The Smarts #7: Paralyzing Smarts

The Smarts #7:

Paralyzing Smarts

Thinking about the root of children’s misbehavior is worth it. When I point out that their intelligence strengths may be the cause, it doesn’t take parents and teachers long to see the truth. This is partly because it’s true for adults, too. We rarely misbehave or get into trouble because of our weaknesses. Those things may concern us, but it’s our strengths that often give rise to poor choices. Without self-control, self-respect, and respect for others, we and children can be a handful. We talk too much, move too much, play in the dirt, isolate, and more.

If parents and teachers don’t see the strengths and respond harshly, critically, and frequently to the negative behaviors, we can paralyze out of children their greatest strengths. I’m so grateful my parents didn’t do this to me! Read more in this continuation of a series about children’s intelligences from my book, 8 Great Smarts: Discover and Nurture Your Childs’ Intelligences.

Paralyzing Smarts: The Impact of Criticism

Can you imagine what might have happened if my parents and teachers had seen my word-smart abilities as irritating problems to eliminate rather than as strengths to develop, focus, and train? What might have happened if I had been raised hearing, “Be quiet . . . shut up . . . go find something to do . . . I’m sick of your talking!” Would I be a speaker and author? No. My strengths might have been paralyzed, so I wouldn’t use them at all, or I might have used them only in unhealthy ways because of the negative environment in which I was raised.

Rather, my parents, brother, grandparents, and others listened to me. We listened to each other. We had rich give-and-take conversations at the dinner table. My brother, Dave, and I weren’t raised to be quiet unless spoken to. We were encouraged to speak up. We were also taught to listen and to respect whoever was speaking.

Was I sometimes asked to be quiet? Absolutely! Did I sometimes need to leave my brother, parents, and friends alone? Absolutely! Did I sometimes need to listen to my brother? Yes! I’m thankful that he and I were raised to respect ourselves and others and to develop and use our self-control.

Without even realizing what they were doing, our parents demonstrated strong, purposeful, and healthy uses of the smarts. They challenged Dave and me to be smart with our smarts, taught us how to do that, and provided new guidance when we weren’t. The keyword for me there is “taught.” We weren’t “told.” We were “taught.” And, we were corrected and retaught. Negative consequences were implemented when we didn’t comply. Positive ones were used when we were smart with our smarts.

Paralysis often occurs when children use their smarts in unhealthy ways. Disobedience can often draw a look that paralyzes. Most parents know that look and kids demonstrate it for me when I ask. Believe me, it’s not hard! Tone of voice can also paralyze smarts. It doesn’t always, of course, but if it’s consistently negative or angry, children might stop using the smart they believe is causing the critical reactions. The same is true for what is said and what is not said. What might your children be waiting to hear? What have they heard often enough?

In general, criticism paralyzes intelligences. This includes criticism of finished projects and criticism of processes used (handwriting, the way books and papers are organized, and talking with friends rather than working alone). Specific correction is appropriate. Criticism isn’t. I’ll never forget the young boy who told me he enjoyed playing the piano and thought he was doing well one particular day until his dad angrily shouted from another room, “Stop all that racket in there!” He told me he instantly lifted his hands from the keys and begged his mom to let him stop taking lessons.

Regular punishment of strengths (movement for body-smart children, talking for word smart children, and exploring for logic smart children) can also paralyze the associated smarts so children no longer use them.

Teasing can also paralyze smarts. It doesn’t matter who does the teasing. It hurts and plants seeds of doubt. This is also true when out-of-the-box thinking isn’t well received. If children often hear, “That would never work” and “We’ve never done it that way!” they may eventually stop thinking altogether.

Paralysis can also set in due to weaknesses. For example, a student who reads orally in a choppy and slow manner may know the teacher is disappointed and frustrated. This may cause him or her to avoid reading aloud again. Discouragement may set in for children who struggle to creatively write well who don’t have their work displayed on bulletin boards like most classmates.

A girl waited in line with others after my program. She fidgeted while waiting her turn. When she made it to the front of the line, she looked up with the saddest face. “My mommy didn’t know what my picture was. My teacher loved it and put it on the special wall, but my mommy didn’t even know what it was. She kind of scrunched her face and asked ‘What is that?’ in that kind of weird way that made me think she didn’t really like it. It was a giraffe and she didn’t even know.” Her voice trailed off . . .

Perfectionism often shuts down smarts because it doesn’t allow children any freedom to explore and grow. Your child knows mistakes will most likely occur when trying new things. If your daughter thinks she needs to be perfect, she won’t risk trying something new. Was this girl’s mom expecting her to paint a perfect giraffe? Was that fair and realistic?

Do you often respond to your son’s attempts to help around the house by exclaiming, “Just let me do it!”? This decreases his initiative and confidence and suggests he’s not good enough. Paralysis sets in. If you notice your child no longer growing in a smart that had once been a strength, see if perfectionism has set in and then talk and teach against it.

Race and gender biases can also paralyze. How unfortunate! For example, Randy detailed for me that his picture-smart strengths weren’t affirmed by his parents when he was young. This created great confusion, frustration, and even anger.

Randy was taught that art was irrelevant and frivolous for boys. Because he was always visualizing, daydreaming, and doodling, he believed he wasn’t very smart. His mom wanted him to be “the brains,” so he was forced into what Randy refers to as his linear (math and accounting) phase. Randy became angry after a while, as he realized that his mom hadn’t been able to recognize an innate gift and tried to instill a different one in him. He had to grieve the loss of time and seek God’s understanding. I’m glad he did! When he turned thirty-five, he purchased special pens and paper and started drawing again. I own some of his drawings and they’re amazing. Although paralyzed for a long, long time, his picture-smart abilities were still there. Some key conversations and encounters reawakened this smart. Thank God, it’s never too late for an intelligence to awaken and be reawakened, strengthened, focused, and trained!

From 8 Great Smarts, by Kathy Koch, PhD, (Moody Publishers, 2016), pages 42-46.


If you think you’ve maybe paralyzed children’s strengths, talk with them. Apologize and ask to be forgiven. They may be paralyzing themselves with negative self-talk and more after they get into trouble. If that’s the case, point it out and teach them healthier ways to react to themselves and their choices. Think about how you can react differently and how you can increase their self-control. (On Wednesday I’ll post about wise ways to respond to their negative behaviors. You’ll want to come back to read that.)