How To Bring Out the Genius In Your Kid

You may have watched the Lifetime series Child Genius, showing off Mensa International’s high-IQ competitions and the parents who propel the young participants. While that level of zeal for pushing children to be the highest of achievers seems extreme, many of us may probably confess to feeling competitive about our kids from time to time. 

Childhood, unfortunately, seems to many parents to have become hyper-competitive, with high stakes, where only the winners, well, win at life. We spoke to Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornel School of Medicine and the author of Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back, for her take on this trend.

What would you say to those parents who see a little of themselves in those Child Genius moms and dads?

Stop and ask yourself why. Why is it so important to you that the world recognizes your child as exceptional? What insecurity is fueling that? We all want what’s wonderful for our children, of course, but we also see our children as an extension of ourselves. It’s human nature. 

Even though it can be a natural emotion, is there a danger in that mindset?

The danger is most often to the kids who have a perfectly fine IQ. Not off the charts, but high.  Then, those parents see “genius!” and push them to work really hard. The kids do work really hard, and become stressed out pushing themselves to be the be-all-and-end-all in everything. Like some of the kids on the show—those are obviously really intelligent kids, but that gift has become a burden. And it’s such a minute number of kids, anyway, who fit that criteria. 

So where does that leave the kids who don’t have a high enough IQ to spark that excitement in their parents? The ones who aren’t on the high honor roll their entire school career?

In a better position than you might think. Every child has a strength, and some can bring success just as much, if not more, than high IQ, exceptionally high grades, or SAT scores. Being creative can make a huge difference! But our current educational system does not allow for much development of creativity. Steve Jobs was, of course, an intelligent man—but he was also creative and given allowance to be offbeat. That’s what helped him have the right idea at the right time. 

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What else matters when it comes to success?

Social Intelligence is really important. The abilities to get along with others, work as part of a team, and communicate well are integral to success. Also stick-to-it-ness. The school system may not cater to creativity, but it’s good for teaching discipline and the very valuable ability to finish tasks you don’t necessarily like doing. Focus and trying again when you fail go a long way. 

So what is the real advantage to being a traditional genius? Is there one?

Here’s a well-kept secret: Many people with super high IQs don’t go on to produce or achieve anything particularly special later in life. It’s not synonymous with long-term success. Some such children have bizarrely superior ability in one area, but many don’t achieve success as adults. That genius levels out.  

It’s also not a guarantee of getting into an Ivy League school, believe it or not. They generally have a rubric that caters to an incredibly narrow group: those with high IQs, without any learning disabilities, and who are high achievers across the board. If you’re exceptional in math but weak in English, you probably won’t get into Harvard. 

If a parent isn’t sure what a child’s special strength is, what’s the best thing to do? 

Let the child be exposed to as many experiences as possible, within your means, of course. Museums, shows, art exhibits, travel—those are formative experiences that stoke the imagination. Also, build downtime into your child’s schedule. That doesn’t mean video games. Unstructured play, especially outside, breeds creativity and self-discovery.

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