If you encountered a magic fairy who promised wonderful things if you would only put your child in a box, would you put your child in a box?

Before you shout “Of course, not!,” what if she told you, “It’s a beautiful box and others will envy you and your child in that wonderful box?” What if she told you that being in that box will actually be good for your child? This particular box has within it the promise that your child will have school success and your young adult a great job and a positive future. Living in the box promises a successful fulfilling life!

It gets harder to stand in the face of all those promises, but if you have any experience with fairy tales your gut is twinging.

In reality, you would be very wise to avoid this box. The fairy didn’t mention that this particular box is the label “Smart” and the promises are false. Often when we talk about using labels in families we focus on the harm done by the obviously negative, such as, Biter, Whiner, Drama Queen. But we seem to ignore exploring the impact of terms that are not overtly negative. However, these labels may also have consequences.

I bring this up as I reflect on conversations I’ve had with educators who work with children seen as “underachievers.” “These children are Smart!” they exclaim, “Why aren’t they living up to their potential?”If anything they now have another box with a different name and it isn’t nearly as pretty or envious as the first box.

You can see how Smart allows us to set expectations and then offers us opportunity to add another label when a child doesn’t meet these expectations. Somehow the adults and children are caught in a sticky labeling trap. How did we ever get into this process in the first place?

Often labels are communication short cuts that develop early in relation to young children. The adults around a child use the word “smart” because we see the end product of the child’s time, attention and practice. Because the learning work of a toddler and preschooler is disguised as play, the time, attention and practice may be harder for an adult to recognize, but also because it is play, it is a joyful activity for the child. The added pleasure and attention from the parent or caregiver is a bonus to an already satisfying experience. As this pattern continues, children can internalize that “Smart” means their experience of learning should be as easy as P.I.E—Perfect, Instant and Easy.

So what makes a smart child an “underachiever?” Perhaps it is anxiety. Why should a smart child be anxious about learning? Perhaps because for elementary children there is a newly developing inner voice that begins to ask, Will the people who are important in my life be disappointed in me? Or, equally powerful, now that I can compare myself to others I can set what an adult might call an unrealistic expectation—Perfection.

Another factor that may contribute to the label “underachiever” is the expectation that smart people have instant success. Learning theorists suggest that the amount and depth of learning is often the result of the amount of time focused on the content or skill.

For those who believe that smart people learn instantly, it may be an easy but erroneous logical next-step to accept that when answers don’t come instantly, I’m just not smart enough. It’s almost as though the learner has an image of their own Smart that can be measured against the size of the task and seen as big enough or too little to bother. After all, in a recipe, if the cook only has half the flour needed for a cake, the best they can create is half a cake. If a whole cake was the goal, it may not be worth the effort to begin.

Shall we also mention that one understanding of procrastination is an attempt by “discouraged perfectionists” to create a reason for less than perfect? After all, if I had spent more time it would have been better/perfect.

And, finally, from the inner experience of a learner, school assignments may not feel particularly easy or fun.

I would be remiss were I not to acknowledge unique gifts (see our post on multiple intelligences). It is likely that basic aptitude makes the initial introduction to content rewarding to the learner. However, for anyone who has met an expert in any of the “intelligences” they will quickly realize that the expert has spent a significant amount of time and attention engaging in the practices that makes one expert.

Least we begin to think this is only an issue for children. I can assure you, that many adult learners who have been smart enough to successfully manage their lives in so many other ways, do not trust themselves to be smart enough for the goal of a new certification or degree.

There is hope for ourselves and the very young learners in our care to avoid the snare of the fairy’s Smart Box. In some educational communities there is movement away from artificial and somewhat obscure standards, e.g., A+, toward a sense of mastery learning. We can also offer children and all learners support for the time, attention and practice they bring to the tasks before them.

My best to all of you in joining me as a lifelong learner.
Dr. Y