Why We Need to Redefine Intelligence

A radio interview confirms her experience as a mother with a child labeled as "average." 

by Elizabeth Titus • More.com Member { View Profile }

In her 19 years of life, my daughter — I write “my” and not “our” because her adoptive father died of melanoma when she was 13 — has had way too many opportunities to show her resilience. She struggled academically, but her superior athletic skills made up for this; she played nearly every varsity sport and was captain of many teams. Competitive, to be sure, but also compassionate. I'll never forget the time her team's soccer goalie fumbled and allowed a ball through the goal. My daughter was the first to embrace the girl and tell her it didn’t matter.

During testing season in junior and senior years of high school, I did what other parents do in the affluent Connecticut town where we live: the best tutors, prep classes, test runs. Her tutor was sensitive and smart enough to know that she should not suffer through the SATs, opting instead for the ACTs. My daughter took the ACT three times and scored nearly the same each time: in the average range. After the third try, I told her enough of these tests.

She had a good choice of colleges — not the Ivies, but very good — and chose the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. She knew she wanted to major in communications and ultimately work as a digital or social media strategist. She mastered Adobe Flash in high school, designing layouts for the yearbook, and at Ithaca, she surprised me by getting mostly As and Bs — even in microeconomics and statistics.

“It’s because all I do is study, Mother,” she told me after her first semester. “There is nothing else to do in Ithaca.”

During her January break, she told me she wanted to try again for her first college choice, Emerson in Boston. I said, “Go for it! Life is short.”

To be safe, she applied to four colleges: Emerson, Simmons, Northeastern, and Boston University. And she enrolled in the summer communications school internship at BU. By the time her fourth acceptance arrived, in June, she had decided to go to Emerson, but when she called me to say BU had accepted her as a transfer that fall, I was ecstatic.

“Do you realize that BU has become one of the most selective colleges there is?” I asked her. “And you did it. You got in!”

“Yes, Mother, it does feel good to be wanted,” she admitted.

This is a young woman who had a 3.0 GPA in high school and average standardized test scores. But she has something perhaps even more important, in abundant supply — grit.

I was at the Balducci’s grocery store in Westport, Connecticut the other day when the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates approached me. We chatted, and when I told her my child was settled in Boston, working as an intern for a start-up company in the Etsy mold, and earning college credits at BU, she was surprised.

“My daughter, who finished her freshman year at Dartmouth,” she told me, “hasn’t even decided on a major.”

I recall her daughter as absolutely lovely, an athlete and a scholar, someone destined to go far. She was always known as “smart” — indeed, really, really smart. It ran in her family.

I think of Scott Barry Kaufman and how he argues for reframing what it means to be smart. Yes, the Dartmouth student is smart, but so is my daughter. There are many kinds of smart, and in fact, it’s a moving target, a function of engagement. My daughter is blessed because she engaged on an academic and career path early on, and that changed the odds for her. But she was labeled from too early an age as “not smart,” or rather, “average,” when she is anything but. It harms our children to give them labels and then assume their life potential based on them. I’m all for books that work toward changing this practice and applaud both authors.

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