Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Cautionary Tale of the Clever Girl

"Clever boy!" Eurgh. One of my pet hates.

I'd forgotten quite how *much* I hated it until the other day, when someone "Clever boy!"-ed Squidge (Who, at four and a half, has been using the toilet like any other nappy-free human being for over two years) for doing, and I quote (with apologies), "A great big poo!".

Really? Reeeeally???

I'm sure it doesn't need spelling out just how laughable that is. Should I start congratulating him on breathing, perhaps? Or on growing his own spectacularly wonderful hair?

Anyway, it reminded me of a girl, a long time ago, when The Smurfs were first on the scene and Cabbage Patch dolls were the must have toy.

She was "Clever girl!"-ed. A lot. A lot a lot a lot.

At five, her parents complained to the school that she wasn't being 'stretched'. She wondered why she needed stretching, but dutifully took the school's reading test anyway. She didn't understand any of the words, but it was easy enough to say what she read on the page. "Past age twelve!" they said. "Clever girl!" they said. "What a clever girl!" her parents said.

At six, she was put in for an entrance exam to a prep school a year early. She passed. "Clever girl!" said her parents. "Aren't you clever!" said her grandparents. "Gosh you must be clever!" said the checkout lady in KwikSave.

At eight, on a trip to Chester Zoo, she mentioned that she might like to be a zookeeper when she grew up. "Well if you want to do that, you should be a vet instead. You're a clever girl, after all!" said her parents.

At ten, she took the entrance exam for an independent girls' school. She got the highest mark out of everyone, and hence a scholarship. "Clever girl!" cried family, friends, checkout people and teachers. "But I'm still being bullied here," she said to her parents, "can't I go somewhere else?" "No," they said, "you need to go here, you're a clever girl and you'll get the best grades here so you can be a vet." "What if I don't want to be a vet?" she asked. "You can be anything you want," they replied, "but you're so clever and you've always wanted to be a vet!"

At thirteen she was put in for the Mensa IQ Test. "Wow you're so clever!" trilled her parents when she joined (blind, as they were, to the fact that IQ tests simply measure someone's ability to pass IQ tests). "And why do you want to be a member of that?" asked her form teacher. She had no answer for that. 

She continued to bring home straight A report cards (on all the things that 'mattered') and get achievement prizes at school. "What a clever clever girl!" doted her parent's friends. "Clever girl!" beamed her family.

She flew through GCSEs, not understanding half of it but able to memorise word for word vast tracts of information, which was all that was required. "You got what?! Clever girl!" they all squealed.

"I'm not sure I want to be a vet," she said to her parents, "I found this book on psychology which was really interesting, I thought maybe I could do that, or something else?"

"But you're so clever!" they said. "And you've worked so hard to get this far! You can always read psychology books in your spare time."

At sixteen she went for university interviews to study veterinary medicine. "Why do you want to be a vet?" they all asked. "It's a vocation, all I've ever wanted to do," seemed to go down well.

"You're going to be a vet?" people asked. "Gosh you've got to be so clever to do that! Cleverer than to be a doctor!"

She flew through A-levels too, taking memorisation to new heights. "Clever girl!" was still the consensus.

So off she went to university, this 'clever girl', with no idea why she was on the course she was, except that everyone expected her to do it, everyone thought a lot of her for doing it, and she'd be letting people down if she didn't.

After four years of finding any possible reason not to go to lectures (but having a most excellent social life), in debt to student loans, and crying in her room because she couldn't see a way out, she walked into her tutor's office, and told him she wasn't coming back.

Her parents were angry and disappointed. Still are, fifteen years later, that such a 'clever girl' could throw away her opportunities. Still confused as to why she won't just go back and get a degree.

Here's the thing though. They weren't her opportunities for her life. When a child is brought up with her self esteem entirely dependent upon the judgement of "Good girl!", grades, and taking a path approved by others, she's completely missing out on the opportunity to find what pleases her, what really interests her, and what could be a happy and fulfilling career/life path for her and her alone. When the people you love have their own idea of who they want you to be, based on the label they've given you, you risk losing their approval if you try to step out of that box, and that's a scary thing for a child. The negative power of this sort of label/"praise", however well-intentioned, should never be underestimated.

The day I got up the courage and walked into that tutor's office is the proudest of my life from before I had children. Not the day I got my A level results, or started uni, or got my first job, or got "Clever girl!"-ed more than any other. But the day I decided my life was just that. Mine. And that I didn't need approval from anyone else to do the things I want to do.

It's still taken me a good few years since then to be completely secure and unwavering in that. Now I'm a parent, I want to make sure that my children never have to have that day in their twenties, or thirties, or some other time halfway through their life. I want them to live their lives *now*, for themselves.

So no "Clever boy!"s, "Good girl!"s or "Good job!"s here (well, one slips out occasionally but I try really hard to have a different focus). Just kids who are supported doing what they find interesting and enjoyable.

Note: I'm not ungrateful for what my parents tried to do for me, they did what they thought was best. But everyone's childhood will give them a unique perspective on certain things, and this is one of mine.


  1. You stood up for yourself. You need to tell your kids that story when they're older xx

    1. :) I kinda hope it never comes up... but we'll see!

  2. the odd..."good boy" won't hurt (it's so hard not to respond automatically sometimes) because the balance of your life tells them you love and and value them for who they are.

    1. I totally agree, it's so hard to stop the ingrained response sometimes isn't it :) But I absolutely think that every time we can consciously make it a genuine, "Wow I love the wavy lines!" or, "I think that was really sweet of you to give your brother the PSP," or, "The cat really loves it when you stroke him gently like that," or, "That creeper statue is really intricate, you can tell you put lots of thought into it," ... well each of those times is a more positive choice made :)

  3. Wow! This post rang so many bells for me. I was a 'clever girl'... but it was mostly my mother & grandmother who said it... At school I was 'Bright but lazy' & when they decided to Mensa test me & I scored high (much to most of their surprise) I was thereafter an 'Eccentric genius' lol. None of these labels ever raised my self esteem tho because, as you so rightly pont out here, they were conditional praises, based upon me doing what others required of me, not on what I was inclined toward. Nothing could be engaged in just for the pure love of it. Everything had to have a measurable end goal to qualify as worthwhile in their eyes.
    It is very difficult to not repeat the same lazy & empty utterances to one's own children tho when they're so ingrained. I often say 'Good boy/girl' to my children & had never thought about how that must ring so hollow & disingenuous ... Thanks for this reminder 'freedomiseverything'

    1. "Everything had to have a measurable end goal to qualify as worthwhile in their eyes." Yes! I really want my kids do do things because they're worthwhile to *them*

  4. And of course, the person doing the praising is making their own value judgements about the things that deserve praise and the things that do not, and the child takes these things on board. I was praised for academic stuff, but not so much for the creative stuff I wanted to do, so guess what I stopped bothering with? Thankfully I've had the chance to change all that in recent years. :-) Great post!

    1. Absolutely. And very glad you have, it would have been a shame if that flame had been extinguished permanently!

  5. Thank you for writing this, from another "clever girl".

    ...Argh...I had the strongest urge to add "but not as clever as you by the sound of it", which just goes to show that I still need to do some serious deschooling in this area...