"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.”
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.