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

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Fagan's IQ test cannot be bought over the counter, but that doesn't mean parents aren't looking for signs of their babies' intellectual potential. Most parents think their baby is smart unless they see signs of trouble. In particular, there are two points when parents tend to worry about their children's intellectual acumen: when they learn to talk and when they start getting evaluated in school.

Stevie learned to talk at the usual age for a third child and a boy. By the time he was two, he could name many familiar objects, and by the time he was two and a half, he could speak in phrases, and he learned new words rapidly. So far, he seemed as smart as the other bright pennies in his family. He only began hitting a snag when he went to school. When your child has trouble with schoolwork, it's only natural to wonder, even if you don't admit it, if it's a sign that he's not as smart as you had hoped. Recently, my husband was skiing at our local slope in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was a Wednesday, and usually on weekdays, the only other skiers are local people sneaking in a few hours or children coming en masse from one of our nearby public schools. But on this day, my husband found himself riding up on a chairlift with a man in his late forties and his twelve-year-old son. They had taken time off from work and school to celebrate the day the son was adopted from Korea. As they glided up the side of the mountain, the boy and his father began discussing what trail they would ski on next.

The boy said, "Let's try the triple after this."

The father answered, somewhat uncertainly, "OK. But I am not sure I know how to get over there."

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

The boy quickly replied, "I know how to get there."

The father said skeptically, "How could you possibly know? We only have been here once before, and that was a year ago."

The boy answered, "I memorized the map."

The father smiled and shook his head. "How is it that you can memorize a whole map so easily, but you can't seem to do math in school?"

The boy said, "Because school is boring."

Here was a clear example of a child whose intellectual abilities weren't in sync with school tasks. When a child has trouble in school, does it mean he isn't bright?

Do Smart Kids Get Good Grades, or Do Good Grades Create Smart Kids?

Here we come to a dicey problem. On the one hand, school success is caused by intelligence. If two children come from the same socioeconomic background, have roughly similar childhood situations, and attend the same school, the one who is smarter is likely to do better—in school and in life beyond school—than the one who is less smart. And yet the caveats to this prediction are important. Some very bright children don't do well in school because they have specific learning disabilities, emotional problems get in their way, or, like the boy on the chairlift, they find school boring. In any of these cases, a very bright child can underperform in school.

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