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Fearless Parenting

It's tough to tell your kid he's not so smart

for The Brooklyn Paper
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I often tell my kids how smart they are. I encourage them to feel pride in their schoolwork and in whatever activities they engage in, knowing from many years in marketing that repetition is the best way to brainwash.

My efforts are beginning to pay off, but maybe too richly.

The other day, Eli asked to borrow my iPhone.

“No,” I said in a tone I believed firm enough to end the conversation.

“Please! I’m not playing games,” he pleaded, “I’m just going to look things up!”

“No,” I repeated, hoping the brainwash trick would work.

“I want to get more information,” he said, more urgently. “It helps my brain!”

Manipulative little so-and-so. He knew I was a sucker for brain boosting. But before I could be convinced to hand over the device for “learning purposes,” it occurred to me that the Googlization of civilization might spell the end of instinctive thought.

“If Einstein had an iPhone, he may not have sat around pondering things, he would have thought he’d found answers just ’cause someone on Wikipedia thought it was true,” I explained. “Then where would we be?”

Eli stared at me, slack-jawed, primed to sass.

“Mom, please!” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m really smart. I’m the smartest kid in my class.”

My stomach dropped. Here was my son believing himself to be smarter than most everyone else. This was serious. We were in trouble.

I thought of all the “smartest” people I’ve know in my life, those that thought they could beat the system, those that didn’t understand that the house always wins, those that ended up dead, or on drugs, or in jail — all because they were smarter than everybody else.

I slowed the car down and began to maniacally scream at him from somewhere deep and instinctual, from the place of Primal Protector.

“You may think you’re really smart but you’re not nearly so smart as you think you are!” I spat as he shrank away from me down into the black pleather seat. “Let me tell you, my friend, thinking you’re smarter than everyone else will get you into tons and tons of trouble!”

I remembered when the concept of humility became clear to me. It wasn’t in synagogue, it was in school when learning about Greek mythology. Story after story showed clearly how challenging the gods would always result in one’s doom. It was crucial to be humbled by the Unseen Powers sometimes. It was a matter of survival.

I’d parked the car in front of our little house.

“Who do you think you are!” I shouted at Eli.

It felt important to make him pay attention to exactly how small he was in the larger greater universe.

And it was the end of innocence of a sort. It is a very slippery slope to encourage the feelings of diminished greatness, but it seems crucial. As Eli nears 11, and we begin to loosen the reigns, a healthy bit of ego-busting seems all too necessary.

I felt horrible when Eli hung his head in shame and started to tear up after my tirade. But sending kids out into the world who think they’re too smart scares me witless.

Being humble is a crucial safety measure, one that in these days of parenting prideful can very well get swept under the rug.

That’s something I’m going to have to learn to repeat to myself, and to my kids.

Updated 5:32 pm, July 9, 2018
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