At the core of so many parents is the yearning to be the DNA source behind the greatest child ever born. (Hey, even if I’m not all that, we think, my child is the best.) We want them to shine, to excel, to astound the world as much as they astound us. Then one day we accept that our wunderkind is a garden-variety human being who got third place in the school science fair or plinks Für Elise pretty darn well.
When hearing stories of g-word children, it can give us pause (or a severe case of parental envy). It’s all very well to read our children Matilda, the tale of a profoundly gifted 5-year-old girl who thirstily consumes Dickens and whose parents are mean-spirited, TV-addicted nitwits utterly befuddled by their genius girl. In real life, there often seems to be adult puppetry pulling strings behind these wee prodigies: parents who announce their children’s giftedness, media outlets searching for a story, and organizations that stand to gain from the miracle child phenom.
Toddler brainiacs on the rise
So I did a virtual eye roll when first I read the headline about a 3-year-old Mensa inductee, curly-haired cherubic Selena Janik, who scored in the top one percent on an IQ test. (Adam Kirby, a 2-year-old British tyke who potty-trained himself at 1 after reading a book about it, holds the title as the youngest MENSA member with bragging rights of a 141 IQ.) But I’m in no way comparing Selena’s parents, who come across as quite warm and humble, to Matilda's small-minded parents. It's heartening to see them appear to have their priorities in order for their toddler, who has stated she wants to be a scientist who studies molecules when she grows up. Says her dad: “I just want her to be happy, whatever path she chooses.”
In the meantime, young Selena – now having been branded one of the smartest toddlers not just in town, but in the world – must be tested yearly to keep her Mensa membership card. Will she still be a genius at 4? At 5? At 6? (If she doesn’t test well every year, how early to let such a bright young star burn out.) It’s worth questioning Mensa’s role in announcing to the world they’re inviting an ever younger roster of inductees (there have been a string of them over the past few years). Does this help the children – or perhaps does it give Mensa a means to promote their organization, a wily way to attract a bit of media attention?
“You’re so smart!”
When it comes to helping (or harming) the child, according to Mindset author and Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, fixing children with a "smart" label – at whatever age – risks doing them a great disservice. “Parents might say my child is a true prodigy,” Dweck says in this video. “Don’t praise the genius,” she warns. Why? The child, says Dweck, falls into the mindset that, “‘You value me because I’m gifted.’”
There’s also the troubling notion of administering an IQ test for children who aren’t even in kindergarten yet. As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in Nurture Shock, giving intelligence tests to young children may be pointless since in the very young IQ isn’t stable. They quote Dr. Donald Rock, senior research scientist with Educational Testing Service: “The identification of very bright kids in kindergarten or first grade is not on too thick of ice … The IQ Measures aren’t very accurate at all.”
Bronson and Merryman cite the research of Dr. Hoi Suen, professor of education psychology at Pennsylvania State University, who published a meta-analysis of 44 students that looked at how well tests administered to preK and kindergartners could predict achievement test scores two years later. “Analyzing them together, Suen found that intelligence test scores before children start school, on average, had only a 40% correlation.”
It's worth asking: is identifying a genius still in diapers (or in precocious Adam Kirby’s case, not) more about adults’ motivations and society’s appetite for miracles than about what’s in the best interest of the child? Here’s hoping Selena’s parents will be savvy enough to know the risk factors associated with super high IQ children and be aware of Dweck’s findings that qualities like grit and hard work may help children as much, if not more, in being successful in life than biological brain power.Follow @LeslieMCrawford