Sometimes I feel like our society has an unhealthy obsession with our kids being smart. Has anyone else noticed that?
As part of my usual naptime blog surfing I came across a post called Hell Hath No Fury Like the Mother of an “Un-Gifted” Child (via Peter). It’s a great post and a great blog. But I have to admit that reading it left me banging my head against my keyboard. The entire subject of children and intelligence and tests and “Gifted and Talented” programs gives me an ulcer every time I think about it.
I remember all too well when testing time for the Gifted and Talented program rolled around at my elementary school. And when the results were in, indeed, hell had no fury like the mothers of the kids who didn’t make it. Unfortunately, I made it. And for the next few years I was frequently subjected to little comments and “jokes” from my friends’ parents about how their child was smarter than I was. I would just show up to play Barbies and end up spending fifteen minutes hearing about how Sally always gets straight A’s or Mary has been in the honor roll for two years straight or, by the way, didn’t Robby get a far better grade on the last math test than I did? Especially in the first months after I started in the program, few failures went unnoticed by friends’ parents — almost every bad test score or B on a report card led to little comments about who should really be in the Gifted and Talented program.
As a result, my being in that Gifted and Talented program probably did more harm than good. Exactly as the study in this must-read article predicts, I stopped pushing myself intellectually in school settings for fear of failure. I was afraid of my facade of intelligence being shattered after having been publicly, and probably erroneously, labeled a “smart kid”. I could feel that there was a lot at stake here since the intelligence of us kids seemed to be a HUGE issue to our parents, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. And since it felt like other parents were waiting with baited breath for the proof they needed to triumphantly declare that I was not all that smart after all, I took classes and pursued subjects in which I knew I could excel, avoiding interesting but challenging areas like the plague.
Now that I’m a parent and I have a better view of the big picture, I can see how it was just a lose-lose situation for all of us. Though I wish they hadn’t taken it out on me, my friends’ parents were correct in feeling that I didn’t have anything that their children didn’t have. Our school’s particular program was heavily focused on creativity, and for a kid like me with my head in the clouds all the time and my wild, overactive imagination, the program was great for giving me an outlet for those skills. And since that sort of thing is what they were testing for, I’m sure that’s why I got in. But for the kids who were amazing at math or art or music, there was no “special” program for them and they were stuck in the regular, “un-gifted” classes despite their talents. I can see how that would drive you crazy as a parent.
But aside from the flawed nature of these programs I think that there’s another big issue here: namely, our society’s complete, all-consuming obsession with having smart kids. Parents are driven to distraction when their kids don’t get into advanced programs because there’s this feeling in our culture that being smart is the most important thing in the universe. Baby and toddler toys must be “educational” and preferably play classical music since that one study showed that it makes kids smarter; brands like Baby Einstein and Little Genius fly off the shelves; school choices are made entirely based on quality of education, with little or no thought to the moral climate of the institution; and a kid not going to college is just unthinkable. These are generalizations, of course, but I see this sort of mentality all the time.
Why is this? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how this extreme focus on having “smart” children came about, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. And maybe it’s not as bad in other areas of the country, but in my particular corner of suburbia, test scores and honors classes and Gifted and Talented programs are quite an obsession for parents (with children’s’ sports coming in a close second).
Anyway, to be totally honest, it’s not that important to me if my kids are smart. I want them to have a zeal for learning and an education that revolves around curiosity and wonder, whether or not it tests well. I want them to see that learning is about realizing that the world is an amazing place and there’s just so much cool stuff to know, not about being tested and ranked. I want them to really understand their Catholic faith and know that their purpose in life is to know and serve God. I want them to be hard-working, helpful members of society who make a positive difference in the world. I want them to put God and family first in their lives. If they do all that but aren’t considered “smart”, I really don’t care.
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