Excerpt: Susan Engel's 'Red Flags or Red Herrings?: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become'


Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

Hank, a four-and-a-half-year-old boy with bright red hair and an impish face, was exactly the kind of bright child bound to get into trouble at school. He had lots of physical energy and enormous physical skill. Let him outside with some mud puddles or put him near a climbing toy, and he'd be happy for hours. The first time he saw snow (on a visit to Massachusetts from California, where he lived), he spent four hours outside inventing different routes from the top of the hill to the bottom and constructing different kinds of jumps for the sled. If anyone handed him a complicated toy that involved moving parts, he would focus on it quietly for long stretches of time, trying out the different ways the toy could work. But he was also the little guy who unwittingly knocked over the glass of juice at the lunch table every single day. He often got chastised by other parents for things like pushing another child off the sandbox ledge in a moment of exuberance, although he did it not from anger but out of boisterousness. He was the little boy who tapped his pencil against the edge of the desk as the grown-up read a story aloud, fidgeting restlessly in his seat. As his mother said about him, "He can be rough, but he's never mean."

Hank had all the signs of high intellect. He took in information quickly and synthesized bits and pieces of knowledge he'd gathered from different settings. He could look at a picture of a shape and make the same shape using small plastic pieces, create a new kind of slingshot from branches, and devise a new set of rules for a dart game. As Howard Gardner would say, Hank could solve problems and make things that were interesting and valuable to the people around him. And Hank wasn't always fidgety and restless. He listened carefully when he was interested in something and seemed to zero in on the important information. A child like Hank shows his intelligence in slivers, like small fish darting through a stream of more unruly behavior. The signs can be easy to miss. Once when he was two, he sat on a couch watching television with his aunt Laura. She leaned toward him to ask a question about the cartoon on the screen but saw that he was gazing intently at her mouth.

"Laura, you're old," he said.

She laughed, a little thrown. "What?"

"You're old. Your teeth are lello. Lello means old."

It would be easy to miss the mental acuity that went into his logic, which in form resembled a syllogism. Yellow is a sign of age. Laura's teeth were yellow. Laura must be old. Hank's ability to analyze information and think logically was a clear sign of his sharp intellect. But those flashes of intellect were often obscured by his bouncy, slightly clueless energy. He was just the kind of kid who could seem naughty and over time, because of that, be seen as not smart by a teacher. One day when Hank was four and a half, his aunt was trying to help him put his winter boots on. She kneeled down in front of him. As she began to tug at the first boot, Hank, looking down at her bent head, began to tug at her hair.

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

"Hank," she said in a slightly exasperated tone, her head bent in the effort of getting on the boot, "that hurts. Stop pulling my hair."

Hank tugged harder.

"Hey," Aunt Laura said sharply. "Cut it out."

Hank kept a steady tension on her hair for another two seconds before lowering his hands.

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