The Biased Ways We Praise “Smart Kids”

When we prioritize certain interests as being “better” or “smarter,” we’re failing children whose talents lie in other areas

A row of children sit in front of a bookcase and read books studiously.

One evening, while my seven-year-old son and I were walking home from Beaver Scouts, I made a joke about King Richard from Disney’s Robin Hood. I said that Richard was probably his mother’s favourite child because he was the one who released her after sixteen years of imprisonment. Assuming this would go over my son’s head, I started to explain the joke. He quickly cut in and said, with the particular scorn that only a seven-year-old can muster, “I know who Eleanor of Aquitaine is. Her husband was a very bad king.”

Astounded, I asked him who he thought her husband was.

“Henry the second, obviously,” was his reply. “He got four of his knights to kill his archbishop,” Thomas Becket, “because his archbishop didn’t agree to protect his country. And then he told his monks to beat him and then he went to his archbishop’s tomb and prayed all night.”

Further questions revealed that my son had thoughts about not only Henry II but also Richard III, Edward I, and (unsurprisingly) Bluff King Hal himself. For about a year after this conversation, he would dramatically point and yell “Tudor propaganda!” every time he saw a picture of Henry VIII, which had the side effect of making me aware of just how often that king’s image is still used in pop culture.

The source of all this information turned out to be a show called Secrets of Great British Castles. I was aware that my son had been watching it, but I’d only lightly supervised this activity. I hadn’t realized that he’d seen every episode multiple times or that he was taking detailed mental notes about the court dramas of medieval and early modern Britain.

My son has always had very specific interests. A nonexhaustive list of past enthusiasms includes My Little Pony, the Apollo 11 mission, and after a trip to Dallas, John F. Kennedy’s assassination. That last one thrilled his boomer grandmothers, who finally had an audience for their stories about where they were when JFK died; otherwise, these brief romances didn’t cause much of a stir. But his obsession with the history of the British monarchy struck people in a different way. The sheer volume of the information he’d retained and could recite from hours of Netflix bingeing was definitely impressive, but some of the responses he elicited made me uncomfortable for reasons I found difficult to articulate.

As a history fanatic, I was delighted to share an interest with my kid; we’ve had a lot of fun together watching BBC documentaries and exploring the historical galleries at our local museum. But, as a parent, I felt a bit strange about the type of praise that he was receiving. Friends and strangers often gushed about how smart he was; some even speculated on what his future education and career prospects might be. I would always smile and thank these people because I knew that their comments were coming from a good place (and, like most parents, I naturally think my child is a genius). At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing that kids with similarly exhaustive knowledge on other subjects—Marvel movies, for example, or Disney princesses or Minecraft—weren’t getting the same response from the adults around them; my own kid certainly didn’t when he was deep in his My Little Pony phase. This is because we tend to place children’s interests in a hierarchy that privileges some as being more “intelligent” than others. This ranking heavily favours subjects traditionally perceived to be white, male, and academic, meaning that an early obsession with Plantagenet kings is seen as being greater evidence of intelligence than an obsession with the social lives of small pastel horses, even if both result in the same type of absorption and repetition of information. Not only does this bias foster a sense of inequality early on, but it also ignores the thing we should most be nurturing: curiosity.

We’ve all known kids who can talk for hours about stuff like superheroes or Harry Potter; many of us have been that kid at some point. I remember my own childhood interests feeling almost compulsive, and I would keep asking questions or repeating the things I knew even when I sensed that the people around me had long lost interest. My son is the same, and I have a new empathy for all the adults who politely asked me if we could please change the subject (although I do try my best to keep up with him when I can). According to Janine Hubbard, a registered psychologist who works with children in St. John’s, Newfoundland, this is a common phenomenon. The desire to gain and display specialized knowledge is a very typical developmental stage. “It’s a way to show off their mastery of a subject,” says Hubbard. “You see it a lot with dinosaurs—kids are fascinated by their ability to say these names that adults can’t pronounce. It’s the first time they realize that they can be really knowledgeable about a topic, often more knowledgeable than the adults around them.”

I had my own dinosaur phase, although these days I would be hard pressed to name all but the most iconic of species. I have, however, maintained my ability to focus on and research the things that catch my interest. Those skills were more important to my development and are more useful in my current work as a writer than the actual information I learned about dinosaurs. Children are incredibly curious, and their interests allow them to focus and practise memorizing. Most kids aren’t doing any kind of deep analysis on their pet subjects, but they are learning how to store and synthesize information. It doesn’t especially matter what that information is; the importance lies in what they do with it. Their interests say more about what they’ve been exposed to and how they’ve been exposed to it than how smart they are; battling medieval kings can be just as much fun as battling Pokémon if presented in the right context.

“An adult will put more value on a kid who’s fixated on history, maybe because that’s something they’ll study in school,” says Hubbard. “But it’s the exact same skill set and the exact same developmental stage.”

The key word in that sentence is, of course, adult. Adults impose their own judgments of what interests are more valuable—and more indicative of intelligence—based on their views of the world. My kid wound up obsessed with British history thanks to a Netflix binge, which isn’t exactly the most high-brow of activities. If he’s seen as smarter than his peers, that’s mostly because the adult world has assigned a higher value to his interests. And, of course, the value we culturally assign to those interests doesn’t appear out of the ether—it’s steeped in the same sea of misogyny, racism, and classism as the rest of our culture. We elevate subjects that are still viewed as being more masculine and academic, like math, history, or science. I can’t imagine that my son would be called smart as often if he were interested in something that seems more traditionally feminine or working class, like pop music or monster trucks.

There’s also the question of what “smart” means in this context. With the recent pushback against giving children (especially girls) appearance-based compliments, there’s been a surge in praising kids for other attributes: being strong, working hard, and of course, being smart. But is there even such a thing as “smart,” or have we just assigned value to certain ways of processing the world? Howard Gardner proposed a model of eight different aptitudes for learning in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He argued that, while IQ tests mostly measure “logical-mathematical” and “linguistic” skills, these two fields are not indicative of a person’s overall cognitive ability. He likened intelligence testing to more of an “artistic judgment” than a scientific one.

What we perceive to be smart is certainly culturally and contextually contingent. Even today, the word’s meaning seems to fluctuate depending on the child’s age. For example, according to Hubbard, we tend to be particularly awed by rote memory skills in younger children, like preliterate kids who can recite text from their favourite books after hearing it read to them many times. As a child gets older, we’re more impressed by reasoning or critical thinking than we are by them just parroting things they’ve heard their parents or teachers say. Memorization, a grasp of language, and the ability to form independent opinions are important milestones, of course, and most kids will learn them sooner or later. As they age, though, the field of what we consider “smart” will narrow, with specific types of knowledge (chemistry, say, or computer science) elevated to a higher plane than others. We’ve created a rubric that’s harmful to any kids who don’t fit within certain rigid standards, which can limit their potential almost from the first day of school. This might sound like an all-participants-deserve-a-trophy type argument, but in my experience, all children are good at something, and we fail them if we don’t help them figure out what.

Hubbard agrees that there are different types of intelligence that are more or less important depending on what you’re doing. Someone who scores high on an IQ test might do well in school but struggle to get ahead in a workplace that values social interaction. When our education systems prioritize certain skills, we’re failing both the kids whose talents lie in other areas and those who might do well in a testing environment but aren’t given the chance to develop other strengths.

Even if our specific childhood obsessions don’t follow us into adulthood, the prioritizing of certain interests as being smarter or better than others certainly does. Anyone who’s had to navigate postsecondary education knows the hierarchical way it’s viewed, with “useful” degrees like MBAs at the top of the pyramid and trade schools or apprenticeships at its base. Even within degree programs, liberal arts are seen as easier than maths or sciences; unsurprisingly, most of the degrees considered to be more prestigious are also seen as being more masculine (for example, as of December 2018, women made up only 18.1 percent of newly licensed engineers in Canada). Class plays a big role too, with students being pushed toward university not because they particularly want to study anything there but because it’s seen as the more intelligent, higher-class choice. This happened to a lot of my peers and, in retrospect, many of them would have had better career prospects, not to mention less crushing student debt, if they’d learned a trade.

We also extend these kinds of judgments to jobs, profiling people who work in retail or the service industry as being less intelligent than lawyers or programmers. We rank adult hobbies in this way, with stuff like video games and comic books seen as silly and childish instead of valid ways to relax. Our snobbery even extends to reading for pleasure, which is generally considered a marker of intelligence; genre fiction (no matter how engaging and well-written) gets pooh-poohed while literary fiction (no matter how bloated and boring) is viewed with critical approval. The same goes for films: Martin Scorsese recently caused a stir by announcing that superhero movies “do not possess the traits that make cinema truly special” and thus are unworthy of critical attention (but presumably his works, the most recent of which leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to portraying women, are).

It’s also likely that adults feel the need to comment on children’s intelligence because of the anxiety and wishful thinking we have when it comes to our own kids’ futures. A lot of millennial and Gen X parents are stuck in an unstable job market full of contract work and freelancing but with very little security or chance for advancement. We don’t want that for our kids. So maybe, when we joke that an argumentative kid is going to grow up to be a lawyer, a layer of the subtext is, “Please get a well-paying job in a stable field.” Kids can become repositories for their parents’ own insecurities and fears—often without the parents even realizing they’re doing it—so, when we talk about children’s prospects, it’s likely that we’re really talking about ourselves. We want them to have respect and security in the world, especially when we feel like our own lives are lacking those things.

But kids aren’t just future adults, and it’s wrong to approach them as if all their worth boils down to how their interests will prep them for grown-up hobbies and jobs. In fact, we shouldn’t be measuring their interests by grown-up standards at all. We should foster their enthusiasms, not try to push them toward interests we’ve arbitrarily decided are smart. Children’s minds are just figuring out how to navigate the world, and the desire to acquire information is something that we should be celebrating no matter what that information is. Curiosity and the desire to learn are the most important things; we need to help children figure out how to best channel them within their natural learning styles. All kids are smart. It’s our job as adults to help them figure out what their particular brand of smartness is.

I don’t know if my kid will wind up being a historian or any kind of academic. My own interest in palaeontology fizzled out early, but right after I was done with dinosaurs, I became obsessed with ancient Egypt, and many of the things that I found fascinating about it—religion, magic, the different ways humans have lived in different times and places—find their way into the writing I do now. Throughout my childhood, I was fortunate enough to have parents, teachers, and other adults in my life who nurtured my interests, even if they didn’t understand them. I still do: just last Christmas, my mom and sister commissioned jewellery for me based on a series I write about historical queens (which, to bring things full circle, was partly born out of conversations I was having with my son about medieval rulers) even though I’m not sure they’ve ever actually read any of it. For my kid, I try to be that same type of person, one who encourages his passions no matter what; the tedious hours I’ve spent assembling Lego sets speak for themselves. But, even if I can’t always muster a lot of enthusiasm for the specifics of what my son is doing, I’m always interested in the person he’s evolving into.

Anne Thériault
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer who has contributed to the Guardian, Chatelaine, and Longreads