Why I'm Done Telling My Kids They're Beautiful and Smart

Let's go on a psychological walk together. You can hold my hand, man. It isn't weird.

My brother spoke profound words into my life when I was in high school. We were discussing my dreams, aspirations, and what I wanted out of college. Five words: “Josh, you just gotta decide.” He wasn't advising me to make a literal decision between two options, exactly. He was saying that if I wanted something, all I needed to do was decide I was going to have it. Stop the second guessing. Lose the ambivalence and insecurity in can or can't, and decide whether you will or won't. Step out and do the work to get your dreams done. Because in so many ways the only thing limiting us is our minds. He was right.

Our identities and the way we perceive them dictate what we believe we can and can't do. We lean into our strengths because they're the path of least resistance, and we steer away from our weaknesses because they're more challenging to develop. It's normal.

But even though we recognize this, the wired inclination for many of us parents is to lavish compliments of loveliness and intelligence upon our kids in an attempt to bolster their self-confidence. On the surface there's nothing wrong with this. I want kids brimming with self-confidence, but I don't want that confidence coming from what I told them to believe about themselves. I want their confidence to grow healthily out of a strong sense of [humble] self-worth. If my kids believe they're primarily beautiful or funny they'll start to notice a trend: certain things come easier to us. It's a funny trend among kids – they give up on things “they're just not good at” and rarely exercise any of their other abilities.

The big joke nobody tells us growing up is that, really, the rest of your life is figuring out how to do things you never thought you'd have to face. So I've revised my message to my kids to this: You are enough, and you are able. That's it.

Allow me to generalize for a moment. Generalizations are good. They allow us to identify trends – and the intelligent (another generalization) understand generalizations are not rules. They just help us understand why things tend to happen the way they do.

Generalization #1: The “Plastics”

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I don't fancy myself brilliant, but I do possess a certain amount of clever wit. In high school I started noticing this wit falling on deaf, confused ears among the most attractive people around me. It wasn't until many years later that I realized the pretty people of the world are mostly content to be pretty. There's little need to flex any of their other muscles. And unless they have a unique inner drive, many of them don't. They're princes and princesses in a glamorous world. People are drawn to them naturally. They don't have to be anything else.

If my kids get stuck in the plastic world like so many others, I can't believe I'll have done my job as their dad. They'll be attractive in the eyes of the world or they won't. But if I'm paying attention and relentlessly supportive about their ability to land an A in Physics and make the varsity basketball team, something tells me they'll have a better shot at succeeding.

Generalization #2: The “Brainiacs”

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I live in Chattanooga – a small city with a big start-up community and a lot of really smart techies. Generally speaking, these folks represent a very smart segment of our population. But this comes with it's own set of shortcomings. It's like we're all dealt a 5-card life hand, and the smarties who get 4 brainiac cards suffer a few less social awareness, charisma, emotional, and common sense cards to play in the other scenarios they encounter. If you've ever watched the androids on Jeopardy, you know what I mean. They should make it a rule that you have to have a personality to go on Jeopardy.

I don't want my kids to get stuck here, either. I saw Rain Man. Extreme intelligence often comes with some insufficiencies preventing a well-rounded life. My kids may be brilliant, but I don't see a satisfying future for them if doctorates in astro-physics aren't seasoned with interpersonal skills and healthy connections with other humans.

Sometimes telling our kids they're beautiful or smart is like giving a toddler toys and candy. We think we're being “good parents” if we give them what they want. Affirmation is critically important, but not the kind of affirmation that persistently pigeonholes them into feeling like they're limited to one strength. Someday our kids will grow up to the tweens, teens, and adults who need more than that. It takes character and encouragement to move past what comes natural and develop some rippling biceps in the areas that aren't as natural.

To bring this full circle, I'm discovering in my 29 years of wisdom that the most satisfied people tend to be the most well-rounded. They've never said no to any good opportunity, knowing that somewhere inside them they had the capability to get done whatever needed getting done. They have a “life card” for every occasion, know a lot about a lot of things, and haven't encountered a roadblock in life they couldn't work their way around. I want to instill this relentless-motor and self-confidence into the souls of my kids even more than I want to nurture the next Stephen Hawking.