Photo by Getty Images
As a parent, it’s OK to secretly think your kid is the smartest in his class. What’s not OK: When he believes it too. That’s because kids who have wildly unrealistic perceptions of their academic abilities aren’t as popular as their more humble peers, according to new research published Wednesday out of Germany in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Scientists call such thinking “self-enhancement,” and it occurs when a student not only believes he’s the best, but feels superior to a specific peer. It’s what lead author Katrin Rentzsch of the University of Bamberg set out to investigate when she and her team visited 20 eighth-grade classrooms for the new study. They had students rate their classmates’ likability, then asked how much smarter they felt than everyone else, contrasting those ratings with the students’ grades.
The results showed that kids who expressed superiority against a specific student (“I got a better grade than you”) made both students dislike each other. However, kids who simply thought they were the smartest didn’t suffer socially — the idea being that a student who believes he’s awesome in general isn’t offending anyone specific.
Study authors suspect that kids develop overinflated egos in part because they’re constantly being showered with praise by their parents and teachers. It’s a phenomenon that Sharon Silver, author of “Stop Reacting and Start Responding,” observes frequently in her practice. “A parent’s natural instinct may be to tell their children they’re amazing at everything, but specific praise, rather than global praise, will make kids confident and compassionate people,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.
For example, say your kid comes home with an “A” on his math test. Instead of crowing, “You’re sooo smart!” ask how he feels about the grade: What does it mean in the bigger picture? Does it change how he feels about himself or his friends? “Asking these questions encourages self-awareness,” says Silver. “You’re not diminishing him, but rather teaching him to understand what success really means.”
Another tip: Focus on your kid’s effort, not the end result. Say something like, “You must have put so much effort into studying,” or “How did you solve question three?” That way, future accomplishments seem less intimidating because he’ll know better how to repeat them.
And finally, avoid saying “best” altogether. According to Silver, it’s an empty word. “What does ‘best’ really mean?” she says. “There will always be someone better or worse off then you.”