Susan Engel, a professor and author, discusses past methods of gauging a child's intelligence and alternative stategies that can be used.
Read an excerpt from "Red Flags or Red Herrings?: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become " below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library.
At three, Stevie was jubilant and inventive, a lively little guy. He had a wiry, lithe body, brown, cheery eyes, and wide cheeks. In a photograph taken of him when he was four, he is lounging on the limb of a tall tree, his arms draped casually and comfortably over a branch. He looks spry and savvy, as if he knows what the photographer sees and gets a kick out of it. What doesn't show is any sign of the fierce intensity that later became such an integral part of his intelligence—for better and for worse.
His nursery-school teacher wrote this about him in his midyear evaluation: "Stevie loves to paint and enjoys experimenting with new techniques. Last week, he tried using two paint brushes at once. He is an avid block builder and often spends hours making complicated structures. He enjoys helping our janitor clean the room at the end of the day and almost always helps move the chairs and sweep the floor. Stevie needs to learn that teasing is not a good way to make friends."
A year later, the art teacher from the same school sent home a note to Stevie's mother: "I would like to talk to you briefly about Stevie. Until now, he has always loved arts and crafts so much. He's been one of the most prolific students in the woodworking area, but recently, he seems to have lost interest. He appears completely indifferent to what he makes. He seems like a different child—even his hand-eye coordination has slipped backward. He doesn't seem to have the interesting ideas for projects that he did just a few months ago, and his wood projects are carelessly put together."
Stevie's mother, Francis, was concerned. Highly intelligent, well educated, and extremely ambitious, Francis assumed that all three of her children would excel at school. It was a given, from her perspective, that her children had superior intellectual ability. Both she and her husband were smart and came from academically oriented families. Her husband was a well-regarded doctor in Boston, with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. Francis was a freelance book editor who had been the president of her class at a top women's college. They read constantly, discussed the news at dinner, went to art museums, and traveled. Stevie's older sister and brother were top students. What was wrong with him? Perhaps he just wasn't as smart as the rest of the family.
Is there anyone who doesn't want his or her child to be smart? Whether you live in a family of schoolteachers or a neighborhood of factory workers and farmers, everyone values intelligence. There are few jobs where it doesn't matter, and most of us intuitively know that smarter people do better in all kinds of settings. They get more done, have better ideas, learn things more quickly, are better at their jobs, are often more fun to be with, and can solve unexpected problems.
Years ago, psychologist Robert Sternberg set out to learn what ordinary people think about intelligence. He sent his students at Yale out into the streets of New Haven to ask passersby what they thought were the essential characteristics that make someone intelligent. In particular, he wanted to know if people from different walks of life would agree or disagree about the qualities that make up smartness. It turned out that almost everyone found it easy to answer the question. To a great extent, at least within our culture, people tended to agree.
Whether we are highly educated or not, whether we work in offices or factories, almost all of us feel, even if we don't admit it, that we know whether someone is smart or not soon after meeting him or her. On what do we base this? We look for humor, savvy, verbal skill, competence within a domain, and a general air of "quickness." And as it turns out, our collective intuition about who is smart, and why, falls for the most part right in line with what psychological research has to say on the topic.
Herbert Crovitz, a social psychologist at Princeton University in the 1960s, used to tell his students, "Theories do two things: they account for the data, and they make people happy." As it turns out, theories of intelligence do one or the other but usually not both. And in the past two decades, theories that make people happy have gained some ground over theories that best account for the data. Many people in our society resist thinking of intelligence as a narrow, quantifiable characteristic. They find the traditional view of intelligence, conveyed by IQ tests, to be too restrictive. In my psychology classes at Williams, few students will say openly that intelligence is the ability to do math and comprehend texts, the very abilities that got them into a college like Williams. They worry that such a definition is elitist and are quick to point out that one can be intelligent in many ways. My students are like many across the country who are drawn to the idea that being "book smart" is only one way to be intelligent.
Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University, provided an alluring alternative to traditional views of intelligence when he published Frames of Mind in 1984. In it, he railed against the narrow-minded idea that the full range of people's mental acuity could be measured by something as academic as a traditional IQ test. He argued that there are not one but seven kinds of intelligence (logico-mathematical, spatial, verbal, musical, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal) and that there are a range of ways to express intelligence. A child who is wonderful at dance but has a small vocabulary and trouble with numbers would be considered to have high bodily kinesthetic intelligence but low logico-mathematical and verbal intelligence.
As Gardner's idea began to take hold, teachers embraced the idea that they could use it to identify the particular kind of intelligence each child had. Teachers felt that Gardner's scheme helped them fine-tune their curriculum to fit the particular kind of intelligence each child possessed. As the theory got diluted within schools, some teachers simply used the idea of multiple intelligences as a way to help each child feel smart, even when he or she didn't excel at traditional school tasks. This egalitarian conception of intelligence has taken hold like wildfire, and in every town in America, you can hear teachers talk about the specific kinds of intelligence their students possess. "He might not be good at math, but he sure is smart when he's on the basketball court." "She struggles with English class, but she's so artistic; her visual intelligence is outstanding." Or the most common form: "He might be book-smart, but he's street-dumb." The theory of multiple intelligences makes people happy. But does it explain the data?
The Smartness Thermometer
Ever since psychologists began formally measuring things, they've been trying to measure intelligence. Until Howard Gardner introduced multiple intelligences into the common lexicon, people tended to use the term IQ as a stand-in for intelligence. The intelligence quotient is a mathematical expression, devised in France at the turn of the twentieth century by Alfred Binet. He developed the test to help the French school system identify children who were retarded or significantly slower than others in their age group. His goal was to make sure that "slower" children were not punished for their inability to learn. The original IQ (as well as almost all subsequent forms of it) was based on a very simple concept in psychological assessment: Ask children of a certain age a series of questions. The number of questions they get correct is then divided by their chronological age. Thus, although a given ten-year-old might answer more questions than a seven-year-old, the younger child might well have a higher intelligence quotient. Using the test to compare children depends on a much-trusted practice among researchers: norming. This means that in order to evaluate a given child's IQ, you have to compare it to the average (mean) score of children that age. As a result, each child of a given age is being compared with what is considered normal or typical of all the other children in that age group.
What kinds of questions do IQ tests involve? The test is divided into several components, each asking questions that tap into a specific kind of thinking. In one part, children are asked to say what is missing from a picture (a door knob from a picture of a room that includes a door, for instance). Another component requires children to recall a string of numbers. Another involves moving around a collection of colored blocks so that they form a pattern presented on a card. Another asks children to answer questions about famous books, presidents, the weather, and different parts of the country. Although the test has been criticized for favoring children who live certain kinds of lives (if a child looks at a picture of someone riding a horse and doesn't know that the missing piece is the stirrup, it might well be because the child has lived her whole life in the inner city, with little access to books about riding). On the other hand, many of the questions test more content-free abilities, such as memory span. However, even these supposedly content-free questions might well favor children with certain kinds of experiences.
In the early 1960s, Sylvia Scribner and her colleagues set out to show the invisible bias in intelligence tests. Scribner was sure that something about school experience was helping some children do better even on parts of IQ tests that had been considered relatively culture-free. Her previous work in nonliterate communities had shown her that children who go to school regularly seem to acquire, without even realizing it, specific techniques that might help them do well on the kinds of memory tasks used in IQ tests. Sure enough, when she and her colleagues asked students to recall a fairly long list of words, such as apple, banana, desk, hat, plum, shoe, chair, and sweater, the children who had missed a lot of school days because of poverty, migrant work schedules, and segregation seemed to struggle. Scribner knew, from her literacy work, that learning to read leads people to conceptualize in a different way. Thus, the school children were using categories to chunk the items, making it easier to remember them: first the fruits, then all the furniture, then all the tools. Unschooled children didn't have this strategy at their disposal. However, when Scribner provided the category names ("Tell me all the kinds of fruit on the list, now all the pieces of furniture, now the clothing"), the children with little schooling performed similarly to the others. It seemed, then, that memory span per se did not differ between the two groups. Instead, what differed was the savvy to use category labels as a mnemonic, a skill found in school.
Scribner's research, which was really so simple, dealt a serious blow to the notion that any aspect of the IQ test, even the most seemingly culture-free part, was the same for all children. However, for all of its weaknesses and built-in biases, it taps into something pretty steady and real. But it's been hard for psychologists and lay people to put their finger on just what the test measured.
That is, until psychologist Joseph Fagan published a paper in the 1980s arguing that traditional IQ tests, the kind developed by Binet and modified by David Wechsler, created the illusion of coherence where there wasn't really any. That is, traditional IQ tests measure concrete knowledge ("What is the capital of Pennsylvania?") with more basic processing skills (remembering a list of words). Researchers have found again and again that while each person taking the test might do better on some parts of the test than others (For instance, I always do terribly at creating a visual pattern to match a picture, but I do well at analogies), there is, generally speaking, a lot of consistency— in other words, a high correlation between components of the test. The person who gets a higher score than others her age on one part is likely to get a higher score than others on most of the other parts of the test. It is easy to see how scientists, and ultimately the general public, came to think of this test as actually measuring a particular quality of mind or even a physical part of the brain.
Psychologists have even given this imagined underlying quality a name: g (for "general intelligence"). If you're high in g, you are smart, and if you are high in g, you are likely to do well on many components of the test. Fagan didn't disagree that intelligence might ultimately be a single quality of mind, but he wanted a test that would actually focus on just that quality, the ability that produces g. So he zeroed in on the single characteristic he thought underlay the myriad of abilities we push together and call intelligence.
Fagan argued that what makes one person do better on an IQ test and seem smarter in real life as well is what he called speed of processing. We are all familiar with that concept from our computers: the faster the processor, the more the computer can do. It's the same with the human brain. The faster it can take in information, the more information it can take in. Hence two children might be exposed to the same environment, but the one who can take in more will know more. Fagan's point was that speed of processing is a much simpler, more precise, and more value-free characteristic, which might actually explain the correlation between items on traditional IQ scores. But how do you directly measure something like speed of processing?
This is pretty easy, as it turns out. From birth, babies stare at something until they become used to it—in other words, until they have processed it. Then they look for new stimuli. Fagan showed babies two pictures projected onto a screen in front of them. Then he measured how long it took them to absorb (become familiar with, or process) the first picture before turning their heads to look at the second picture. Of course, it's possible that some children simply have shorter attention spans than others. And yet the important thing about Fagan's test was that there was enormous consistency between his infant test and more traditional IQ tests. Babies who processed visual information quickly on Fagan's test also did well on IQ tests when they were in elementary school.
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."
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.
On the other hand, if your son scores well on a math test when he is five or six, he is likely to get good grades in fifth grade. Equally important, if he scores better than most of the children in his kindergarten class, he is likely to get better grades than his classmates in fifth grade. The research is very clear on this, and it should come as no surprise. A child who is bright and comfortably applies himself to a math test as a five-year-old is not only going to be just as bright when he is eleven years old, but he is, in all likelihood, still going to be interested in doing well on tests, able and eager to focus on the task at hand and follow instructions. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary test, used to assess the verbal skills of preschoolers, is a very good indicator of a child's grades in elementary school. There is no mysterious trail leading from a good evaluation in kindergarten to high grades in middle school. The same abilities and motivation that led to the good kindergarten performance also explain the good algebra grade. But do those good scores in preschool and high grades in elementary school tell us anything about a child's intelligence?
The answer is a bit complicated. Early math and verbal scores predict later academic success, and academic success is correlated with IQ. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the five-year-old with the good math score is going to be smarter than the fiveyear- old who doesn't get as high a math score. For instance, some children do well in school because they are highly attuned to the expectations of adults—they are dutiful, eager to please, and able to focus on achieving the things expected of them in school.
Take, for instance, a young biologist named Elise. She graduated magna cum laude from an Ivy League university and received her PhD in sociology from a top graduate program. She was awarded tenure at one of the best colleges in the country when she was only thirty-two years old because she was successful as a teacher and did high-quality research that got published in the better journals in her field. However, she insists that this is much less because of her intellectual powers than her determination to do everything she needed to succeed. When she was a child, her parents made it clear that they expected good grades. Her mother insisted on looking over every assignment before it was handed in and made her fix mistakes. She had no interest in challenging the assignments or trying something outside the requirements. She was aggravated when other students distracted the teacher from the planned lecture. She hated vague assignments. But she was diligent and highly attuned to figuring out what each teacher wanted from her. She was a perfectionist and had great attention for detail. Good wasn't good enough for her. She felt compelled to do whatever it took to get the highest grade. She behaved well in class. She was a teacher's dream. At each stage of her career, she replicated that approach.
Robert Sternberg, the psychologist who asked the man on the street what it meant to be smart, has also argued that there are three kinds of intelligence: analytic, practical, and creative. He would probably find that Elise scored high in two of his three kinds: analytic (her ability to learn information and use it to solve new problems) and practical (she knew how to figure out what was required of her to reach her goal). In the end, that practical intelligence is as powerful for Elise as her analytic intelligence. But the point is, Elise's experiences in school pushed her forward. By the time someone is in college, it's not always easy to figure out whether academic success is rooted in intelligence or in earlier academic success. In other words, being smart might cause children to do well at school, but doing well at school also causes children to continue doing well at school.
For many children, the desire and ability to conform to expectations is as big a part of their success in school as their intellect and might well carry them even farther. Academic success tends to be self-perpetuating. And by the same token, the child who does not do well in school might continue to have trouble. She might not do her homework. She might question every assignment. She might skip classes. She might act surly in school. All of these qualities can affect her grade, and yet she might in fact be very smart. On the one hand, you can say she is bright but just doesn't do well in school. However, over time, a child who is not treated as if she is bright might begin to function as if she is not bright. As a result, by the time she is an adult, she might not have the knowledge and skills she could have acquired by participating more fully in school, which in fact would allow her to do the things intelligent people do. In other words, by the time a person is thirty years old, her functional intellect is no longer simply a matter of potential—it's a matter of what she has actually learned and done.
IQ might or might not capture all we would wish about the ineffable but powerful quality we call intelligence. However, it predicts a lot, and it's surprisingly stable—it doesn't change much over a person's lifetime.
The Resilient IQ One of the simplest and most compelling facts about IQ tests is that the measure is so sturdy. If you give a child a proper IQ test (say, the Stanford-Binet or the Wechsler) when he is five and test him again when he is eighteen, he is likely to get a similar score. More important, if you give a group of ten children the test when they are five, each of them is likely to get the same score, in relation to the others, when he or she is eighteen. In other words, even though children know more as they get older and change in significant ways (double their size, learn to read and write and do math, and acquire whole bodies of knowledge about topics such as baseball, dinosaurs, car mechanics, or American history), whatever it is that is captured by an IQ test remains pretty much the same. Kids think they get smarter in school. They don't. They just acquire knowledge and skills.
One of the most thorough and elegant demonstrations of the stability of IQ was conducted by a group of scientists in New Zealand in the late 1960s, although that is not what they set out to study. Obstetric medicine and care had improved dramatically in the previous decades. Many more babies were surviving childbirth, particularly babies who experienced problems just prior to and during delivery. Doctors began to worry, however, that these children were prone to greater problems as they grew up. Perhaps by decreasing infant mortality, new medical practices had led to increased childhood morbidity. The theory was that the problems that might have caused difficulties during birth were now creating problems later down the road when these babies were a bit older. In an effort to track the well-being of this new population of babies, a group of doctors and psychologists in New Zealand decided to try to follow a large cohort of babies all born in one place at one time. The researchers followed the fate of 1,037 babies, all born at the Queen Mary Hospital in Dunedin between April 1, 1972, and March 31, 1973. Almost all of the babies chosen for the study have been visited, observed, and tested every few years right up to the present. Many of those babies now have babies of their own who are being observed and interviewed. One of the extraordinary features of this endeavor is that so many of the children remained in the study.
As anyone who has ever done longitudinal research will tell you, the hardest part is keeping your subjects in the study. Most studies of this kind suffer from attrition. Say a scientist recruits one hundred babies for her study. By the time the babies are ten years old, fifty of the families might have moved away, twenty more might refuse to be part of follow-up assessments, and before you know it, the researcher has only thirty subjects to work with and, as a result, can say almost nothing about broad trends. So it is particularly impressive that when the Dunedin kids were twenty-one years old, almost all of them were still around and happy to answer the researchers' questions, take the required tests, and participate in interviews. Ninety-three percent participated in a daylong assessment. Only nineteen refused to participate, and another nine couldn't be tracked down.
In the Dunedin study, doctors were able to learn a great deal about the health patterns of the children as they grew up. They began to see which kinds of illnesses were the sequelae of improved pre- and perinatal care. But as it turned out, they also learned quite a lot about the children's intelligence.
They first assessed the children's IQ when they were young, as part of a complete battery of baseline measures. Then, to be consistent, they measured the children's IQ every three years, through adolescence and early adulthood. And here's the simple but startling fact: when it came to performance on an IQ score, the overwhelming majority of the children (930 out of 1,037) stayed pretty much the same. The researchers first thought that they had found straightforward evidence that IQ does not change. However, the beauty and difficulty of large data sets is that you always get some noise.
The psychologists couldn't ignore the 107 children whose IQ seemed to fluctuate wildly across a twelve-year time span. Was this evidence, after all, that IQ is not so stable? To complicate matters more, the fluctuations in children's scores did not follow a simple pattern. Some scores dropped precipitously, while others seemed to surge upward. Perhaps IQ was more malleable than people thought. Then the psychologists took a closer look.
They realized that most of the kids whose scores got markedly better or worse during the study actually ended up about where they started. Among those 107 were children whose scores rose between the time they were five and eight but then dropped between the age of eight and adolescence. By the time those 107 children were in their teens, they had almost all returned to their original baseline scores. If you had tested a child only twice, you might see a surprising gain or loss in IQ. You might think you had found proof that children can lose their intelligence or get smarter. But the beauty of the Dunedin study was that researchers showed that over the long haul of childhood and adolescence, while there might be peaks and valleys, kids pretty much test where they began. If a child's IQ stays the same, the question is why. Is it because, like eye color, intelligence is inherited, or is it because, like taste in food, what you experience when you are little becomes imprinted on you? Just the fact that something is resilient doesn't tell you much about where it comes from.
Anyone who has adopted a child knows the quiver of uncertainty, however subtle, that makes you wonder whether your baby will "turn out" like you or like the biological parent neither of you will ever see. Karen had given birth to two children with her first husband and now wanted to raise a child with her second husband, a powerful creative director of television programs. They adopted Maude before she was even born. Karen was there for the birth and cut the umbilical cord, wrapping Maude up and giving her her first bottle. Neither Maude nor Karen saw the biological mother again. When Maude was little, she was full of energy, and she learned her first words before she was fourteen months old. She had a sparkle in her eye and a loud, happy laugh, and she seemed surprisingly like her father.
She even looked like him. They doted on Maude, filling her life with toys, interesting trips, stories, friends, good food, and books. When Maude was a preschooler, she seemed every bit her parents' daughter. So Karen and her husband weren't sure what to make of it when Maude began to have trouble in school. She loved the work, was eager to try everything, and carried herself like someone who thinks she is at the top of her class. Then it was time for her to be tested, because her parents wanted to send her to a private high school, which required an aptitude test. Although she had seemed so bright and adept during her first years of school, her parents were confused and dismayed to learn that Maude's scores were very low, much lower than their own or than those of Karen's biological children from her previous marriage. Although in so many ways she was like her parents, her IQ was not. How could this be?
The most compelling explanation comes from a study of twins separated at birth and given up for adoption. When these children were tested in early childhood, their IQs tended to match the IQs of their adoptive parents. The subjects were more like the people they lived with than the people with whom they shared genes. But by the time the children in the study had become teenagers, they more closely resembled their identical twins than they did their adoptive parents. The researchers' explanation was that environmental influences of parents temporarily lifted the children's IQs but that this influence didn't last. As the children aged, the expression of their intelligence seemed less dependent on what was going on around them day to day (the conversations people had, the activities they were encouraged to engage in, the kinds of schools they went to). Instead, it seemed that biology was taking over, and their IQs inched toward a level that much more closely resembled the long-lost siblings with the exact same genetics, even when the two had been raised in very different circumstances. Maude probably had an IQ more similar to the IQs of her biological parents than to those of her adoptive parents, but the disparity only showed up as she entered adolescence.
The research on IQ tells a pretty unambiguous story: children's IQs and the intelligence IQ tests measure are stable and heavily determined by a child's genes. And yet, as we have seen, there are factors that can either temporarily disguise a child's true intellectual ability or in some way inflate or depress it. If you think your child is more intelligent than tests or academic performance suggest, what might explain the discrepancy?
What Gets in the Way
Many years ago, when I was teaching at a fairly progressive independent school in New York City, there was a four-year-old boy, Alec, who came in for the usual interview and admissions assessment— a combination of a shortened IQ test and some openended play in the admissions office. Alec had been touted as very bright, and his parents were sure this was the right school for him. And yet he did miserably in all aspects of the admission process.
He did not get a high score on the test, he was uncommunicative in the interview, and his playing seemed immature, lacking the kind of complexity that is often seen as an expression of intelligence. Alec was denied admission. However, a teacher at the school later learned from a friend of the family that when Alec had gotten home that day, he had complained bitterly to his mother about his sore feet. It turned out his mother had mistakenly put him in a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small. The poor little boy had spent the whole time at the new school thinking about his aching feet, not old enough to realize that he could let someone know something was wrong. His performance in that interview was not a good measure of his real abilities. Anyone's intellect can be temporarily masked by some glitch of circumstance, and in the long run, such momentary setbacks won't alter the path of a child's intellectual development. A very smart teenager who does poorly on the SAT because he has a headache will do well the next time he takes it. And yet some glitches can have a long-lasting impact.
Hank, a four-and-a-half-year-old boy with bright red hair and an impish face, was exactly the kind of bright child bound to get into trouble at school. He had lots of physical energy and enormous physical skill. Let him outside with some mud puddles or put him near a climbing toy, and he'd be happy for hours. The first time he saw snow (on a visit to Massachusetts from California, where he lived), he spent four hours outside inventing different routes from the top of the hill to the bottom and constructing different kinds of jumps for the sled. If anyone handed him a complicated toy that involved moving parts, he would focus on it quietly for long stretches of time, trying out the different ways the toy could work. But he was also the little guy who unwittingly knocked over the glass of juice at the lunch table every single day. He often got chastised by other parents for things like pushing another child off the sandbox ledge in a moment of exuberance, although he did it not from anger but out of boisterousness. He was the little boy who tapped his pencil against the edge of the desk as the grown-up read a story aloud, fidgeting restlessly in his seat. As his mother said about him, "He can be rough, but he's never mean."
Hank had all the signs of high intellect. He took in information quickly and synthesized bits and pieces of knowledge he'd gathered from different settings. He could look at a picture of a shape and make the same shape using small plastic pieces, create a new kind of slingshot from branches, and devise a new set of rules for a dart game. As Howard Gardner would say, Hank could solve problems and make things that were interesting and valuable to the people around him. And Hank wasn't always fidgety and restless. He listened carefully when he was interested in something and seemed to zero in on the important information. A child like Hank shows his intelligence in slivers, like small fish darting through a stream of more unruly behavior. The signs can be easy to miss. Once when he was two, he sat on a couch watching television with his aunt Laura. She leaned toward him to ask a question about the cartoon on the screen but saw that he was gazing intently at her mouth.
"Laura, you're old," he said.
She laughed, a little thrown. "What?"
"You're old. Your teeth are lello. Lello means old."
It would be easy to miss the mental acuity that went into his logic, which in form resembled a syllogism. Yellow is a sign of age. Laura's teeth were yellow. Laura must be old. Hank's ability to analyze information and think logically was a clear sign of his sharp intellect. But those flashes of intellect were often obscured by his bouncy, slightly clueless energy. He was just the kind of kid who could seem naughty and over time, because of that, be seen as not smart by a teacher. One day when Hank was four and a half, his aunt was trying to help him put his winter boots on. She kneeled down in front of him. As she began to tug at the first boot, Hank, looking down at her bent head, began to tug at her hair.
"Hank," she said in a slightly exasperated tone, her head bent in the effort of getting on the boot, "that hurts. Stop pulling my hair."
Hank tugged harder.
"Hey," Aunt Laura said sharply. "Cut it out."
Hank kept a steady tension on her hair for another two seconds before lowering his hands.
"Listen, Buddy. I'm helping you get ready to go sledding. But what you're doing really hurts." An experienced mom, Aunt Laura looked him right in the eye. "If you pull my hair one more time, I won't help you put your boots on."
Slight, lovable, goodwilled Hank looked her steadily in the eye and gave a hard yank.
One can easily see how behavior like this alienates grown-ups. Once alienated, they back away from a child, offering less help, less encouragement, less of the very attention that seems to help children make the most of their potential. It is easy to see that teachers would be aggravated by Hank's physical energy. When other children were happily filling in the questions on a worksheet, Hank would be looking out the window at the bird fight happening on a limb of a nearby tree.
Most teachers and many parents worry when a child is obstreperous. The young child who won't sit down when the teacher rings her little bell, who stares off into space when the other children are filling in worksheets, who talks during a group discussion or jumps up and starts fiddling with the thermometer during a meeting can look like trouble. But on its own, unruliness in kindergarten does not predict academic trouble later on. Research shows that all other things being equal, these children are just as successful as other children when it comes to grades in elementary school. However, those kinds of unruliness can lead to trouble if they frustrate teachers enough.
Years ago, in a pivotal demonstration of how this can play out, Harvard social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his collaborator Eleanor Jacobsen, a schoolteacher, showed how malleable a teacher's view of a child really is. Rosenthal and Jacobsen gave children in a Chicago public school a paper-and-pencil test that is closely correlated with IQ. However, they told the teachers that it was part of a subtle and obscure test of children's thinking. They then mentioned casually that some of the children were real intellectual "bloomers," likely to make substantial intellectual strides in the coming months. Amazingly, those children, who had actually been chosen at random, did make significant intellectual strides.
When all of the kids were tested again at the end of the year, the children who had been tagged as "bloomers" had made significant gains on the IQ test. So, lesson number one: when teachers expect children to be smart, for whatever reason, children often become smarter. It's important to note that Rosenthal and Jacobsen spent a great deal of time in those classrooms and could detect no obvious or concrete difference in the way those bloomers were treated. In other words, there was no simple explanation for the phenomenon— teachers didn't give harder work to those kids or spend more time at their desks or even call on them more often. The expectations adults have of a child are, it seems, both enormously\ powerful and somewhat invisible.
You will recall that when Joseph Fagan tested the speed with which infants could absorb visual information, he had an excellent idea of how smart they would seem as seven-year-olds. But Fagan's test had an advantage over the more traditional scores. Whereas IQ tests seemed to favor certain ethnic and racial groups, Fagan's test did not. Some babies were quicker to turn their attention from one picture to another, but there were no differences as a function of what racial group a baby belonged to. This stands in stark contrast to the persistent finding that the average IQ score of a group of black children is almost always lower than the average IQ score of a group of white children. Keep in mind that the overall correlation between Fagan's test in infancy and more traditional IQ scores when the children were older was high. Yet the correlation did not hold up for all of the children. Either some of the white children were doing better as they got older, or some of the black children were doing worse as they got older, hence the group differences among older children, where none was found in infancy. What might explain this confusing pattern?
We're beginning to find out why the IQ test might be a weaker measure of intelligence for black children than it is for white children. In the past ten years or so, psychologists have learned something very important about what might depress the IQ scores of some students and how to remedy it. The gap between the average score of a group of black students and the average score of a group of white students has diminished somewhat in recent years. But it hasn't gone away or even halved. There are only two explanations for this, broadly speaking. The one promoted by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their book The Bell Curve is that underlying differences in ability account for the gap, and nothing will change that. But many psychologists (as well as geneticists) doubt this explanation, not simply because it is politically and socially distasteful but rather because it represents bad science. To begin with, we know next to nothing, so far, about the genetic underpinnings of intelligence. Intelligence might well be the expression of a cluster of abilities and skills caused by a wide variety of genes, rather than a single attribute determined by a single gene. Second, we know very little about the relationship between the genetic basis of race and intelligence. In other words, even though skin color is inherited and IQ also seems to a great extent to be inherited, those two facts tell us nothing about whether intelligence and skin color have any underlying genetic relationship. The difference in IQ between racial groups might be a result of something altogether different. This point is so important and so often misunderstood that it is worth illustrating with a few examples.
If you compare men who have had heart attacks with those who haven't, it turns out that the average height in the group who had heart attacks is lower than the average height of those who haven't. Does this mean that short men have more heart attacks than tall men? Does it mean that the gene for height comes handin-hand with a gene for blood pressure, cholesterol levels, or a predisposition to heart attacks? No. It means that older men are more likely to get heart attacks than younger men, and men shrink as they age. So what looks like a clue to an underlying genetic link is, in fact, nothing of the kind. Take a second example. People who live in temperate climates tend to get more colds in the winter. Thus, many of us come to believe that the cold weather actually causes sickness. Climate and colds are related, but not because one causes the other. Instead, one leads to the other. In cold weather, we spend more time with other people in close, unventilated spaces. Our immune systems become weakened because of the stress of staying warm. The winter weather does help explain our increased sickness, but it doesn't cause the common cold. Having black skin might mean you are less likely to get a high score on an IQ test, but that doesn't mean that black people are not as smart as white people.
We are a long way from knowing what it is exactly about intelligence that is genetic and just as far from knowing what gene or genes might explain a person's intelligence. But imagine that you are a researcher who doubts that the lower IQ scores of black children can be explained as a genetic difference. What would you do? You'd begin to try to identify other explanations for the difference. And that is just what researchers have been doing in the past fifteen years or so.
Some of the causes of group differences in IQ have been hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be identified. Claude Steele, from Stanford University, knew that stereotypes not only influence the behavior of the stereotyper, but they also have a huge effect on those who have been stereotyped. He reasoned that a powerful social stereotype affects people in the stereotyped group, even when no stereotyping or prejudice is active or present. In other words, stereotyping is "in the air" and shapes people all the time. When it comes to students taking important tests that measure their ability and might determine their future, the threat of potential stereotyping is particularly menacing. Steele and his colleagues reasoned this way: black students might worry, when in a testing situation, that if they do not do well, they will strengthen people's erroneous stereotypes. Worrying about this keeps them from doing their best on the test. In the kind of demonstration every researcher longs for, Steele tried a very simple manipulation. He removed the threat by telling students at the beginning of the test that this particular test had never shown any differences between groups. He learned a few startling and important things. Removing the threat in that simple way dramatically improved the scores of black students taking the test.
Thus, while an IQ test might in fact accurately reflect a white student's intellectual ability, it might not be as good a measure of a black student's intellect. The fact that the black students' test scores could be improved with such a simple yet specific intervention is quite stunning. Since Steele's early studies showing this, researchers have followed up with equally important findings.
Steven Spencer and his colleagues reasoned that even if you assume that black students are not showing their true potential in a standard testing situation, that doesn't explain why those students continue to underperform in school. Spencer and his colleagues decided to try to remove the "threat in the air" from students' ongoing academic experiences. If those kinds of threats make it hard for a student to show his true ability on a test, why wouldn't they also hinder his performance in classes throughout school? Spencer contacted black students who had been accepted at Yale and told them that if they came to Yale, they would be part of an honors group within the college. During the next four years at Yale, the students in this group spent time together, talked about the issues facing black students on campus, and stayed connected.
He tracked their success at Yale, compared with other black students with similar entering test scores who were not included in the group. Lo and behold, the black students in the group fared better when it came to grades than the others. In a second version of this intervention, conducted at a junior high school in Connecticut, students were asked four times during the year to write a story about a personal value. These students also did better than students matched on race and test scores who did not write the essays. It seems that by supporting a minority student's sense of identity, you reduce the impact of stereotype threat.
Many students might not show their true potential during a test of their cognitive ability. Black students are not the only ones to experience stereotype threat. And there might be other invisible threats that depress a child's expression of cognitive ability. For those who run schools and design college admissions requirements, identifying those kinds of inhibitors and removing them are hugely important. But here's the twist: barring any powerful interventions, the same conditions that might influence a child's test score or his apparent intellectual ability when he is four years old are likely to go on shaping him throughout childhood.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Children who live in homes with more wealth talk differently and more with their parents than children who grow up with less money. Todd Hart and Betty Risley compared middle-class families to families living at or below the poverty line by tape-recording the interactions of forty-two families from the time the children were nine months old until they were three years old. Children whose parents were well educated and held professional-level jobs heard about 2,100 words per hour. Welfare children heard about 600 words an hour. By the time the subjects in the study were four years old, the middle-class children of professional families heard as many as 48 million words. In contrast, children in families on welfare heard as few as 13 million words.
The difference in language environment goes beyond sheer numbers. Children from families with more money heard a different kind of talk from that heard by children with less money. Parents from the wealthier families were more likely to talk about the world around them, to identify what was interesting, and to discuss what was worth noticing and worth remembering. Some parents seemed to provide their children with a running narration of experience and also encouraged their children to narrate experience. This measure, which Hart and Risley called "extra talk (non-business talk)," taken when children were three years old, had a 77-percent correlation with the Peabody Picture Vocabulary test at third grade. In other words, families that engaged in a lot of "extra talk" had children who were much more likely to succeed in school.
It is not clear why families with greater wealth do this more than families without money. It might be because families with more money tend to have gone to better schools and to have spent more time in school. Or it might be that families with more money are more likely to have jobs that involve a higher level of education and require more conversation, more exchange of information, and possibly more time in deliberation.
In one of the oddest theories about intelligence, Robert Zajonc argued that birth order was the single strongest determinant of a person's IQ. Firstborn children, he argued, are likely to be smarter than later-born children. At first blush, this seems almost silly. How could your position within a family explain anything about your intelligence? Do a woman's eggs get weaker as she produces more babies? But Zajonc's explanation for his prediction makes some sense and fits with other data. Zajonc argued that the firstborn is likely to have the highest IQ within a family because he or she benefits from a richer intellectual environment than subsequent children. Imagine, he argued, that the average combined IQ of two adult parents is 200. The firstborn child received all the benefit of that combined IQ. But the next child, and those who come after, have to share that intellectual environment. So the firstborn gets to grow up in a 200 IQ environment, while the later-born children are developing in a 100 IQ environment (200, the parents' IQ score, divided by two children). The formula is so simple it's almost hokey. But the logic behind it is backed up by other research. It is not that somehow the parental genes for intelligence get thinner or weaker with each child. Instead, each child, in theory, experiences a more diluted intellectual environment. Think of it in terms of any big family you know. The parents probably talked quite a bit to their firstborn, discussing what their little boy could see out the window, answering his questions about why his milk turned pink when he ate Lucky Charms, and asking him what was going to happen to the ice cube if he left it lying on the floor. But the third or fourth child in a busy household is much less likely to hear and be part of those kinds of exchanges. So, in fact, later-born children grow up in a somewhat weaker intellectual environment.
Interestingly enough, Zajonc's formula predicts that a child who is born a long time after the last one benefits from his position in the family. Why would this be so? Because if you have three much older siblings, your intellectual environment reflects the IQ of five grown-ups, not two diluted ones. Your much older brother and sister talk to you the way an adult would.
Zajonc's research is so parsimonious it is hard to accept. Everyone can think of exceptions—the twenty-four-year-old who is brighter than her twenty-five-year-old brother, the one born eight years later who is not as bright as his three much older siblings, and so on. But the logic behind his formula fits perfectly with all of the data showing that children benefit from conversation. When parents use talk as a way of reflecting on and making sense of the world around them, a child's intelligence benefits. And the data suggest that families with economic resources engage in more of this kind of conversation. So being rich does not make you smart, but having more wealth might be tied to having more conversation, which contributes significantly to a child's intelligence. In other words, the bank account itself does not explain wealthier children's advantage in school—what the bank account provides explains it.
Children do benefit from the intellectual environment created at home—and for children who grow up with their biological families, that environment tends to be an expression or an amplification of their genes. As I described earlier, smart families are likely to create smart environments. This is not only true for parents. Developmental psychologist Sandra Scarr followed adopted children as they grew up and found that children create their own environments—she called it "niche picking." Imagine two children within a family who seem, from day one, to be really different. One child, Emmanuel, learns to talk at an early age and loves words. It is clear almost immediately that he is attuned to the conversations around him and quick to use new vocabulary, try out verbal expressions, and tell stories.
His brother, Dwight, seems more visual right from the beginning. Whenever he can, he uses toys to make patterns, buildings, and other visual displays. He seems to notice details in whatever room he enters. Even if Emmanuel and Dwight share the same parents and the same bedroom, go to the same family celebrations, attend the same nursery school, and spend their weekends on the same playground, they will experience substantively different environments. While Emmanuel listens to his parents' conversation, sits in rapt attention while his uncle tells a story, and creates elaborate stories when he is with his playmates, Dwight is oblivious to the conversation, spending his time instead taking all of the silverware and making a giant pattern with it, watching his grandfather repair the cabinet, and making patterns with colored blocks. These two children are, in effect, creating their own intellectual environment. Whatever it was they were born with, in terms of cognitive ability and style, leads them to notice, seek out, and immerse themselves in particular facets of the world around them. Emmanuel will grow up in a more language-rich environment than Dwight, who, in contrast, will grow up in a more visually rich environment than his brother.
Understanding what makes up a child's intelligence does not require parsing out the genetic component and the environmental component. Genes only express themselves within a particular environment. You can't be smart without questions, tools, and people to be smart with. But the questions, tools, and people you pick up on are shaped, in part, by your intelligence. Especially in the case of children who are raised by their biological parents, the IQs they get through their genes are often merely amplified by the IQs that surround them in their homes. The smart mom who has a large vocabulary provides her child not only with her genes but also with the kind of language-rich environment that enhances her child's native capacity.
Sign of Intelligence
What does this all mean for your child? To begin with, it means that your child's intelligence is likely to be similar to yours (and by the way, most research shows that people are likely to marry someone of similar intelligence, so you needn't fret too much about whether your child will get your wonderful IQ or your mate's lowly IQ).
It also means that in many ways, you need not try to disentangle what your child brings in the way of intellectual capabilities from what you provide her with. All things considered, these are likely to be of a piece. There are some dramatic exceptions— children who might have tested very highly on Fagan's test of infant speed of processing but who grow up without fundamental resources such as adequate nutrition or regular attendance at a reasonable school are likely to seem less intelligent than they otherwise would. After a while, if you seem less intelligent, you are less intelligent. IQ is not simply a capacity; it is a pathway. Each step leads you farther in one direction and away from another. The child who feels smart seeks out stimulating aspects of the environment. The child who feels that others don't think he's smart begins to inhibit his performance, further lowering other people's expectations, and so on.
I have said a lot about the stability of a child's intelligence. But I have said little about how a parent knows whether his child is smart or not. After all, as I mentioned earlier, many, if not most, children seem smart to their parents, and few people have their child's IQ tested, nor should they. It rarely helps. If your child is very bright, the chances are that you and his teachers already know it. Getting a number can only send you into a tizzy of needless enrichment activities, pushing teachers in ways that don't help, or aggravating your friends by finding subtle ways to tell them how high your child's IQ is. If your child's IQ score is lower than yours, or than most kids', you might unwittingly transmit that information to your child. And as we have seen, lowered expectations usually only make matters worse. For most kids, most of the time, IQ tests aren't necessary. You usually can tell if a child is smart, if you know what to pay attention to. Children who learn new information easily, can solve problems, can create objects and ideas, and can understand complex situations are smart. Children who struggle with more than one of these challenges are less smart.
The one caveat to this is when a child is having trouble in school and you want to know whether it is because she has a learning disability. IQ scores, handled properly, can sort out the difference between a problem learning to read and a general intellectual deficit, which brings us back to Stevie.
Stevie took in information quickly, especially visual information. He could look at a structure and quickly build one just like it. He could watch someone put a toy together and quickly take over adding new parts himself. He could walk into a room and tell you, hours later, the color of the furniture or a picture that was hanging on the wall. When he wanted to make something, if he didn't have the right materials, he could find a substitute and finish his project. That is, he was quick to process information, he could solve problems, and he could fashion products valuable to his community. But this was only when he was interested in the problem he needed to solve or cared about the thing he was making.
Only recently have developmental researchers begun to take seriously the idea that interest is a crucial component of the learning process. When babies are given objects to play with, they spend more time and, more important, use a wider variety of gestures to explore an object for which they have shown a prior interest. In another study, children who got to read stories about domains in which they had demonstrated a sustained interest actually learned more about and from the story. Teachers often try to elicit interest in academic tasks by making sure stories and activities relate to things that are, in general, child-friendly (a story about a kid who gets hooked on drugs for the preteen, a math activity that involves counting koala bears instead of colored rods for first-graders). But scholars who focus on interest are talking about something that goes beyond making a topic lively or superficially relevant to children. Research has shown that from a very early age, children often show intense and sustained interest in one activity or domain (bridges, puzzles, or bugs, for example). And it's also becoming clear that children actually behave in smarter ways when they are using the materials or engaging in the activities that most interest them. In one elegant demonstration of this, Suzanne Hidi gave toddlers objects to play with. Some of the children were given objects in which they had shown a prior interest (cars, dolls, various puzzles), while others were given objects in which they had shown no particular prior interest. When the toddlers were allowed to play with things in which they had a prior interest, they played for longer and used a wider range of gestures. So, it's not just nice to let a kid learn what she is drawn to. It's the best way to help her develop her intellect and make use of her intellectual potential.
Unfortunately, Stevie didn't find it easy to focus on the things that interested him. But it wasn't because he had a hard time focusing. It was because everyone around him was telling him he should do better in school, read more, apply himself, and talk more. His teachers and his parents wanted him to excel at things that didn't interest him and disregarded the activities and materials that did interest him. If a child seems highly motivated and intelligent in some domain, trying to push him to be well rounded or to excel in a more obviously marketable or appealing arena probably won't do any good and might just keep him from pursuing the activities in which he really does shine. In Stevie's case, his stubbornness was his best friend and his worst enemy. He began to act as if he didn't care what teachers said about him. He began to channel his resistance into rebellion and a determination not to follow the conventional path the adults in his life preferred. By the time he was seven, his parents were extremely alarmed that he hadn't learned to read. His mother gave him a dictionary for his birthday, even though he showed a clear disinterest in reading and writing. "For our little scholar," her card read. Then she transferred him to a stricter school, a school he hated.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
And why does it matter if your child is smart? Remember that the first intelligence test was created simply to make sure that children who were unusually slow were not punished for having trouble learning. Geniuses almost always announce themselves—you don't need to be tested to show that you are forty points smarter than other people. And as Malcolm Gladwell has argued in his book Outliers, above a certain level of intelligence, the difference doesn't, for the most part, matter when it comes to outstanding achievement. Children who get the highest IQ scores are not necessarily destined for a life of greatness, and children who have average intelligence are not doomed to an average life.
As I will explain in Chapter 5, success depends on a lot of things besides intelligence. However, it would be silly to discount intelligence altogether. In our society, the child who has an IQ score of 140 is going to be attracted to math or books in a way that a child with an IQ of 115 might not be. But the point is that you don't need to subject your child to an expensive and tiresome test to find this out. Most children who have an IQ score of 140 act as if they do. They seek out information, they like learning things, they solve problems more easily and creatively than others, and they analyze situations with acuity. Parents might simply learn what that looks like in the six-year-old, for two reasons. First, if your child is subjected to negative stereotypes, you can push against those stereotypes. Hank's mother had better make sure his teachers know the difference between unruly and stupid. He might knock the glass over, tap his finger during a lesson, or defy an adult's request, but none of these has anything to do with his intellect. A teacher had better know that her unconscious negative stereotype about black children needs to be examined and that she needs to take concrete steps to counteract that stereotype.
Second, on the positive side, the more aware you are of your child's expressions of intellectual liveliness, the more likely you are to encourage her, giving her a chance at a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But here we need to draw a line. There is currently an epidemic, particularly in the white middle class, of parents eager to identify their children as gifted. Everyone wants his or her child to be in the program for gifted and talented children at school. It's not always clear whether it's because these parents think their children's needs are not being met in the regular classroom, whether they have a hunch that livelier and more engaging activities, things that would be appealing to any child, are going on in the gifted and talented program, or whether they want to make sure their children have an edge over everyone else when it comes to college. But in truth, not that many children are gifted, if gifted means exceptional. By definition, there are few exceptions. Few children fall outside the normal range of intelligence. Moreover, focusing on your child's exceptional ability encourages a kind of preciousness and competitiveness that isn't good for anyone.
Whether a child is of average intellect or on the high end, providing him with chances to pursue his interests, offering plenty of "nonbusiness" talk, and surrounding him with books that you and he actually read are the best support you can offer. The rest will take care of itself.