Last week I described our frequent reluctance to praise our children in front of other people for fear of alienating potential friends or provoking the competimommies. The comments were wonderful, and some readers brought up the recent New York Magazine article that describes how now some experts are suggesting that we hold off on telling our kids that they’re smart at all. Better to praise them for their efforts rather than their talents, the researchers say.

Which is all well and good, save for one teeny little barrier: The grandparents.

God bless the grandparents.

In their eyes, my bright but decidedly normal 21 month old daughter is a geeeeeeenius. Advanced. Insanely gifted. Destined for a dual major in biomedical engineering and something else with six or more syllables, after which she’ll develop the AIDS vaccine, end worldwide religious intolerance, become America’s Poet Laureate, and win two Nobel Prizes, the Cannes Palm d’Or, and a People’s Choice Award.

Then just wait and see what she does when she hits 25.

All this projecting started early, very early. Because apparently, an alert 2 week old is something akin to a prodigy.

“She looked right at me! She recognizes me from the hospital!”

“Yes, mom.”

“She sees her hand! Did you see that? Her hand! HER HAND! She looked at it!”

“Yes mom, she saw her hand.”

“She looked away from the TV – she’s not even interested in the TV! She prefers books! Did you see her look at the book?”

“Yes mom, she’s 12 days old and has already rejected all commercial broadcast media.”


My mother in particular mastered the art of spin in a way that could give Fox News a run for its money. Thalia’s inability to sleep, like, ever, was due to the fact that she was too enthralled with the world to stop taking it in. A finger in her mouth was an indication of super-human physical prowess. Petting a dog was confirmation of her magical ability to communicate with animals. Staring at a tree was some sort of telepathic exchange in the animistic tradition.

While Nate and I made fun of these observations (well, just a little), the truth is, it was nothing short of sweet. There’s something utterly charming about the notion of a baby so pure, so full of potential, that she’s little more than a blank canvas onto which doting family members can project all their dreams in one big sappy gush of love, pride and optimism. And so the grandparents deemed her advanced. They said she’d change the world one day. And yes, they called her smart.

So maybe within the privileged, overly introspective, upper middle-class circles of New York City superparents we can be so bold as to analyze the nuances of exactly how to praise our kids, fearing that an errant slip of the tongue can cause (brace yourself!) underachievement. But is it really so horrible? Who among us hasn’t witnessed a harried mother in the supermarket berating her misbehaving child with expletives. Or a father on the subway calling his distraught toddler an idiot as he threatens to give him something real to cry about.

I suppose what I’m saying is that there are far worse things to call your kid than smart. And far better issues for parents to lose sleep over than having a kid who believes it.

So if my parents want to call my daughter a geeeeeeenius? I’m not going to tell them to stop.

Although I will still make fun of them. Just a little.

So here’s a really nice thing! Starting today, on Mondays my posts will also appear as an online column for Time Out New York Kids–only the single greatest online resource for parents living or visiting the five boroughs. Visit their website to check it out, or to get urban parenting tips and geeeeeeeenius kid-friendly diversions.

And welcome to any new readers – delighted to have you here.


40 thoughts on “Geeeeeeeenius”

  1. Congratulations Liz. Will you still be posting here as well? I think what’s great for Thalia is that she will have a sister to share the burdens and the rewards. And yes, I agree, positive is much better than the opposite. And they both have a great grandmother.

  2. I think every child deserves to have a “Fairy Grandmother” or some other relative who thinks the sun shines out their butt! I was lucky enough to have a grandmother like that, and since I have to be the mean old mom sometimes, I’m glad to let my MIL dispense the over-the-top gushing to the kids.

  3. Awesome new gig!I can think of plenty of things worse than telling children they are smart. Generally speaking I try to praise specific things rather than make broad sweeping generalizations. But sometimes I can’t help myself and find myself stopping just short of screaming, “You are PERFECT!”

  4. Hmm, I tell Ada she’s smart all the time. Someone needs to balance all the “you are adorable” (not that it isn’t true). I have standard though. I don’t tell her she’s smart when she picks her nose and rubs the booger on my pants. I save the praise for when she wipes on her dad’s clothes.

  5. I’ve always liked telling other people’s kids how smart they are, or what a smart thing they just did, particularly as opposed to the other things one can compliment them on at that age….“You are so cute!”“You have on cute shoes!”“What pretty hair your have!”“I like your shirt!”“You are just the sweetest little thing!”Smart? Something to strive for, I would think… and more important than <>*ducking*<> cute shoes!

  6. Congratulations on the gig! That’s great news…I’ve only been here once and can already tell you are a great writer. As a new mom myself, I could relate to everything you wrote and chuckled along with you… 🙂

  7. I take all these things with a grain of salt. Coffee’s bad this week, good next week. Vitamin E … good for … nothing.And I agree with you there are so many worse things you can call your kid than smart.Congratulations on the Time Out gig. Good going!

  8. Perhaps I reacted too quickly (above). I do like the article’s point about selectively praising kids for an action or an effort they just did, rather than the blanket “you’re smart!” or “great game!” This makes sense, and is a good positive reinforcement, especially if used sporadically rather than every single time, setting up the expectation of mommy-praise for every good thing. Thanks for making me think today!

  9. my rule of thumb is “praise the verb, not the noun.” this way, you’re at least telling them they’re smart or clever or stupid for what they’re doing as opposed to praising them for just, y’know, living.not that thalia isn’t a geeeenius for just, y’know, living.and you? way to go with the TONY gig! you seem to be following very much in thalia’s footsteps.

  10. I am constantly telling my son he is smart, because he totally IS. (humph). I just love all these “tips” on how to raise a non-fucked up child. (rolls eyes).WHOOOOOHOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! on the Time Out Gig. YES!!!!! YES!!!!!(umh, would it be useful to you if we went to you via their site on Mondays? say the word, lovey)

  11. Another hilarious post. My mother is always saying “He’s so bright” about my son, with lots of emphasis on the so. SO bright. And she is completely serious.Congratulations on the column. Way to go Liz! You’re so smart. Er. I mean not. Way to work hard something until it pays off. Um. Yeah.

  12. Congratulations! Well deserved!My mom is kind of the opposite of yours. The other day, she snapped at my 6 year old, “Why can’t you read yet?”. Then there are the ‘when are you going to be pottytrained’ comments to my 2 year old, the ‘when are you going to stop falling out of your chair’ to the 4 year old. . .etc etc. Tough love.

  13. Oh, Liz, I can’t wait to see what your mom is gonna do once Second shows up. Because my mom often ends up near hysteria as she tries to compliment BOTH of my kids, wholeheartedly and equally.“Ben’s so good at math,” she’ll start out, and then interrupt herself to say, “Not that Jack isn’t, but, you know, he’s only 5, what <>Jack<> is is such a wonderful reader, um, not that Ben isn’t a great reader, he’s the best, well, not the best, because Jack… Well, they’re both better readers than all the other children, that’s it.”And with great relief at having sorted it out she stops talking. Thankfully.

  14. We get a little of both – the genius talk and the “why isn’t he/she…” The latter makes me defensive, the former – well, I have to agree 😉Congrats on the new gig. How do you have the time??? I bow to you!

  15. I want to know what your mother said about comparing her spin to that of Fox News. Did she disown you yet?Gotta love the grandparents for the unconditional confidence in our babies. Well, most grandparents. (grumbling slightly under my breath)

  16. What is Time Out? I am so out of the loop. Very true post. We have better things to worry about than our children being told they are smart.

  17. congratulations mom101-102!better email me your mailing address!so i can tell modernnursery where to mail your 2007 boon flair highchair!congratulations on winning my contestyour geniuses will love the chair 🙂

  18. The blessing of grandparents is having people who willingly listen to my excitement over ever little thing Q does. I wouldn’t subject anyone else to it. Except my blog readers, I guess.

  19. You SAID it sister!! My parents say things like “Did you see that? She BREATHED! SHE WALKED”“Uh, Mom? She’s 5”sigh.I’m linking you all up over at stroller derby again cuz I just wrote about this for tomorryRachael

  20. Don’t I know it. Every time my daughter so much as kicks her foot out, grandma comments on how she’s sure to be a great soccer player. Or she plays with her food and we get to hear about how she’s going to be a chef. Oh, wait, this one’s even better: one time The Boss was staring at the ceiling and (I swear, this is true) grandma started gushing about how maybe she was going to become an astronomer. Congrats on your newest opportunity to educate parents as only Mom-101 can!

  21. Nice news about the Time out gig.. And, hmmmmm.. I do wonder if you will be ever shift a bit about this stuff? I did find that as soon as my daughter became acutely cognizant of her grandparents hype it < HREF="" REL="nofollow">did have a downside<>.I’ll say she’s smart but not very often to her face. I mean having her Dad and me as parents is too big a handicap that nonlinear girl is sooo funny

  22. How wonderfully supportive and spectacularly grandparent-ish of them!My mom tells me I need to stop calling my daughters beautiful. Because all I have to do is decide to stop. I can stop anytime I want. I just choose not to.

  23. Oh yes, same here with the grandparents. My second son is two years old, and while he is very verbal and does count to 15 sometimes, he is still just a normal little shit at other times.But they are already telling me where the school for gifted children is “you will have to get up at five to make it downtown on time!” Yeah, right.

  24. Once again, you’ve stopped me in my tracks. The next time my in-laws start worshiping my baby, I’ll remember that it could be worse and they couldn’t care less about him. Or be there at all for him.Congrats on your new column!

  25. Great post, and a great reminder. Truly there are many worse alternatives… I do wonder at times whether my 3.5 year old is becoming a praise junky, but you know what? It works. It’s the only damn thing that motivates her right now, and the look of pride on her face when I tell her so is worth every bit of it.Congratulations on the Timeout gig! Oh how I miss Timeout NY, the Tel Aviv edition just isn’t the same…

  26. Jr. high was the hardest time for us because our “gifted” child was not so “gifted” with hormones flying, voice changing, discovering girls, he didn’t care two cents about turning in a homework sheet. As much as you think that it will pass…you go nuts thinking…you bright child will be living in your home forever. He was constantly praised, and we feel like he just decided to take a vacation from that life and see if the grass was greener on the other side. Thankfully now a sophomore, he is realizing college’s don’t just want kids with a popular social life. But on the bright side all of my friends with first born girls had the opposite experience. No worries, brag away!

  27. Awesome news. Congrats on the TONY-Kids gig. Love that mag!And yeah, my folks are the same way. Absolutely convinced that their lovely granddaughter is a freaking genius!

  28. Grandparents just want to let us know early on that the kid(s) are smarter than us I suspect. (Well…okay, not really that perhaps)

  29. That sounds like my mother. She tells me every day that I’m so lucky that Dawson is brilliant. He’s 2 1/2 and can’t count to ten yet (but he’s trying), and he can recite his entire Thomas the Tank Engine book and she thinks he’s going to win a Pulitzer or something!I feel guilty for being skeptical — but what if this is a fluke and he’s not really any smarter than any other two year old?But then I feel guilty for not thinking positive because then maybe I’d encourage him more and he’d be “brilliant.”It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation!

  30. I’ve just read this after missing it earlier. Well done you! That’s lovely news and richly deserved – we all come by for a reason y’know. You rawk, woman!With luck this piece of good news will get you through til tomorrow – you need something other than baby stuff to focus on in the meantime. Flippin’ well done, hun!

  31. Baby Diva’s Great-Granny is the biggest “culprit.” Yes, Granny…it is normal for her to play peek-a-boo at 7 months.Isn’t it great to have such loving family surrounding your kid?

  32. I wish I had my mom around to say all those things, to tell me my 7 month old daughter is brilliant and special. Unfortunately I lost her when I was 22, 11 years before I gave birth. Count your blessings.

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