Teaching Our Children to Stop and Think

Teaching Our Children to Stop and Think

I recently read Flourish by Martin Seligman. In his book, Seligman presents research related to his theory of well-being. Overall, it’s a good read which I would highly recommend to anyone. One section briefly touched on the concept of intelligence and what factors may go into determining what intelligence truly is.


Intelligence is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Often when the topic of intelligence comes up, what is meant is how successful one is in a setting such as school (as determined by standardized testing). But sometimes, intelligence refers to social ability – one’s ability to be attuned to their emotions, or the degree to which a person can handle difficult situations. Charisma, savviness, insightful, perseverance and grit are all words often used to describe these other types of intelligence.

It has also been argued we are all intelligence in our own ways. Generally, this statement is attached to a quote often (likely falsely) attributed to Einstein about fish not being judged for not being able to climb trees.

Seligman presents an argument that what is often called intelligence would be more accurately described as speed, slowness and self-discipline (Seligman, 2012). Persons who are considered to have high intelligence process information at a faster rate than what would be considered normative. Slowness allows a person to process in a meaningful way what they have just learned. Self-discipline allows a person to use speed and slowness well.

A person may be naturally fast, too fast to be able to settle their mind long enough to fully consider the applications of what has been learned before moving on to a new area of interest. Self-discipline enables a person to develop the ability to stop and think.

Or, a person may not be naturally fast. But, as a person takes longer to learn new information they may gain a deeper understanding of the information giving them more time to fully consider the material before moving on. Self-discipline again enables a person to not give up when they feel they are not understanding what they are trying to learn.

An argument can be made that intelligence is made up of two steps.

Step one: Process the new information as efficiently as possible.

Step Two: Thoughtfully apply the new information in a helpful way.

Step one seems to be highly valued in our culture while step two is often an afterthought. Processing information quickly makes a person seem intelligent, but intelligence only goes so far if a person is unable to have the self-discipline to think well and act with integrity. On the other hand, being a slower learner is often seen as a weakness. But, being slow does not mean someone can not learn, it just means adjustments might need to be made to how the information is taken in. Some people take longer to finish college but that does not make their degrees any less valuable.

Middle childhood is the time of a person’s life when they begin to determine if they are ‘smart’ (Eccles, 1999).

In early childhood, every little step is celebrated. We celebrate our kids’ first words, their ability to count to 10 and identify colors, successful usage of the bathroom, etc. The bar of expectations for kids in early childhood is super low, and it should be.

In middle childhood though, we begin to more stringently measure our kids’ abilities against specific learning standards and their peers (and our children pick up on this). The bar of expectations raises dramatically in a relatively short amount of time. By the end of middle childhood, most children “know” whether they are ‘smart’ or not due to their developing ability to think critically about themselves and the world around them as well as the reinforcement they receive from their support system (Eccles, 1999).

Those children who do not feel they are smart have been shown to be at greater risk for depression, social isolation, anger and aggression (Eccles, 1999). For those children who do feel they are smart, this belief could potentially lead them to putting undue pressure on themselves to live up to their own expectations and the expectations of those in their support systems. Culturally, being smart often gives a person a tremendous amount of value.

Right or wrong, middle childhood is much too early in life for a person to have to deal with self-defeating thoughts of “I am smart enough to be valued.”

What then can parents do to help their children maintain a positive sense of self that will enable them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and use these insights to become successful, thoughtful and intelligent adults?

1. Don’t praise your kids for being smart. Praise them for how they understand and use the information they take in. Being smart, as the phrase seems mostly commonly used, is the ability to take in new information quickly. As explained above, processing new information is only half of being smart. The ability to process information is (mostly) a skill shaped by genetics and environment. It is not something a person has much control over, especially in middle childhood. To praise or condemn a child over an ability they have little control over whether they possess or not seems frivolous at best and harmful at worst.

2. Teach and model self-discipline to your child. Self-discipline is the ability of a person to maintain focus on a reasonable goal. No matter how naturally gifted your child may be, they will eventually fail. If they have good habits of self-discipline, they are more likely to be able to see the failure as a learning experience and not a reflection of their worth. If they do not have good habits of self-discipline, failure is likely to dissuade them from trying again or to at least consider why the failure occurred.

The ever growing role the Internet serves in our society highlights the need to expand our definition of intelligence to include not just taking in information but also having the self-discipline to be able to understand and use new information in a helpful way. One of the great benefits of the internet is the relative ease of access to information it gives to the billions of people who use this technology.

Unfortunately, as access to information has grown, our collective ability to patiently examine and respond in a helpful way to each other has not grown at the same pace, if at all. We take in information, but we don’t process it well. We passionately (but often ignorantly) argue with our friends and family before quickly moving on to new information. Further, more importance is placed on being the first to have an opinion than on having a good and well-constructed opinion.

Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, says ““The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” This quote speaks well to why we do our children a disservice when we limit our definition of being ‘smart’ to only how well they take in new information. That is, what is the point of giving our children access to all the information in the world if we’re not at the same time teaching and modeling to them how to use it in good and helpful ways?


Eccles, J. S. (1999). The development of children ages 6 to 14. The future of children, 30-44.

Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harpers.

Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

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