Teaching Street Smarts to Kids Kept off the Streets

Some kids are naturally good at school.  They bring home excellent report cards. Teachers praise them, and they seem destined for advanced classes and a prestigious university after graduation.  We may call them book smart.

But sometimes those same kids don’t fare well in real-world situations. They can be awkward in social settings and don’t participate in sports or other non-academic activities. It can be said that they lack street smarts.

Parents want their children to do well in school, but they also want them to grow up and be able to handle themselves amongst their peers.  They know this ability is strongly linked to career success. If they have a book smart teenager, they may wonder how to help them become street smart without alienating them.

How Can You Teach Street Smarts to Kids? Teaching street smarts to kids begins with modeling situational awareness and being patient as the child learns through example. Then, the parent can talk through the scenarios they experienced with the child so they can reflect on the importance of situational awareness together. Through this process, the child will be immersed in a feedback loop that will allow them to develop their ability to cultivate their street smarts slowly. 

No one ever said raising kids is easy, and raising teenagers can present its own set of unique challenges. Taking the time to prepare and plan should increase the chance that you are successful in teaching street smarts to your child.

Understanding What It Means to be Street Smart

Street smarts can refer to two different things. One is something we might call common sense, what others might call practical intelligence. The other is the ability to be streetwise.  We’ll focus on the first one for now.

A standard definition for street smarts is someone who has situational awareness, which means being aware of what is going around them. But someone who has book smarts also has that same awareness, right? Yes and no.

Someone who is book smart can be talking with friends at lunch but mainly as an observer. He knows what his classmates are talking about because he has experienced similar things.  However, he is not always truly part of the conversation. Instead, he is an observer looking from the outside in. It is how he has come to learn about the world. He has not learned from experience but through observation. 

Think about what happens to someone who reads a lot—which book smart kids do.  How do they experience the world? To a greater extent than other kids, they experience the world through observation. It is true that when we read, we can be “in the moment,” to borrow a famous phrase, or “see the world through the characters.” However, are book smart kids really in the situation, or are they observers?

Kids who have street smarts are in the situation, not just observing it. This is one reason why book smart kids are often awkward in social situations. They would prefer to sit back, watch, and analyze the conversation. Because they are not in the moment, they are not connecting the way the other kids are.

A child like this may soon find themselves unintentionally isolated because their natural tendencies don’t align with those of their peers. If this dynamic is perpetuated over time, it can become solidified as a norm for the child and can impact how their peers interact with them. 

The Difference Between Street Smarts and Book Smarts

No one wakes up with situational awareness, at least not the kind that we think of as common sense. A baby’s situational awareness—knowing he is alone—is because he is hungry. Needing to eat is not common sense, is it?

Someone with street smarts has learned to think on the spot in a rational way. Being able to analyze a situation and determine the best course of action is preferable to freezing up and being indecisive. Even when there is little time to think, a street smart person will show better judgment. 

On the other hand, a kid who has developed book smarts can think quickly on a test but may freeze when a decision needs to be made in real-time. Some other advantages of being street smart include:

  • Allows you to trust your judgment.  Book smart people know how to analyze the decisions that characters in books make. That’s not the same as making your own decisions. We know that teens will be tempted to do things they shouldn’t. A kid that has learned to trust his judgment will be better able to make a wise choice.
  • Puts you at the center of your knowledge.  A teenager who has learned from life experiences is often better able to navigate this difficult transitional period leading to adulthood.
  • Prepares you for adversity.  A kid who is book smart may realize something disastrous is about to happen. He will not have the experience to react in the same way as a kid who has more experience with making quick decisions in the moment. A street-smart kid will have that ability.

This does not mean a book smart kid will never be able to make decisions, nor does it mean that a street-smart kid will always make wise choices. However, when the street-smart kid makes a poor decision, he will be able to evaluate it in the context of his larger body of experience. A book-smart kid may lack the confidence to do so because they don’t have the same backdrop to rely on. 

The Difference Between Street Smarts and Emotional Intelligence

You have probably heard of emotional intelligence. Although it overlaps with street smarts in some areas, the two are not quite the same. 

Emotional intelligence can be defined as an ability to recognize the meanings of emotion and their relationships and to reason and problem-solve based on them. Emotional intelligence is involved in the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them (source). 

This theory, which was popularized by the American psychologist Daniel Goldman, became popular around the same time as Howard Gardner’s ideas that people can be intelligent in different ways, or multiple intelligences (source).  

Those who research emotional intelligence recognize five major categories of emotional intelligence

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

All of these are important and book smart kids often excel in most of these categories. Take motivation. Book smart kids are usually highly motivated (unless they are gifted, I wrote an article on that which you can read here). Bright kids work hard to get good grades, participate in academic activities such as science fairs, to be recognized as one of the best.  Often it appears as though street-smart kids put less effort into school, leading to them being labeled underachievers.

Another area that book smart kids often excel in is self-regulation. It takes a lot of self-discipline to finish the homework assignment when the video game console is whispering, “Play me, play me.”  In fact, we know that kids who can delay gratification are more likely to have positive academic success and stress coping mechanisms (source). 

Empathy is another intelligence that book smart kids have.  It’s a skill they learn from reading and observing the world around them.

So, even though your child may not be street smart, they still have a lot going for them. With a strong foundation to build on, you can help them work towards being more well-rounded by developing their street smarts. 

How to Help Your Child Become Street Smart

Luckily for you, a lot of the strategies that work for teaching emotional intelligence also work for teaching street smarts. Let’s look at a different definition of emotional intelligence to see why. Think of emotional intelligence as the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action (source). 

If we define street smarts to mean situational awareness, or using common sense in real-time while events are going on around us, then it’s easy to see why the two are linked. They both rely heavily on non-verbal communication and interpretation of what’s going on around us. With these commonalities in mind, let’s explore some helpful strategies to teach street smarts to kids.

It’s helpful to note that teaching street smart skills will require some creativity.  You might also need to adjust how you interact with your child. Here are some suggestions:

  • Increase their knowledge and understanding of the area (source). It is possible to increase a person’s self-efficacy concerning emotional intelligence by increasing their understanding of the topic. This is true in many areas of life and is worth trying with streets smarts too.
  • Develop Self Awareness About How Your Model Street Smarts. As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Since the moment they could look at you, they began to learn from you, and they continue to do so today. If needed, seek to improve your nonverbal communication (source), so they may learn how you practice your street smarts. 
  • Establish clear rules about how social behavior. This includes teaching manners, the importance of helping with household tasks, and why having routines is important. Explain that each of these elements communicates what’s important to others in the home nonverbally through your actions. When kids know how to act, their brains develop within the boundaries of that schema, and it becomes part of the lens through which they see the world (source). As they develop an understanding of how their actions impact others, they will begin to develop their situational awareness. 
  • Be mindful of how much you criticize.  Think about how critical you are. How do you respond to how they react to a particular situation? Do you miss opportunities to guide and coach? Take advantage of the small moments to offer helpful insights and use those moments to build a stronger relationship. 
  • When you ask your teen about their day, be prepared to talk about your day.  Preparation is vital because teens have a habit of answering the question of how was your with “It was okay.”  Don’t fall into this trap — model what you want to see by talking about your day. When you talk about your day, be specific about a particular situation that occurred and how you responded. Make sure it’s age-appropriate. Try to avoid badmouthing people. Constantly criticizing your boss or a client is not going to teach street smarts, just a dislike of authority figures.
  • Be prepared to share how you felt. Putting yourself in a situation includes knowing what it feels like. Kids tend to get hung up on a feeling, such as fear. Talking through how you deal with yours can help them deal with theirs. 
  • If they haven’t learned the 5-2-5 strategy, teach it.  When your child is in a tight spot, teach them to breathe in for 5 seconds, hold their breath for 2, and then breath out for 5.  If you haven’t tried it yourself, go ahead the next time you are stressed. Then you will be able to explain how the 5-2-5 strategy let you calm down and think through how you responded. This strategy will give your teen a chance to catch his breath and become aware of how the situation feels. That will teach them situational awareness. 

Teens Know They Need Street Smarts

Teenagers are good at hiding their feelings. It’s not because they have anything to hide; instead, it’s part of the maturing process as they try to create a separate identity. The teen you eat dinner with may be different at school. That’s normal.  However, a teen who lacks the confidence from having situational awareness, or street smarts, may miss this part of their development and the benefits that come along with it.  

James Marcia identified four categories of adolescent development. One category he called Foreclosure Status. In this stage, the teen, rather than taking the risks of trying on different identities, adopts the identity of his parents or the first identity given to them, such as being good at math. Although you might like the idea of your kid being a Mini-Me, Marcia says that in order for a teen to reach the fourth stage, what he calls the Identity-Formation Stage, he needs to create

“a coherent and committed identity based on personal decisions.”

By taking the time to help your child think situationally and become more aware of and in tune with the conditions around them, you can help them progress towards that final stage of adolescent development (source).   

One Caution: Don’t Push too Hard

Some kids are natural introverts.  If your child is, then you should be selective in pushing him to become involved in a variety of activities.  Introverts prefer to interact with a couple of people at a time. They often don’t enjoy parties or large gatherings.  That doesn’t mean they can’t be encouraged to be more active in social settings. They can be. You should just be careful and intentional with how you go about guiding them in the direction. 

Introverts serve an essential function in society. They gravitate towards creative, artistic professions. Others become inventors or spiritual leaders.  And many of them become household names. Some famous introverts include

  • Albert Einstein
  • Bill Gates
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Elon Musk

Typically, an introvert is happier being by themselves. Becoming street smart does not mean becoming an extrovert. It means being able to think on the spot.  Pushing your teen to become an extrovert will cause resentment. Your goal shouldn’t be to change your kid’s personality but to use it to channel him to be able to think on the spot.

The Difference Between Street Smarts and Streetwise

We have already identified street smarts as the ability to make decisions based on experience instead of observation. Being streetwise, or having street knowledge, is knowing how to keep yourself safe in public places. Often, kids who have to learn to be streetwise grow up in dangerous neighborhoods. Becoming streetwise is a survival strategy for them.

Kids who live in safer neighborhoods don’t need to learn those survival strategies. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t benefit from some lessons in what sort of dangers they might face and how to handle them.  Teenagers often think they know more than they do.  

You don’t want them to live in a bubble. When she was younger, our daughter had karate lessons. She never had to use what she learned, but it did give her confidence knowing she could take care of herself if she needed to.

Now, transition that mindset to the online world. It goes without saying that you need to talk with your kid about internet safety.  This includes both advice about online predators and scam websites.  By the time they are teenagers, they will have heard about online predators repeatedly in school. Scam websites are something that is typically not addressed. But as your teen gets older, they will need to know about the way dishonest people will try to get their money. The wisdom of those who are streetwise has the potential carry over into the virtual world online. 

Final Thoughts

Everyone wants their child to be well-rounded, with a range of skills and abilities. They should be encouraged to have both book and street smarts to be successful.  Having street smarts will help your teenager be successful in social situations where situational awareness is essential. A job interview requires such knowledge. The book smarts will lead to successful skill development and therefore, career success. Doing well in school and earning a college degree is a prerequisite for nearly any career. The goal is not one or the other, but a balance of both.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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