When Smart Teens Don’t Know How Smart They Are

[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]

Many smart teens don’t quite know how smart they are. As a result, their brightness is hidden under a bushel, hidden from others but also hidden from themselves.

This failure to recognize their own brightness can result from all sorts of causes. It might have to do with trouble with a particular subject, like math, which trouble extrapolates into a general self-indictment (“I am so stupid!”). Sometimes a quite smart person simply doesn’t “get” what’s going on in a particular intellectual domain—for example, he just can’t quite grasp the very arcane relationships between time and gravity. Throwing up his hands, he indicts himself as generally stupid—when in fact he is not.

Or that failure to recognize his own smarts might originate with family rules against self-praise and self-congratulations, which makes it hard for a teen to say “You know, I am pretty cool!” Or it might result from immersion in a high-achievement environment, where everyone is preening and singing their own praises and seeming so very smart (whether or not they actually are). If everyone around her is using big words, because they grew up in a vocabulary-rich environment, a smart teen might not notice that her talkative peers aren’t really saying all that much.

Or that failure to recognize his own smarts might arise in the opposite environment, where, trapped among dull, anti-intellectual people, he just can’t picture himself as smart. Not only has he no opportunities to shine, he may not even know what shining looks like. Imagine if a youth had never seen or heard of a book? If books were withheld from him? In fact, much of society is like that, purposefully and staunchly smart-free. A teen growing up in such an environment might have no picture of what smart looks like and no sense of his own metal.

Thus, it is completely possible for a smart teen to never fully realize that he or she is smart. This can lead to lowered expectations, with the teen choosing a profession a step or two or three below where he or she might otherwise have landed, problems with self-confidence and self-esteem, and a cultivated antagonism to intellectual pursuits. Not only is he not aware of his own intelligence, he may even actively dislike smart people and smart things.

Does this teen still possess the potential to be her smartest self? No one knows the answer; and while we would love the answer to be yes, all we can do is speculate. But we do have some clues. In the heyday of IQ tests, back in the 1940’s and the 1950’s, many interesting studies were conducted to see if “enrichment”—for example, providing “underprivileged” kids with books—would make a significant positive difference on IQ scores. The results? The IQ scores of the children who received no particular enrichment remained steady and the IQ scores of the children who received enrichment increased significantly. This is not proof positive that smartness can be upped or reclaimed—but it is encouraging.

It might seem that this isn’t exactly a challenge, since if a smart teen never discovers that he is smart, then he hasn’t been stressing about that or making himself ill about that and maybe he might even be considered lucky, since he won’t have to deal with the many pressing challenges we’ve been discussing. This might be a case of let sleeping dogs lie, mightn’t it? Except … that he probably has some suspicions. Lurking in a corner of consciousness is likely the bothersome wonder, “Is this really all I’m supposed to be thinking about? How to stock produce in a warehouse?”

Indeed, that exact wonder may be why you are reading this blog post. You may be reading it to see if you recognize yourself. My hunch is that you do. If you do, then you have your own smarts to reclaim. That sounds like a tall order—and of course it is. But it also has a ring to it, doesn’t it? “I believe that I’m actually smart—now, what do I do with that information?” What do you think?


For parents


It may not be your habit to say to your smart teen, “You know, you are really very smart.” That may go against some principle you hold about the virtue of not bragging. Maybe you fear you’ll give your teen a swelled head. Maybe your worry is that he will equate “smart” with “not needing to work hard at things” and become lazy. Maybe—yes, this can happen—you envy his smartness and, rather than acknowledging it, you find opportunities to put him down (“Well, that was pretty stupid!”). For all sorts of reasons, you may be refusing to acknowledge and honor that your child is smart—and as a result, he may not know that he is.

Do you want your child’s light to be hidden under a bushel? You may have your reasons for lobbying against intellectual pursuits, for holding smart people in contempt, for believing that thinking leads to doubt and that doubt is not acceptable. All I can do is ask you to reconsider. It isn’t so much that your child has a “gift” that ought to be nurtured. Rather, it’s that his heart is going hurt if he never becomes his full self. See if you can say those magic words: “You know, you are really very smart.” Wouldn’t it be lovely to see him smile?


For teens


If you suspect that you are smart but have never let yourself say that you are smart and have never let yourself do the sorts of things that would require intellectual power, this might be a lovely moment to no longer doubt your own inheritance and to step to the plate as a thinking person.

This attempt may confuse you. You may hear yourself say, “Okay, so what am I supposed to be smart about?” It may make you highly anxious. It may bring up sadness as you ponder how you missed the boat all these years, keeping your light hidden, not even knowing that you had a light to shine. Yes, this announcement is likely to bring difficulty, not ease. But it hasn’t been easy up till now, either, has it? Isn’t this the better difficulty, to embrace that you are smart and to live with the consequences?



[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]


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