raising a smart kid

What it Means to Raise a “Smart” Kid

Igniting Brilliance

“Suzie started reading when she was a toddler, Billy was talking by 18 months, Bobby walked super early, and little Mary plays violin like a pro!”

How many times have you heard another parent crow about their fabulous children? Maybe you’ve done it yourself. As parents, it’s hard to reign in our bursting pride for our little ones’ accomplishments. But it’s especially hard when those milestones imply something more; that is, that our children are intelligent, athletic, musical — basically, so much brighter and smarter than all those other kids. Or at least we like to think so.

But, hold on a minute: is an early reader really more brilliant than the next child? Just because she identifies letters and puts them together into sounds, how is she in other subjects like math or science? Can she carry a tune? What is it that makes a person intelligent by today’s standards?


The marketing is everywhere: Baby Einstein, LeapPad, Your Baby Can Read, the educational media for children abound. But is there really any evidence that they work? Perhaps your children were exposed to all these brain-stimulating activities, but they’re still only above-average, certainly not the geniuses the products subtly implied they would become. In fact, two years ago, Disney offered refunds to millions of parents who had bought Baby Einstein videos in the hopes of turning their infants into mini, well, Einsteins. The videos were discredited, in part because the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that children younger than two never watch TV. Never? Not even for 30 minutes while you’re making dinner? What’s a parent to do? Perhaps a little screen time is not going to permanently damage your baby’s developing brain, but the point is that there are better ways to stimulate a child’s mind.

Which begs the question: what does it mean to be smart? A high IQ is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Someone else might go on to include people who do well in school and graduate at the top of the class; music lovers would put someone like Mozart on the list (while there’s no doubt he was a musical genius, no one really knows if he had a high IQ). How about athletes or chess players? They have to hone skills of precision, memory, and accuracy in their fields, but do they have to be at the top of the IQ range to excel? Even Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of the modern age, couldn’t manage in school and drop out at an early age. So who’s to say what is smart and what isn’t? It all depends on the definition of intelligence.


Many experts measure intelligence as a person’s IQ or intelligence quotient. At its most basic level, IQ is simply a test score. That is a test designed to assess intelligence. IQ itself represents only raw intellectual material – nothing more.

By definition, the “average” IQ score is 100. A score can range anywhere above or below 100, but most of the time, it will fall between 50 and 150. Half of the general population has an IQ between 90 and 110. Twenty-five percent of the population ranks above that average and 25 percent are below. Among that top 25 percent, only 2 percent of people test above 130. It’s no surprise that IQ can be an indicator of a person’s future career, as people in the highest ranges often go on to become physicians, lawyers, engineers, and scientists.

Yet some experts say IQ testing is not completely accurate. Case in point: the average IQ scores for every modern industrialized population around the world rose about three points per decade throughout the 20th century. Some question whether that has to do with an actual increased intelligence in the world population or changes in the test. Most are leaning toward the latter. In fact, if you applied the IQ values of today’s tests to the scores from 1932, the average American would have had an IQ of only 80.

Another problem is that, even today, there isn’t one all-encompassing IQ test; there are several. Some concentrate on reading, vocabulary, math, spatial imagery and memory, while others are verbal or visual; still others test only abstract-reasoning.

Many people still hold IQ testing as the gold standard, because there is a correlation between IQ and school achievement. IQ and verbal skills at age 3 can predict future success in math, reading and language through 3rd grade.

But is IQ something we’re born with or can it be improved upon? Yes, and to some extent, yes. We all start out with a general level of intelligence: our IQs are basically recorded in our genetic makeup. But psychologist Jerome Sattler believes IQ is influenced by a number of external factors, too, like our parents’ IQs and level of education, the IQs of our best friends, and the quality of the home environment, schools, teachers, and the community.

Still, some question just how much you can improve upon genetics. Barbara Koch has taught Kindergarten for more than 25 years and hundreds of children have passed through her classroom. She believes parents and teachers can certainly educate and inform children, but she’s not sure whether it has anything to do with raising IQ. “I do think that kids are born with a certain mentality,” she says. “You couldn’t take a child that would normally have a 100 IQ and make him have 140 by doing anything.”

This is why some experts say when applying IQ testing to children, parents and educators need to be cautious. The scoring for an IQ test is complicated at best, and results often are dependent on how many questions the test taker actually answers — not to mention the fact that a single individual may score differently each time he takes the test. Critics add that labeling kids is never a good idea. Is a child with an IQ of 111 in the high-average category really much smarter than one with a so-called “average” IQ of 109? True intelligence must measure the individual as a whole, taking into account the person’s upbringing and experiences.

For instance, children from lower socio-economic circumstances may never have the opportunity to develop to their full potential due to the stress and neglect they may experience at home. Conversely, parents who stimulate their children from an early age often have kids who do much better in school and score higher on tests. Each group of children may have been born with similar IQs, but it’s how that intelligence is harnessed and honed that makes the difference.

Which brings us back to the question, what is intelligence? Psychologist Howard Gardner published a theory in 1983 in which he identified seven areas of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. In later writings, he added a natural intelligence and possibly an existential intelligence. In essence, Gardner believed that people can be intelligent in different disciplines. In fact, he said that all people possess these eight or nine intelligence, but because everyone is different and has different experiences throughout life, these bits of intelligence will be expressed in different ways.


And that’s where EQ comes into play: emotional intelligence. Equally fundamental to learning, and critical to school success, EQ measures a student’s confidence, self-control, curiosity, and ability to communicate and cooperate. Many people believe developing EQ is just as important as IQ, and possibly the one area in which parents can have the most influence.

“One major distinction between IQ and EQ is that EQ is much less genetically loaded, providing an opportunity for parents and educators to pick up where nature left off in determining a child’s chances of success,” writes child psychologist Dr. Lawrence Shapiro in his book How to Raise a Child with a high EQ: A Parent’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence. Enhancing EQ is as simple as spending time with your children, engaging them in play and conversation, nurturing them, reinforcing good behavior, disciplining appropriately and consistently, promoting a positive attitude, and teaching kids to control their anger and resolve conflicts on their own.

Gaining that kind of emotional knowledge is a key component of the learning environment at the Khabele School, a private college preparatory school in Austin. Occupational Therapist Willow Dea is a Board member there and the editor of the recently published book Igniting Brilliance, which compiles first-person narratives from teachers worldwide who have successfully engaged children in learning in their classrooms. Many times that’s done by tapping into the emotional intelligence of children. “A lot of the kids who come here have come from programs that didn’t work for them,” Ms. Dea says. “Either they weren’t challenging enough or they weren’t the right challenge. What we see that changes their experience is… really the culture of the school.”

At Khabele, students are enveloped in a safe, relaxed environment where they feel empowered to ask questions and fear nothing. Meditation and grounding are part of the daily routine. In this way, the door is opened for their minds to receive information, regardless of the actual intelligence they bring to the classroom. Ms. Dea believes that teachers who meet the emotional needs of the students and bring a passion for their subject matter will find that everything else falls into place.

“A huge part of creating brilliant kids is having teachers who understand what to look for, how to be, and how to consider all of these abilities,” she says. “It’s not about content. It’s about context.”

Students thrive, she says, with teachers who “show up in a room that’s challenging, and take a breath and feel the earth and look at these kids as a fresh new day, and offer them something that’s meaningful and purposeful and relevant… in a way that works for them.”


With that in mind, you can’t blame a parent for wanting to enhance some of that natural intelligence in their children, whether IQ or EQ, public school, private school, or home school. So how do parents go about doing this?

“To me, the things to make your kid smarter are not sitting them in front of a screen,” says Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Koch. “There’s more benefit in reading poetry and nursery rhymes, making games out of the sounds… doing activities like that that are interactive, that is fun. There is nothing fun about flashcards.”

That’s because children need interpersonal experiences to flourish and computers offer none of that. Dr. David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family and author of the newly released book Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids: The One Brain Book You Need to Help Your Child Grow Brighter, Healthier, and Happier, explains that IQ may be in the hard wiring, but parents have plenty of control over the soft wiring: the experiences a child has that make connections in the brain. “We need to give our kids’ brains plenty of opportunities to ‘practice’ the things they need to thrive, from connection to impulse control to exploration to language,” he says.

So how does a parent go about igniting this kind of brilliance in their children? It’s surprisingly simple: interact with them. (See sidebar: 10 Easy Ways to Make Your Kids “Brilliant”.) Not so surprising, however, is that reading to kids tops the list of brain boosters.


Of course, encouraging parents to read to their kids early and often brings us back to the questions surrounding “early reading”, that all-important milestone that pits parents against parents in the competition to have the smartest child. Is an early reader really more intelligent? Is it even a good idea to teach your child to read before they enter school? Can every child learn to read early?

Certainly, language plays a huge role in a child’s ability to decipher words on a page. The amount of conversation a child hears in the first three years of life is a great predictor of future reading success. But no matter how much prestige it may bring to you as the proud parent of a reading toddler, whether your child reads early may not be up to you at all. Many children pick up sounds and phonics naturally with very little help from their parents. These are the kids who can read every word on a page and understand most of it. But not all kids can do that. Ms. Koch says a child’s developmental stage may be the real indicator of his ability to read early. Sometimes it takes a while for the light bulb to turn on. “You can’t make a child learn to read,” she points out. “They are going to read on their own time when their little brains are ready.”

So what if your child doesn’t read until —gasp!— the end of Kindergarten? That’s when kids are supposed to start reading. (And don’t forget, all you 40-something parents out there: back in the day, reading didn’t begin until first grade.)

Keep in mind, simply reading words on a page isn’t everything. True reading comprehension develops with age. Anyone with an elementary student knows that up until about the fourth grade, kids are learning to read, but after that, they have to read to learn. That is, they have to be able to pick up a geography book and truly process and remember the information. And by that age, teachers would be hard-pressed to pick out the early readers from everyone else.

But for all you academic hard-core parents, remember that just because a child isn’t reading by the time he enters Kindergarten, it doesn’t make him any less smart. Mrs. Koch is quick to point out that “Children that I know who have read early, the parents have said, ‘I didn’t do anything to make them read. They just started reading.’”

And isn’t that the way parenting is? No matter how hard we try, our children are their own little individual selves. Whether they’re great in calculus, average soccer players or terrible singers, there’s only so much we can do to mold them into what we want them to be. Because in the end, they are who they are, nothing more and certainly nothing less. And they are all “brilliant” in their own way.

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