Explaining what ‘Smart’ Means to a 7-Year-Old

I had the following conversation almost verbatim with my 7-year-old daughter the other morning. I was driving her to her early morning school program before going to work and started driving in the wrong direction, then suddenly realized it and corrected myself.

“Stupid Daddy.” I said aloud to myself. “I almost forgot to bring you to school.”

“You’re not stupid, Daddy – you’re very smart.” She said.

“What do you mean by ‘smart’?” I asked. (I’m the kind of guy who attempts a socratic dialog with a 7-year-old at 7am.)

“Well, you’re very good at remembering things.” She offered.

“A lot of people have good memories but do dumb things. So what does ‘smart’ mean?”

“Your brain!” She was grasping at straws now.

“Everybody has a brain but not everybody is smart.”

“Then I don’t know.” She surrendered.

“Well then, do you want me to tell you what ‘smart’ is?”


“Being smart is simply acting smart.”

“What do you mean, Daddy?”, tossing the socratic dialog back into my lap.

I was ready. “Well, we all have lots of thoughts, and some of them are good, and some not so good. Acting on the good thoughts is being smart. Imagine that you have 2 people in your head and one says: ‘it would sure be fun to crawl out the window and sit on the roof!’ And then you have another thought that says: ‘if I crawl on the roof I might fall and kill myself.’ Then YOU listen to these different thoughts and decide: ‘I should listen to the thought that said not to go on the roof.’”

“You mean like in the cartoons where the angel and the devil appear on somebody’s shoulders?”

“Exactly! You need to know which one to listen to. We all have plenty of thoughts and some people think every thought they have must be good because it’s theirs. YOU need to realize that your thoughts aren’t you and decide which thoughts are the smart ones.”

There was a flash of recognition that came across her face – her thoughts weren’t her. She got it.

I think I successfully explained the psychological concept of Executive Function – the theory as to why smart people do dumb things –  to a 7-year-old – a concept some people never get their entire lives.

I hope she really did get it.