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


Stevie was smart. And he was also stubborn. He resisted his parents' rules. One school day, it snowed, and Stevie didn't have boots that fit. His mother insisted that he wear an old pair of his sister's ski boots. He felt ashamed—he'd look silly arriving at his fourth-grade class in cumbersome ski boots. He walked out the front door as if he had agreed to his mother's injunction. But instead of continuing the five-block walk to his school, he wandered slowly around the block several times. After he had calculated that it was too late for him to go to school, he came back home. He had won. But his mother's sense that he wasn't up to snuff permeated the atmosphere. His teachers agreed, and Stevie began his journey away from anything with the whiff of schools or books on it.

With each year, his grades went down. Stevie became quieter, both at school and at home. A teacher in fourth grade wrote, "Steven needs to get hold of himself if he intends to achieve anything." His interests went underground, but they didn't go away. He began college at a conventional school—not the Ivy League school his parents would have preferred, which by then was inaccessible to him, but still a conventional academically oriented college. He hated it and transferred to art school. His parents refused to pay, appalled by his lack of academic focus. So he began working in a graphic design shop. By the time Stevie was twenty-five, he had succeeded on his own terms. He was an expert in graphic design, cabinetry, and printmaking. His intellect had taken the shape of the things he cared about. Along the way, however, the barrage of conventional expectations kept him from exploring things he might otherwise have delved into. The wall he built to keep out his critics also kept out interesting sources of information and inspiration and the expansion of his repertoire.

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

Stevie was smart when he was four, and he stayed smart. A child cannot get smart. Nor can he lose his smartness. However, a child's intellect takes shape in the company of other powerful forces. Some of those forces are inside the child (specific interest, motivation, and a sense of self-efficacy). Other forces exist outside the child (poverty level, social dynamics, and family events). If you had met Stevie when he was six, you might not have known that he was smart. You might not have known which clues to pay attention to. The clues about Stevie are buried in the stories of his childhood, but his parents missed those clues, which had repercussions. Stevie's mother had been thrown by how different he seemed from her other children. And he could be so stubborn, so unwilling to do the things the other children seemed happy to do. When he didn't like what an adult asked him, he'd say, "Aren't talking," and fall into a long silence. To his mother, this was just more proof of Stevie's lack of verbal acumen.

When his kindergarten teacher noted that he had lost his steam for woodworking, his mom was dismayed. She believed that children need high standards, that even at five, it meant something when a child didn't do his best. And she was not sure what Stevie's best was anymore. The next afternoon, when he came home from school, she told him about the note.

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