to their personhood. We make sure they know they are smart and beautiful (inside and out), loved and complete, lacking nothing to be who they need to become. All innate traits. All danger zones according to the experts. So why do we do it?
To explain, let us first dispense with the myth that anything you say changes what your children hear outside your home. Like it or not, your kids will hear talk about intelligence and beauty all around them. My oldest daughter just started Kindergarten and it didn’t take 4 days at the bus stop to hear the words “stupid” and “ugly” both thrown around by children at our packed bus stop. It’s out there, and if it isn’t counteracted, what happens? If experts believe “smart” and “beautiful” are dangerous words, how much more dangerous are “stupid” and “ugly?”
Our strongest emphasis is placed on the internal standards we hold ourselves to, but we still choose to be cheerleaders for our girls’ intelligence and beauty. And the reason for that is specific and intentional.
I call my daughters smart and beautiful for the same reason that I hold the door open for them and the same reason I came to the couch the other night and rubbed my 6-year-old’s feet while she put her head under a blanket complaining of a headache. My daughters will have best friends and spouses when they grow up and I want them to reject any potential friend or spouse who doesn’t call them smart and beautiful, who doesn’t hold the door open, who doesn’t rub their feet when they’re sick.
We use the “Britts are…” phrases to create an internal standard and our loving, gushing praise of our kids to create an external standard. Anyone who doesn’t do that will be leaving a void in my girls’ expectations of how a person who loves you behaves. As parents, of course we mess up and don’t always match up to those external standards either, and how we apologize and make up for it also creates external standards for the way people who love you treat you when they mess up.
And you may think I’m placing too high a standard on my kids’ future spouses or friends, making it hard for them to find people who match up. But I think if I want to hold my daughter to a high standard (and I do), I ought to create a high standard for the people close to her as well.
You shouldn’t make your child feel like her success is only because she is smart or her value is only in her beauty, but she should know that people who love her will think that about her even when she doesn’t feel it.
Kyle J. Britt is aa writer, speaker, and data scientist. Check out his website kylejbritt.com.