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Daddy’s little genius

There has been a small rash of these news stories recently: Kid gets extremely high score on IQ test, applies and gets into Mensa. Parents rush to news outlets to make sure Precious Petunia gets her 15 minutes of fame.

I shouldn’t be so mean, but it really makes me feel mean. These aren’t 15-year-old whiz kids who are looking for fame. This is a 4-year-old who likes Barbies and Legos, or a 3-year-old who likes to play with water and test tubes.

There are many aspects of these stories that I have no problem with. I have no problem with parents wanting to get their kids IQ-tested if they feel that they will get meaningful information from the test. A lot of parents choose to IQ test because aspects of their kids’ learning confuse them, or because they suspect that their kids have learning problems that are masked by their ability to compensate in other ways. Other parents get their kids IQ-tested because they don’t really believe that their kid has special learning needs, and they need the number to make it real to them. Other parents get their kids tested because they have to in order to get into programs or to get services.

I also have no problem with parents pursuing opportunities—like Mensa—for their kids. There is a fine line between helping exceptional kids thrive and pushing them to bolster the parents’ egos, but I try to assume the best about parents. Through experience, I’ve learned to give the parents the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. So I do that, and I assume that families choose to apply to Mensa because they think that there will be some genuine benefit to their kids.

However, a few aspects of these stories give me big problems: First of all, entering your preschooler into a media circus just because you like the flashing lights and fun music. No preschooler needs to be the subject of an article in national news. Preschoolers need a sandbox to play in. They need adults who talk to them seriously about things they care about. They need small and fuzzy things (living or not) to love. They need really excellent stories told to them by adults both orally and through books. They need the opportunity to follow their passions and they need to feel safe and cared for. But they do not need to be the focus of adults who do not know them, do not love them, and do not care about what the attention will mean to them as they grow older.

Secondly, families who push their preschoolers into the spotlight totally miss the point about what IQ means. I do not believe, as it is fashionable in some circles these days, that IQ is totally meaningless. Anyone who has spent time with people on different sides of the IQ spectrum know that it is something that makes people different. Saying that IQ is meaningless is like saying that no one notices that one person has dark brown skin and another has light pink skin. Noticing the difference is not the problem; the problem is what you do once you notice. If we agree that all human beings are important, all human beings have potential, and all human beings should have their potential nurtured, then I think we’re all on the right path and there’s nothing wrong with noticing differences and trying to understand them.

What’s important to understand is that IQ is descriptive, not predictive. When you say that someone has a 130 IQ, you are describing the sorts of gymnastics that their brain is able to do. When you say that they have a 160 IQ, you are describing a person able to do very different gymnastics. Gifted education experts point out that someone with an IQ of 130 (very, very smart) differs from someone who has an IQ of 160 (profoundly gifted) as much as someone with an IQ of 100 (average) differs from someone with an IQ of 70 (developmentally disabled). IQ is a handy construction that allows us to quantify the level of gymnastics a brain can do, and the level and quality of stimulation a brain needs and is capable of handling. As a descriptive number, IQ can be helpful in some ways for working with some kids.

IQ, however, is not a prediction. It is not a skill. It is not a gift. And it is definitely not, as all of these articles erroneously say, “genius.” One of the most famous, longterm experiments in IQ and its predictive qualities was done at Stanford by Lewis Terman. Terman wanted to know how having a high IQ affects people in the longterm. So he tested lots of people and accepted only those with the top IQs into his program. He followed these people for many years, and came to a (for him) surprising conclusion: IQ is predictive of nothing. IQ does not predict success, in money or fame. IQ does not predict happiness, marriage stability, health, or longevity. People with the highest IQs are completely normal in all other ways.

So what does this mean about our cute little geniuses? Obviously, it means that the word “genius” is misapplied when it refers simply to IQ. Einstein was a genius, and did have a high IQ. But he was a genius because of what he did. Many others with his IQ lived and died in obscurity. Other geniuses became geniuses without the benefit of a super-high IQ. People call them geniuses because of what they did with their lives.

As a parent, my heart goes out to these little people who are so abused by our press. To be called a “genius” by Huffington Post when you’re 3 is no gift. It’s a curse. How can a child ever live up to such a start in life? When she starts to develop into the flawed and incomplete person she will become, will she suffer from the fear that she’s actually a fraud? How mortified will she be when she finds out she doesn’t know everything, and never will?

Here’s my advice to parents who find out that their preschooler has a “genius” IQ and want to make sure that they help their child reach his or her potential*:

  • Make sure they have plenty of time to play in the sandbox.
  • Make them feel safe and loved.
  • Tell them stories and give them excellent books to read.
  • Listen to their ideas and take them seriously.
  • Speak to them like they are people, and allow them to have opinions and make mistakes.
  • Make sure they have fuzzy things (living or not) to love and cuddle.
  • Try to open up opportunities so they can explore their passions.
  • Love them, and make sure they know that you’ll love them no matter whether they become geniuses, billionaires, happy, productive people, or anything else.

I know, this would make a very boring news article that would never get picked up by the Huffington Post. Trust Avant Parenting to give you the advice that’s guaranteed not to make your kid rich or famous…unless they work hard to get there on their own, regardless of the number they drew out of the IQ box.

*By the way, this is my advice to any parent, no matter what the IQ score, if any!

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Psychology.

2 Responses

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  1. Brandi says

    Amen. Very well said! 🙂

  2. Iris Seitel says

    What you said, needed to be said………I agree with every word.

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