There’s an important difference between being smart and wise. Parents may measure “smarts” by how accurately students solve math problems or how quickly they learn new concepts. But parents may not be focusing on the way teens think and how they make decisions. This means students may not be evaluated enough on a key element for long-term happiness and fulfillment: their wisdom.
Wisdom is more than what we know. It’s a characteristic of the way our minds work. Teens who are wise don’t just form opinions based on their life experiences; they recognize individuals come from numerous backgrounds and have different and legitimate points of view. Individuals who are wise tend to be more open-minded and work better with others. And because of this, wisdom – not smarts – has the capacity to affect our teens’ friendships now and their professional and romantic relationships in the future .
Eranda Jayawickreme, Associate Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and head of its Growth Initiative Lab, studies an essential component of wisdom called intellectual humility. He says intellectually humble individuals accept their mental shortcomings and recognize when their beliefs may not be correct. They also accept criticism, take responsibility for mistakes, and welcome others to contribute to their work. Dr. Jayawickreme says all of this is absolutely critical to successful learning. “If you don’t approach the world with an open mind, you’re not going to embrace new ideas or information,” he argues. “You’re also not going to be able to overcome the biases and expectations (that we all have) that limit our ability to see the world accurately. All parents want their children to grow up being able to navigate the world successfully – so this is yet another critical life tool.”
Teaching Teens to be Humble
Dr. Jayawickreme is confident parents and schools can teach teens how to approach life with more intellectual humility. He says teens should be encouraged to:
- View their behavior from the perspective of others. (Adopting a more “impartial” point of view can help reduce the impact of biases.)
- Resist seeing people they disagree with as inferior.
- Reframe conversations with those they disagree with as opportunities for learning about others.
- Acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge. (The more individuals learn, the less we realize we know.)
To help teens understand the importance of wisdom, and its essential component, intellectual humility, Dr. Jayawickreme and his colleagues created a short film. “The Case of the Floppy Eared Rabbits: A Scientific Mystery” is available here free of charge. (If you’d like to read more about Jayawickreme and his work, check out the Q&A he did with Center for Parent and Teen Communication Senior Writer Allison Gilbert.)
While researchers agree developing intellectual humility is important, they also believe it shouldn’t compromise a teenager’s moral compass or religious beliefs. No matter how open-minded your children are, they should never feel forced to adopt a friend’s point of view or faith. Being wise doesn’t mean being weak-minded. It means being willing to listen, discuss, and learn. It may also mean, over time, changing one’s opinions, if moved to do so. Helping teens recognize the value of wisdom may be one of the smartest lessons we can teach.