There was an episode of the television show 30 Rock several years ago where Tina Fey’s character was nervous to attend her twenty year high school reunion in the small town she grew up in. She remembered being awkward and sad and having very few friends so she wasn’t looking forward to seeing all these people again, particularly the ones that weren’t nice to her. Prodded to attend, she shows up and finds that her class wasn’t looking forward to seeing her either. Why? Because actually she had been the bully. She was smart and clever and sarcastic in a school filled with people who were definitively not that, and while Tina Fey may have thought she was the victim, everyone who found themselves on the other side of her quips and jokes disagreed.
It’s a funny conceit, one that is all the more relevant for kids growing up today, where bullying can take on far more insidious and digital forms. There are a lot of ways to be a jerk and most of them don’t involve punching people or taking their lunch money.
This is something to think about for all of us who are trying to raise smart kids. We have to make sure to take the time to teach them a lesson that Jeff Bezos’ grandfather stopped to teach his whip smart grandson who had once said something that had unintentionally hurt his grandmother’s feelings. “Jeff,” he told him, “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
It’s easier to be clever than it is to be kind. It takes work to be a nice person. Especially when you’re powerful or important (as the example of Jeff Bezos and many of Amazon’s policies illustrated). It requires extra effort to stop and think about how what you say and do affects other people. It’s hard for us to do now, as adults, but it’s harder still when you’re a kid and you don’t feel that great about yourself as it is. But a truly successful person—a truly great kid—is the result of parents who take the time to equip them with this skill and reward them for their kindness and compassion, not just their intelligence or their grades.
Of course, you want to teach your kids to be smart. You want to teach them to be funny and to be interesting and able to look at the world with a clever eye. But be careful because these traits, if not balanced with empathy and with curiosity, can become a wicked and lonely combination.