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


Sarah Michaels provides devastating examples of this in her research looking at how teachers respond to the stories children tell at circle time. When white children in a Boston classroom told stories, they conformed to the white teacher's idea of what a story should be. As a result, the teacher would nod and smile as the child spoke and then ask interested questions such as "Really, and what did your parents say when you popped out from behind the couch?" or "Did your brother know he was going to be alone in the boat?" Just the kind of questions that would lead the child to try to expand her thinking skills by filling in details, adding linguistic complexity, and providing perspective. On the other hand, when black children told stories that didn't fit the teacher's model of a story, the teacher would frown and hesitate. Sometimes, not knowing how to build on such an unfamiliar type of story, a teacher would say nothing at all. In some cases, rather than asking questions or showing interest, the teacher would simply correct the child's grammar. Michaels's research showed how these seemingly casual activities were providing white children but not black children with opportunities to expand their skills. It is easy to see how a teacher's mindset can, in turn, shape and mold a child's ensuing academic experience. So, although IQ is sturdy, negative expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Race is one big source of negative expectations. So is poverty. On the face of it, research seems to indicate that rich kids are, on the whole, smarter than poor kids. But if you dig a little into the research, a slightly different picture emerges.

Are Rich Kids Smarter?

Charles Murray of the infamous Bell Curve argued that smarter people have better jobs and make more money. Thus, from his perspective, it is not that wealth leads to certain behaviors or benefits that help children do well in school and maximize their intellectual potential. Instead, he argues, smarter people will always be richer than those who are less smart, because their intellect brings them success. But this is a ridiculous argument, since it is premised on the notion of a completely fair society in which intellect alone leads to professional and economic success. And yet researchers have found again and again that children who live in families with more financial resources have higher IQs. Why would this be true?

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

One large-scale study showed that children with more books, more art on their walls, more rooms, and, strangest of all, more tools in the home are likely to have higher IQ scores and do better in school. That should mean that if you go into a toddler's home and find lots of books, tools, and rooms, it's a good bet that the child growing up in that house will get higher scores on school readiness tests at age five and get better marks in third grade than a similar child growing up in a house without as many books and tools. But does that mean that if a parent, eager to help her child flourish, buys more books, hangs more paintings on the wall, and borrows some tools, her little girl will get better test scores? A close look at the data suggests that those objects are a proxy for a kind of behavior that does explain differences in IQ—and that behavior is conversation.

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