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


People tend to think that internal characteristics are constant and somewhat impervious to change—the more biologically rooted the characteristic, the more resilient we think it is. For instance, although it is something of a fashion for adults to trace their neuroses to the kinds of parents they had, you rarely hear anyone suggest that the relationship a baby has with his mother might have something to do with how smart he will be. Yet it turns out that it does. Recent studies have shown that babies who are cuddled, touched, and even massaged as infants become smarter than babies who are not handled this way. Adele Diamond, eager to pinpoint exactly how important cuddling and touch might be to healthy development, found that keeping a mother rat from licking her pups for even an hour increases the pups' stress, causing the release of hormones that seem to inhibit their ability to learn. Simply put, rat pups who aren't licked are not as smart as pups who are. Does this mean that the more you cuddle your child, the smarter she will be? No, but it does mean that certain kinds of deprivation depress or limit a child from realizing her full potential. These kinds of studies remind us that what seems purely biological is not. Even the most intrinsic capacities are influenced by specific experiences, and biology is not set in stone. The inverse is also true. It would be wrong to assume that environment is always flexible. Biological characteristics can be changed, but environmental influences are often resistant to change.

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

As you will recall, psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobsen tested all of the children before identifying some as intellectual bloomers. Some of the children who had not been in the randomly selected group labeled as bloomers did make gains over the year in their IQ scores. These children were rated less favorably by the teachers at the end of the year. Teachers don't like to have their expectations violated. Again and again, educator Lisa Delpit encountered white teachers frustrated by the unruliness of their black students. Behavior that might otherwise be interpreted as engaged and enthusiastic is seen by the teacher through the lens of low expectations. Suddenly, an eagerly waving hand becomes a sign that a child cannot contain herself. A long, enthusiastic story about an adventure at home becomes a sign of a chaotic family or evidence that the child hasn't learned at home how to construct a good story. When a teacher responds to a child as if she is incapable, it is not simply that the child might feel bad about herself. The teacher often doesn't give that child the feedback she needs to expand her skills.

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