03/08/2012 08:01 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

The (Very British) Shame Of Having A Clever Child

Child writing: The (very British) shame of having a clever child Getty

There's a secret I try to keep from the other mums at school (and no before you ask, I'm not having a sordid affair with the caretaker). It's something I wouldn't even need to stay quiet about in most countries – peculiarly British not to be able to discuss it. Here child is clever.

She's not just 'top group' clever (although nor is she the next Ruth Lawrence or Stephen Hawking) but 'group of her own' clever. Of course this is a nice problem to have but, I confess, I'm frequently embarrassed by it in that self-effacing, English 'don't compliment me and don't draw attention to me' way.

Whether I've liked it or not, evidence of Lauren's 'giftedness' has seeped through to the other parents, starting at picking up time on her very first day in reception. The teaching assistant announced, before the queue of eager-to-hear-how-it-went parents, "Your little girl did some amazing maths today...and gosh, can't she read well!"


I was proud but most definitely cringing too. Another mother, who had heard this (most of them had), cornered me and started asking me questions: did you teach her to read yourself (no), did she do Kumon (no!).


Months later when I heard her daughter had been interrogating mine about what reading level she was on, I wasn't exactly surprised. Lauren had been tagged in the other mum's mind as 'one to watch', someone to benchmark her daughter against.

There have been quite a few not knowing what to say moments since, quite often when Lauren's come out of school wafting her new reading book around, loudly and proudly announcing she'd been moved up yet another level.

Each time, acutely aware of how increasingly far ahead of the rest of the class she is getting, I've shushed her and shuffled her away as quick as I can. But all the same thinking, why should I be embarrassed? Why shouldn't I be able to simply say "that's wonderful darling" and celebrate her achievements without worrying?

My normal knee-jerk reaction, when handed a compliment about how well she's doing, is to say something negative off the cuff, as if it will deflect the awkwardness like "Oh but she's terrible at riding a bike," which probably doesn't help her confidence in that other area.

Karen, mother of two highly academic offspring, does this too. "I'm forever adding, 'Oh but he's rubbish at...' put-them-downs when people make comments about their achievements. I always regret it, particularly if they're with me and hear, but I don't know what else to say!"

Catherine, who has a high-achieving son at secondary school and an older one at university, has done this over the years as well, "The 'oh he's useless at rugby' thing. He IS actually rubbish at rugby, which is his saving grace in a rugby-mad school and has, I think, saved him from universal hatred from other parents."

She also recalls a particularly hideous moment when she and her then seven-year-old were looking round a prospective school. "He thought he was meant to impress the headmaster by showing off what he knew and started to spell the longest word he knew... I actually wandered away slightly and pretended he wasn't mine.... Is that awful? I could feel the hatred of the other parents...!" I know EXACTLY what she means. They probably all assumed she'd been drilling him in the car all the way there with "don't forget to spell 'acquiescence' in front of the teachers darling, that's a...c...q..."

The Americans don't seem to have such problems - a friend in the US who has also lived in the UK says: "It's very different over here – people are much more open about their children's academic achievements. There's none of the British embarrassment and put-downs if someone says something positive. We also have a lot more 'gifted programmes' in school so kids get labelled more openly anyway – not necessarily a good thing but because it is all 'out there' about who is and isn't on those programmes people get over it."

So why are we so uncomfortable about the merest mention that a child might be rather more academically able than average?


It's all part of a wider cultural issue – we Brits can't accept a compliment – tell a British woman that her outfit is nice, she might well respond by putting it or herself down 'this old thing'. An American woman will probably just say thank you.


I'm certainly sensitive to not wanting to appear smug which is why I never, ever raise the subject of how she's doing academically. I worry too about being labelled as a pushy, hothousing mother (I'm definitely not). I've heard a few comments which are sure-fire giveaways that people are making such assumptions if you have a smart child.

Often they're subtle: "Well I think mine would have been reading before school too if I'd put the effort in with them, but I was keen that they should just play." It's as if all children who read very early/ are academically advanced were forced to sit staring at phonics flashcards from birth and spend their weekends and school holidays being constantly tutored.

It's simply not true but some parents seem to have their impressions of very able children filtered through a green-tinged veil of envy. The same one which leads to snide comments about clever kids such as 'oh but X's social skills are awful'. I don't want my daughter on the receiving end of such sour grapes which is another reason I prefer to keep things quiet.

It does get easier when they start secondary school, according to mum of two, Emma. "Parents aren't all stood together at picking up time, comparing reading levels or whatever. They're one step removed and whose child is doing well is less transparent."

I'll look forward to that stage then but have been warned that it's only a brief respite as, according to Catherine, when public exams kick in, there's a whole new level of awkwardness to deal with. "I deliberately didn't mention my son's GCSE results on Facebook (except where someone asked me specifically) and kept a very low profile on results day as I really didn't want to look like I was swanking around (he got 11 A*s).

"I felt really awkward around other parents whose kids were unlikely to have done well. Did I ask them how they did and sound as though I was just waiting for them to ask me back, or not ask them and come across as rude/patronising/uncaring? And if they did OK and got, say, the common handful of As and Bs with an A* thrown in, did I say, ooh, that's fantastic? Whatever I said sounded wrong."

She adds: "I know it's a problem that most parents would give their eye teeth to have, so don't think I can complain, but yes, it can be really awkward at times."

Tips for talking about smarter kids:

  • If you're proud and need to offload, call the grandparents – most never tire of hearing of their grandkids' achievements and will be just as interested as you, if not more so, (think Maureen Lipman and her 'ologies' in those old BT ads!).

  • If you know and trust another parent in a similar situation, this is another 'safe' way to get it all out, without the awkwardness.

  • If you do get embroiled in a conversation about academic achievements, be especially sensitive to those at school whose children might be struggling academically – it's better to keep quiet if you can.

  • If someone seeks information with a direct question, for example, asking what reading level your child is on, you don't have to answer beyond a "ooh I forget..." or "I've just realised I've forgotten X's PE kit – got to dash!"Hopefully, they'll soon get the message and stick with delving in your child's book bag on playdates to see what book they have instead.

  • If you're stuck amid one of those dreadful 'whose child knows their times tables' type conversations in a group of mums, try your hardest to keep quiet even if you're bursting with pride. Better still, exclaim 'oh can't we talk about something more the weather', or suddenly remember a gossipy gem which will have their attention (even if it's made up)!

  • Realise that there's rarely anything to be gained from spilling the beans that actually your child was reading Harry Potter in reception or doing calculus in year 1. Don't tell them and smile to yourself that you know, the teacher hopefully knows and that's what matters more than a clutch of competitive mums.

Do you suffer from smart kid shame?