Should Genius Kids Know Their IQs?

Experts say brilliant children can fall into an underachieving emotional trap.

ByABC News
June 10, 2009, 6:06 PM

June 11, 2009— -- She is barely out of diapers, but the world already knows 2-year-old Karina Oakley is a genius. Her mother, Charlotte Fraser, revealed to the British media Tuesday that a London-based intelligence researcher estimated her young daughter's IQ around 160.

This March, America learned it had its own genius child. Six-year-old Pranav Veera of Ohio made the media rounds after he scored 176 on an IQ test.

Although millions of us celebrate these children's brilliance on TV shows that air past their bedtime, childhood development experts debate whether Pranav and Karina should ever have been told.

"We don't usually tell children what their IQ scores are," said Sylvia Rimm, a child psychologist and author of "Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades, and What You Can Do About It."

"The overemphasis on how brilliant they are often leaves them with a pressured existence trying to living up to their potential," she said.

Rimm has seen many clearly gifted children begin to shun work, fall short or even fail due to a psychological trap.

"The root of gifted underachievement is that kids feel that they need to prove how smart they are all the time," said Rimm. "When they're young and in school and they find school easy, they then get into the habit of equating smart with easy."

If that happens, especially if "gifted becomes a title over their head," Rimm said children may just simply walk away from any challenging schoolwork to protect a fragile identity.

"When challenge gets there, it feels threatening [and] they think, 'Suppose people find out that I'm not that smart?'" said Rimm.

Rimm said she would not even venture to use the word "gifted" unless a parent has to do so to explain something, nor would she ever bring up a specific IQ.

But intelligence researcher Joan Freeman, who tested Oakley, takes a slightly less restrictive view. Freeman has followed 210 "gifted" children and children with normal abilities for 35 years. In her research, she has seen children's awareness of IQ both help and hinder them as they grow.

"Some children are happy and proud, and some children are really affected by it," said Freeman. "They begin to feel that that's all that people value them for. ... For some children, it's frightening to be gifted."

James Elens, of Pensacola, Fla., is one of those people. Teachers first tested Elens' IQ in kindergarten, but he quit halfway through the exam.

"I took the first half of the test, and in the second half of the test I got angry at them because they told me these questions didn't have to have answers," said Elens, who is now 24.

He took an IQ test again in fifth-grade on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) to see if he could qualify for special programs for gifted children.

"At the time, I was just told I beat the minimum score. I wasn't told the extent," said Elens. "They [his parents] just told me, 'Yep, you got enough,' to do what I needed to do."

Elens said that was the same year he was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

"There are a couple of other people with scores that high in my family, an uncle, and he also had severe OCD when he was growing up," said Elens.

It was only later that Elens learned his IQ ranged in the mid-150s. He credits his parents for handling his unusual test scores gracefully.

"All they did was try to get me into the best programs, no external pressure," he said. "They also realized that, oftentimes, with the higher the score, the higher the risk for social disorders."

As an adult, Elens worked in video editing. This fall, he will be starting a creative writing master's program at the Florida International University in Miami. He said when he has children, he will likely approach the issue of IQ as his parents did.

"I wouldn't get them tested just to see if they are 'smart' or not. I would never want to pressure a child like that. But if it was a gateway of some sort, I would," he said. "All IQ is a measure of potential. It doesn't mean that they're going to do anything with it."

"It is what it is, but what can we do to keep him challenged?" asked Veera. "A lot of schools don't have a lot information about this, and neither do they have the funds to manage this."

For now, Pranav is a happy kindergartener. He insisted that he likes all subjects in his kindergarten class at public school.

"I had fun with all the kids in school," said Pranav. "I play badminton and baseball and soccer and basketball -- I like them all."

But the Veerases don't know which school Pranav should go to in the fall. After finding a dearth of information to help his son, Veera now is working to produce an online resource and community for parents of children on either extreme of the IQ bell curve.

"My belief is that everybody is gifted in their own sense, and it really fascinates me how our mind works and the plasticity of our brains," said Veera, who has already secured the domain for his project.

Joseph S. Renzulli, director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, said using IQ as the sole metric for intelligence was largely abandoned by researchers in the late 1970s.

"A lot of people are reconsidering that the IQ is the be-all or end-all of intelligence," said Renzulli.

Renzulli said from reasons including his work with "three-ring conception of giftedness" and Harvard professor Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, many in the field are expanding the definition of "smart."

But while Veera works for the best for Pranav in school and for a better understanding of other children's gifts, child development experts who specialize in intelligence research say the family might also look out for some future emotional pitfalls.

"You don't need drag your kid in for testing, but you should be luring your child with tiny steps into learning and exploring," said Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University and author of "Encyclopedia of Infancy in America," among other works.

Occasionally, parents of very bright children expect behavior of a much older child, but Honig said much more trouble might come in school.

"The thing that I worry about is that, number one, that you would not acknowledge their gifts. The other thing I worry about is that you're pushing too hard when he's not as genius as you think he is," said Honig.

"But the other thing I worry about is that they're isolated in school," said Honig, who said it's not uncommon for other children to resent a brilliant child's answers or for a brilliant child to feel disconnected from his or her peer group.

"If the child has been tested and is very, very bright, you still need to make sure this child has a friend," she said.