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

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"Miss Allen says you have lost interest in the woodworking area. That you don't try hard. She says you just smash two pieces of wood together and don't even hammer in the nail carefully. I know you are good with the hammer. What's going on?"

Stevie shrugged and looked away. He didn't like being questioned this way. "Nothing," he answered.

His mother felt sure that he just needed to be pushed, held to high standards, and she had a sharp tongue. She didn't believe in talking down to young children. She herself had been guided by a mixture of behaviorism and Dr. Spock (be firm and reasonable, and your reasonable child will accept your rules).

"Stevie, you have to try your best at school. I can't believe you are satisfied doing such shoddy work." Stevie paused, still looking away. His mother came on strong, and he had learned to recede within, to disconnect from her. He answered diffidently, "I said I wanted to make a dog house for Sparky. Miss Allen said I couldn't. She said that was too big a project. So every day, I just tack together two pieces of wood and bring them home. Soon I'll have enough wood here at home to make the dog house."

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

Red Herrings

What would you do if you were Stevie's parent? His mother saw worrisome signs: disinterest in his work, a detachment from school, an unwillingness to cooperate with the goals adults set for him, and difficulty with reading. But the reassuring signs were there, too: Stevie was born smart. He had intelligent parents. He lived in a house filled with books, art, and tools and the conversations for which those things are a token. He had the stubbornness to seek out access to the activities and materials in which he had an interest.

A child who is fundamentally bright is very likely going to stay that way. And it would have done Stevie's parents a lot of good to relax a little about him—focusing on his great strengths instead of the red herrings. In fact, to the extent that their worry expressed itself as a low expectation ("Stevie's not that smart"), it might have become a self-fulfilling expectation for Stevie. Let's put it this way: the best thing for a child is to be around adults who think he is likely to bloom intellectually. Most of the time, when parents feel disappointed in a child's performance in school, what comes across to the child is the disappointment, not the sense that he or she is actually capable of more. What children often seem to sense is that their parents are worried that they are not smart. Teachers who think a child is not smart are also likely to have a dampening effect on a child's future academic success. And this brings us to the heart of the matter. For all intents and purposes, whether your child is smart or not, she's likely to stay that way. But how adults respond to her can make it easy for her intellect to find avenues of expression. This can lead her down a path of intellectual realization or can put roadblocks in her way that make her feel, and then behave, less intelligently than she might be capable of.

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