Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Thank You, Michelle Obama!

Why it’s important to nurture intelligence and creativity in all our children

Photo courtesy of Ricci Coughlan/DFID Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Photo courtesy of Ricci Coughlan/DFID Flickr Creative Commons

“If you want to know the reason why I am standing here, it's because of education," United States First Lady Michelle Obama told an audience of teenage girls in London, England, on April 2, 2009. "I liked being smart...I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world."

Thank you, Mrs. Obama! Truer now than ever, in this dreadful election cycle of 2016, we need to help kids realize that being smart is, indeed, both cool and attainable. Creating home and school cultures where it is cool to be smart is an urgent necessity. Every child and teenager needs opportunities to strengthen their abilities and engage in their own learning.

Parents and educators can nurture abilities that are already evident—musical, mathematical, athletic, and others—by supporting children’s advanced development, the traditional role of gifted education. We also need to use what we know about learning and teaching to foster high-level development in all children.

There is a widely held misconception that some people are born smart, and others are not. Current research shows just the opposite: high-level ability develops with opportunities to learn, in an environment of appropriate support and challenge. Being smart is not an innate quality or category of person, such that some people are gifted, and the rest are not. You illustrated that convincingly when you drew the connection between working hard at learning and being smart.

As you and your husband have both pointed out, the way people approach challenges, failures, and setbacks has a powerful influence on their success. Those who think of intelligence as developing incrementally, one step at a time, with hard work, practice, and engagement in learning, do better across all measures of academic, career, social, and psychological success, than those who see intelligence as innate and fixed at birth. And they are a lot more likely to live happily productive lives.

Neuroscientists have documented the importance of neural plasticity, the fact that the brain is nowhere close to being fully formed at birth, and that it has the capacity for growth and development across the life span. The opportunities an infant has to interact with her world, the ways a child engages with his environment, and what adults choose to do with their time, all make big differences in the brain’s development and functioning. Creativity, too, is not something some people are lucky enough to have been born with, and others not. Like intelligence, creativity is a choice people can learn to make. If they are to thrive, children must learn to adapt to the rapidly changing world they will experience as adults. There may be no bigger gift we can give them than the tools and attitudes they need to decide for intelligence and creativity.

Thank you for drawing attention to the merits of being smart, and the value of hard work in attaining that goal. You model in your everyday experience the importance of attending to children’s individual learning needs, of reading to them and with them, of listening carefully to what they have to say, of making sure their schedules are healthy and respected, no matter what is going on in their family’s life. You and President Obama show, by example, the benefits of supporting children’s development. That is the foundation of being smart, and current research is showing that yes, we can help that happen across the population and around the world.

Authors’ Note: This is an update of an article that I co-wrote with Joanne Foster, first published in 2009 in Gifted Education International and also the frontispiece in Roeper Review. The messages resonate even more strongly in 2016. Thank you, Mrs. Obama, for continuing to fight for important social and educational reforms.

For more on these topics

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

Being Smart about Gifted Education, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

Mindset, by Carol Dweck

The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge

'To Be Creative is to Decisively Use These Things,' by Robert Sternberg

More from Dona Matthews Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today