“Dumbing Down” – Why? What Are the Signs? What Can Parents Do?Share
Bright children and teens sometimes choose to appear less capable—to “dumb down” their ability, or thwart their creative expression. Here are some reasons why, what parents should watch for, and how they can support their children.
“Most people who attain success in their lives, however defined, are people who figure out who they are—what they have to offer themselves, others, and the world at large.” ~ Psychologist and Author Robert Sternberg
About “Dumbing Down”
It’s important to encourage children and teens to aspire to be the best they can be. Yet, many kids choose an alternative trajectory, by deciding to dumb down their capabilities. Why? Some may be bored, overwhelmed, unhappy, or uncertain as to where, how, or even if to begin to apply themselves. (Note that this is quite different from not doing things because they’re taking time to weigh options, plan, consolidate ideas, resolve challenges, or reflect upon learning processes.) Other children may fear success or failure, or worry about expectations that are too daunting. Still others may have concerns about the possible social ramifications of appearing too smart, pioneering, or innovative.
Kids who opt to dumb down—as opposed to stepping up—and who are doing so deliberately and for specific reasons that matter to them are, unfortunately, short-circuiting themselves. They may not want to acknowledge or discuss their reasoning. However, some kids may welcome the opportunity to talk about and better understand their avoidance behavior with someone they can trust to help them deal with it.
Dumbing Down Indicators
What are some tell-tale signs that kids may evidence, and that parents and teachers may detect? Here are 7 red flags:
1. Less apparent interest in areas of strength, or previous enthusiasms. This may be accompanied by little pride in achievement, unexpected poor marks, missed due dates, lack of resourcefulness, and a disinclination to be creative.
2. Procrastination—which can involve lackluster excuses, or even elaborately thought out but unlikely ones.
3. Reluctance to look parents and teachers in the eye. This includes being evasive, dismissive, or less communicative.
4. Increased interest in what others are doing. This may involve hanging out with newly acquired friends, more partying, and less connection with "smart" or capable friends.
5. Sudden enhanced pursuits in non-academic areas. Not that this is necessarily bad. Sports, arts, social media or other time-consuming activities can provide a kind of excuse for “dumbing down” or paying less attention to academic requirements.
6. Change in manner—including sulking, sarcasm, crying, sullenness, ambivalence, defiance, use of unusual vocabulary, adopting a “leave me alone” attitude, and unaccounted-for time—especially if these indicators or behaviors are not consistent with previous ones.
7. Difficulty reconciling the "dumbing down" with real capacities and true aspirations. This can result in potentially risky behaviour or affect well-being. Keep an eye out for possible substance abuse, poor sleeping or eating habits, or anxiety.
Here are several ways parents can help children and teens deal with dumbing down:
1. Talk with (not at) kids—and listen! Be available. Don't admonish or be judgmental. Repeat or confirm any messages conveyed that may seem confusing to ensure your understanding of them. Chat about noted/accomplished/creative people (in areas of children’s interest) who are smart, and who have not compromised their forward momentum.
2. Help to improve the school culture by reinforcing the idea that it's cool to be smart. (See The Creativity Post article.) Emphasize the importance of hard work and patience. Also, make meaningful connections with teachers to ensure that students have appropriate learning opportunities, receive encouragement, and are offered choice.
3. Emphasize effort. Demonstrate through your own actions and achievements why putting forth effort is integral to self-fulfillment.
4. Maintain routines. This applies to bedtimes, meals, exercise, extracurricular activities, habits, family dynamics—and try to inject some creativity into the routines so they're not dull.
5. Set aside quiet time and space for reflection. Also, model and encourage it. Sometimes kids come to the realization that "dumbing down" is counterproductive but they have to think it through carefully, and figure it out for themselves.
6. Avoid power struggles. They do not serve any purpose, and arguments can spiral out of control quite easily. Step back or aside for a bit, and remember that you are the adult.
7. Ensure that expectations are fair and manageable. Sometimes dumbing down" is misconstrued and it's really that the person is taking time to catch up, or taking time to relax or recharge because demands are becoming excessive or unmanageable.
8. Consider the possibility of overload—and in such circumstances encourage your child to speak to teachers about the problem. Also, consider teaching tips for self-advocacy. (See strategies outlined in Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids.)
Sometimes finding the right “fit” is the best way to encourage children to aspire and to stretch themselves. Parents can encourage kids to explore their values, goals, attitudes, unique interests, and developing talents. Parents can also “show the way” to overcoming obstacles and achieving successful outcomes.
Remember, in the whole scheme of things, achievement, success, and fulfillment mean something different to each of us. For many it is not scholastic in nature—it has more to do with developing attributes such as creativity, resilience, and integrity. And, if, for example, children choose to explore their musical, artistic, athletic, or social-emotional capacities, while putting their academic ones on the back-burner temporarily, it may be their preferred way forward—perceived as a stepping stone toward success, a longed-for break, a confidence-building strategy, or something else other than dumbing down. A wise course of action is to chat with children about what they’re feeling, doing (or not doing), and why—and to then work together toward happy productivity.
Reading and Resources
Readers will find additional relevant material in the author’s books Not Now, Maybe Later, and Bust Your BUTS, as well as in Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, and Being Smart about Gifted Education (both co-authored by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster). For information about these books, as well as accessibility to a wide range of articles and links, go to www.joannefoster.ca
For excellent resource material on supporting and encouraging children’s optimal development, check out the assortment of books published by the award winning publisher Great Potential Press at www.greatpotentialpress.com.
Note: The Robert Sternberg quote that appears at the outset of this article is cited in Beyond Intelligence, on page 234.