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 }

"This is my daughter he’s describing," I think as I listen to cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman on The Leonard Lopate show on NPR affiliate station WNYC (June 6, 2013). He is telling the truth about how wrong it is to label our children at a very young age (Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Basic Books, 2013).

“I’m average, Mom,” my daughter would tell me as she struggled through high school. Ninth grade was the worst.

“Why do you say that?” I’d ask.

“Because that’s what the test results say,” she’d reply. “Get over it, Mom!”

“LSAT, MCAT, ACT, SAT, GPA, IQ,” Leonard Lopate intones at the opening of his show. “The higher the score, the smarter you are, the more likely you’ll be a success in life.” He is being drippingly ironic, as only he can be.

Scott Barry Kaufman knows from whence he speaks. He was relegated to special education as a child, and today he is adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University. He completed his doctorate at Yale, received an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge, and earned his undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University.

As Kaufman describes his own odyssey, I'm reminded of another book from another season, and the word, “grit.” When I heard Paul Tough (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, 2012) on NPR last September, I also thought of my daughter.

Paul Tough’s argument is similar to Kaufman’s: He refutes the idea that success comes to children who score highest on standardized tests, from pre-school admissions to the SATs. He argues for a different understanding of what makes a successful child, believing that the qualities that matter most have less to do with IQ and more to do with character and skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism. Both authors back up their arguments with research in genetics, neuroscience, ecomomics, and psychology.

My late husband and I adopted our daughter in China in 1994. She had been left on a cold street in a bleak city called Hefei at just a few days old and taken to a welfare institute, where she lived for nearly a year. During that time, she captured the attention of a nurse, who took her home some nights to play with her young son.

Our social worker back in New York City told us that this single incident likely helped determine our daughter’s fate. She learned to bond with a caregiver and interact with another child, while the other abandoned baby girls in the institute were often bound into their cribs for long hours. She knew how to please others from the start.

We were part of a group of 12 adoptive families that cold winter in Hefei, China, and our daughter stood out. While the other babies were underweight, timid, and afraid, our child was fearless. Within days, she was eating French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches in the hotel’s American-style restaurant.

Her adjustment to life in New York City with Caucasian parents — the first she had ever seen — was extraordinary. She entered day care at age three and never looked back. She was fully engaged, interested, outgoing, comfortable. Separation anxiety was never an issue.

New Yorkers that we were back then, we succumbed to the dreaded pre-school test for our daughter, the ERB. She scored, well, in the average range, but she was nonetheless accepted at the two highly competitive and coveted private schools in our neighborhood that she applied to — Ethical Culture School and Calhoun School. Why? I believe it was based on her interviews and those very qualities Tough lists in his book: grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism. I would add to the list, “resilience.”

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