The lonely kid in the cafeteria meme gets it all wrong. Intelligence and kindness are not mutually exclusive

Over the past couple of days I keep coming back to this quote from that wonderful movie “The Help”:

“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

Viola Davis’s character says it over and over to a young girl of maybe 2. What a simple, empowering message and it makes perfect sense. Who wouldn’t want their child to grow up to be both smart and kind?

Lately though it seems that the narrative has changed. This meme has become wildly popular with over 45,000 Facebook shares by my last count.


On Twitter you can see this, also making the rounds

Naturally the jump-on-the-bandwagon derivatives followed, like this meme with a slightly different spin, shared over 186,000 times on Facebook.

another bad meme

Here it is another day, and we are still at war. Words are the weapons, gifted children are the target, again. I will fight the war with these words: intelligence and kindness are not mutually exclusive. We can and should teach our children to be both smart and kind.

Didn’t it occur to anyone that the gifted kid is usually the lonely kid in the cafeteria?

Recently I wrote about the implicit gag order that parents of gifted children undertake when we are among our peers who misconstrue our children’s achievements as bragging. There is another gag order as well, the one gifted students impose among themselves as a tactic to be perceived as cool and popular among their friends. They talk about sports, may not raise their hands as often even though they know the answer, or may try to be the class clown to divert attention away from their intelligence.

In short, they do everything possible to avoid being the lonely kid in the cafeteria.

I see my son do this. He is always up for a kickball or soccer game but he will never, ever talk about all the hours he spends coding at home. He never talks about piano. He has plenty of friends but it also breaks my heart to see him feel like he needs to hide his intelligence.

Other gifted children are not so fortunate. They don’t have sports as a popularity crutch and may have a hard time communicating with kids the same age because intellectually they are on different planets. For this they are sadly ostracized and sit alone in the cafeteria, on the bus, and are left alone at recess. These are the children who become withdrawn, setting them up for depression and potentially suicide.

Bullying is very real and these memes were created to help remind us of its prevalence and help defeat it. No one is saying kindness isn’t important. Again, intelligence and kindness are not mutually exclusive. It is not either, or, more or less.

As much time and resources I plow into the development of my son’s gifts with his activities and my advocacy, on a day-to-day basis I expend so much more energy showing him the path to kindness. Little by little during the day the time adds up. Lessons like, please share the Legos with your sister. Say thank-you to the waiter, your teacher, your friend. When your friends say good-morning to you, say it back, with a smile. Don’t call anybody names or pick on anyone for being different. And yes, if a classmate is sitting alone at lunch, go join him or her.

Looking back at the meme itself, the choice of words struck me as both interesting and incredibly unfortunate. Less and more infer a choice to be made, a priority to be set. But why choose “academically gifted” or “academic ability” as the lesser of the two? There is such a focus on youth sports so why not choose athletics? Or how about popularity? To me that seems like a more natural choice if we are trying to combat bullying here. But no, intelligence gets screwed, again.

It does seem the intent was directed at parents who push their children at school at the expense of pretty much everything else, including kindness. It wasn’t well-written at all so it is not surprising to have these interpretations.

I would argue it is more important than ever to worry about our gifted children whether they sit alone or at the table with all the Heathers, and not only that, to encourage our children who may be bright but not necessarily gifted to be smart, that it is important. If anything, gifted and talented programs have been under siege by the double whammy of the No Child Left Behind Act and budget cuts that grew even deeper as a result of the Great Recession. Per “From ’88 to the New Millennium, The Rise and Decline of Gifted and Talented Programs”, “With a focus for raising academic achievement for all students, G&T programs are losing momentum, funding and enrollment across the country.”

Anti-intellectualism is very real and getting worse. There are some disturbing statistics in this piece from Ray Williams in Psychology Today. In summary, “We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.” Worse, in this vision not only are we not smart but we are not kind as well.

We need our smart kids to combat this rise of anti-intellectualism, to pool together their collective intellectual capital and solve some very real problems facing us now and in the future as we march toward the end of the 21st century. They need the tools, not just from programs at school but from us as parents, encouraging them, giving them the confidence to think and create without fear of repercussion from their peers. The smart kids will change the world too, by curing cancer, by creating strategies to deal with climate change, by discovering new galaxies to name a few.

Again, I need to repeat, intelligence and kindness are not mutually exclusive. Maybe a picture would be better. It would be even better if you share this message. Still even better yet, let’s strive to read more to our kids or have them pick out more challenging books, stimulate their interest in art or science maybe. And of course, please, go sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.


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