Having smart kids

June 1, 2007 | 16 comments

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.


  1. tb

    You should have seen the jaws hitting the floor in my first playgroup when I would say, “I don’t think V— is all that smart, she seems to be pretty average to me.” And I meant it sincerely, she was a good baby but she wasn’t going to Harvard any time soon. I think they considered turning me in to the proper authorities for under-hyping my child.

    I hate to say it, but that same child is now in 1st grade and I’m not really sure how academically advanced her Catholic school is. I do know that she “gets it” when it comes to Our Lord, Our Lady, and she’s absolutely dying to have her first Holy Communion. I think our priorities are straight.

  2. Sarah

    Try telling the Grandmas that their grandkids are average! I used to irk my mom and mother-in-law by calling my oldest, Joseph, “Average Joe” when they would take to bragging about his every little step.

    I agree with you, Jen. I don’t really give a hoot if my kids are considered “smart” in the academic sense. My husband was in special ed. and had a lot of trouble to getting through school. He got into college and struggled there, to, but got through it and landed a great job at which he excels. He is devoted to Christ and to our family, and I wouldn’t change a thing about him. I hope my kids have half the virtue he has.

    Above all, I want my kids to be holy. Yes, I also would like for them to love learning, as you mentioned, and to always give their school work their best effort. I would like them to have an appreciation for art and music, I would like for them to keep their bodies in good health by being physically active, but I couldn’t care less if they win awards, test well, make the varsity team, etc. We are to see them as God sees them, and raise them to be saints!

  3. Christina Martin

    It’s the competitiveness that’s always gotten to me. I remember how when my children were mere toddlers there were some parents who would show off how much brighter their kids were than mine. I’d let them. I don’t need to win some competition to love my kids.

    One parent in particular really bothered me. She had a barely two year old that she bragged was potty trained since his first birthday. Every blessed day, she would spank that poor child for having an accident.

  4. Amber

    And then there’s the corollary which says that every child (since he’s so bright and all) should go to college. Because after all, that’s what is required to have a good and happy life, right? Blah.

    I hope I can raise my (incredibly bright and talented :-P) children to be the best people they can be with what they have been given and that they don’t focus narrowly on achievement in very specific and narrowly confined ways. I know when I was growing up I felt like I had to get good grades, go to college, get in a career, etc. etc. and that any deviation would bring great disappointment to my parents. My mom would dispute this, but that’s how my siblings and I all felt. The possibility that we might be happier in some other path was just not considered possible.

    And on that whole GATE thing – I went through that too, but I ended up with a superiority complex from it all. I’m still working on not automatically looking down on those less intellectually gifted… my faith has really helped me in this because it has helped me to see more of the whole person rather than just that one piece.

  5. Laura The Crazy Mama

    I think everyone thinks my kids should be extra smart because I homeschool them, and if they’re not, then why would I bother? Well, they ARE really smart, but I don’t think they’re genius children or anything. I agree with your last paragraph. My main goal is to make them GOOD PEOPLE, to be the best that they can be. If they turn out to be smart…all the more that’s expected of them, I guess! (none of this was written properly, I’m tired, so it looks like I’m not smart right now. Sorry.)

  6. Darwin

    What gets me is the silly stuff that people seem to spend so much time on with this “smart” competitiveness too… I mean, no one is going to have “walked at 10 months) announced at their college graduation or “used five words by fourteen months” on their resume. And yet one sometimes sees parents (usually just with the first or only child) putting HUGE amounts of work into coaching their kids into hitting early milestones.

    Maybe this is partly biased by my feeling that kids don’t even start to be ready to learn anything interesting till 5-6 years old, and not much until 8-9, but it does seem like a great deal of fuss over not very much. Even among “smart” people, most are not prodigies, and yet that seems to be the only kind of child some parents are interested in having.

  7. Kristen Laurence

    Great post. I don’t understand competitiveness, either. I haven’t a competitive bone in my body. And truly, in the end, the last will be first and the first will be last. Jesus gave us the best example – humility, smallness and love. These are the greatest treasures we can have in this life.

    Beautifully said, Jen!

  8. Big Tex

    Truthfully, I don’t believe that every kid should go to college, yet more and more kids are driven that way. I honestly think the value of a bachelor’s degree has been diminished by all this. Look at how many job openings are looking for people with Master’s degrees now.

    Intelligence is nice, but it ain’t everything. My aim as a father is to encourage my children to use the gifts that God has given them to the best of their ability. If they are considered smart, great. If they are average, great. If they are lower than average, great.

    As far as Gifted & Talented programs go, I really don’t know how they are structured. I went to Catholic school before college, and had a different experience. For one, my K-8 school had everyone lumped into one class. In high school, one’s placement in honors, regulars, or essentials classes were based upon academic achievement, not some school psychologist. I was in almost all the honors classes available to me (English Lit. was my weak point).

    Maybe there’s value in waiting to separate the kids until later. I dunno. My experience was a good one. No parents complaining to me that their kids were brighter (just my basketball teammates predicting that I’d be in Calculus 12 before I graduated). I will say that I did develop some sort of superiority complex mentioned by another commenter. However, that was quickly remedied when I took my first Calculus exam in college. I found out just how exemplary I really wasn’t.

  9. Anonymous

    do you know how much a heating and air conditioning co. wanted to charge us to put in zoned AC? 200.00 bucks an hour… forget college send the kids to trade school!!!

  10. lyrl

    I honestly never felt pushed or like my parents were competitive with my academic achievement. It probably helped that neither my parents nor I are very social, so we didn’t have the friends to be competitive with. But I don’t think that was all of it – my parents didn’t even compare my sister and I very much.

    I was in a Gifted and Talented program 5th-8th grade and took many “honors” classes in high school. Other than one of my classmates telling me I “should be shot” for getting a high score on the SAT, I really enjoyed the more challenging material and feel my life was enriched by it. I think Jen and everyone else here has excellent points about how competitiveness in parenting and academia is misplaced and even harmful. But please don’t transfer this criticism of a parenting style to criticism of enrichment programs themselves!

  11. Anonymous

    I was in a gifted program in second grade. I can’t remember how I got in–maybe the fact that I was tearing my way through 300-page books clued them in to the fact that I was bored out of my mind. The program I was in involved going away to a special class on Friday afternoons. I don’t think it did me any good. I was happy to get A’s without having to work for them. I wasn’t going to exert myself one afternoon a week.

    We started homeschooling when I was in fourth grade, and it took me several years to readjust my approach to school. I think ultimately it was healthier for me to get out of the classroom environment. Instead of doing just enough to be better than my classmates, I had to do the best that I could. Unfortunately, the SATs and such then reared their ugly heads. I did just fine, but I hate the competitiveness of it. I might have scored 150 points higher than my best friend, but she is leagues ahead of me in things like patience.

    This whole gifted thing seems just wrong on so many levels. First, what standard are they using? Is it just good grades, or are they looking for the next Mozart? Then, my own experience of gifted programs was of them being extremely unhelpful. Maybe other schools do it better than mine did. Anyway, I’m rambling, so I’ll stop now.

  12. Crimson Wife

    I agree with you about the parental obsession with the external markers of achievement- grades, test scores, admission to the “right” schools, and so on. In our area, it starts before the kids are out of Pull-Ups. That is a big factor in our decision to homeschool because I don’t think it’s healthy for kids.

    On the other hand, I am troubled by the anti-intellectual tone I’m seeing in these comments. There is a resentment in our culture towards kids who are intellectually gifted that we don’t show towards kids who are gifted in other domains such as athletics, art, or music. Nobody complains about there being selective sports teams, orchestras, art shows, etc. But have a selective GATE program or honor roll and all of the sudden it gets bashed as “elitist” or worse. Frankly, it strikes me as a case of “sour grapes”!

    God gives each child different strengths and weaknesses and we are all equal in His eyes. We should celebrate everyone’s gifts, whatever the domain. Carping about the intellectually gifted in a nasty manner (A) is not Christian and (B) hurts all of us when it contributes to underachievement by those who have the potential to give so much back to society. We need the sharpest minds among us to be out there searching for a cure for cancer and so on!

  13. Sarahndipity

    Boy, I sure can relate to this post. I’m not a competitive person either. I don’t know where you live, but where I live (the D.C. area) it’s also extremely competitive for kids. I grew up here and although I was an A/B student I was not in a “gifted” program in elementary school, and I remember feeling badly about it.

    I also don’t understand why being “smart” is almost always associated with academics, specifically math and science. As an arts and literature person this always annoyed me. 🙂 I think we need to recognize the many different kinds of intelligence – someone may not be gifted academically, but they might be an amazing artist, or an outstanding athlete, or a whiz at working on cars, or have great people skills. God gives everyone unique gifts, because this world needs many different kinds of people.

  14. Jennifer F.

    I am troubled by the anti-intellectual tone I’m seeing in these comments.

    Crimson Mom – was it something in my post or in the comments? I didn’t really get an anti-intellectual tone from anything that’s been said.

  15. Christina Martin

    There is a place for humility about intelligence, but there is also a very important place for recognizing intelligence in a child: not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of doing God’s will.

    There is no question that every child is gifted. Some are intellectually gifted, and many are gifted in other areas which are also important. Any parent who becomes too proud of his child’s intelligence, or views his child’s intelligence as a reflection of himself is guilty of wrong priorities.

    However, the reality is that intelligence, like ANY gift from God, is still a gift which God intends the child to develop and use. If a gifted program helps in that aim, it is a good resource. If it does not help in that aim, it might better be avoided. Gifted programs are certainly not all alike, and with a household full of gifted children (all five of the school age and above kids) identified as highly gifted, you can be sure I’ve seen both very good and very bad programs — and a range in between.

    Gifted children often have special needs, as surely as a remedial student does. They need help combating boredom, learning to use their abilities, and in finding social acceptance. A program that increases a child’s isolation is clearly not doing its job. But children with special needs deserve to have those needs met, and all gifted programs should not be blamed simply because some of them are abysmal.

    When I was in school I got bullied a lot. How very grateful I was for the one afternoon a week I was removed from that bullying environment and put with other kids who were more like me.

  16. Abigail

    I got freaked out when I saw that the latest toy crazy at Target involves infant toys in the shape of pull-apart words–dog, sheep, pig, etc. I looked at them in their bright packages, looked at my seven month old- and thought “we have crossed some sort of boundary here!”

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