(Parenting.com) -- From Mozart in the womb to Chinese lessons in preschool, there are many parents eager to give their kids a jump-start on the sort of smarts our modern-day lifestyle equates with success. Sure, we talk about too much pressure, overscheduling, test stress, why can't kids just be kids anymore, dang it. But few of us are immune to the competitiveness that seems to have gripped every playground and preschool birthday party in America.
Foreign languages are the new ABC's, kindergarten is the new second grade, 90 is the new 80. "I remember sitting in a play area with another mom when my son was a toddler. The other mom was crowing: 'My child knows the whole alphabet. She can count to twenty,'" recalls Kimberly Brenneman, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research and education adviser on PBS's "Sid the Science Kid" -- clearly no academic slouch herself. "I knew my boy would learn all that eventually. But there was still that part of me that said 'Crap! Why can't I say that about my child?'"
Somehow, in spite of this genius-mania, U.S. students are struggling to keep up with their international peers. Our children's performance lags behind as we watch countries like Finland, Singapore, and South Korea churn out the next generation of math and science whizzes, the very skills our new digitally driven landscape requires. Where have we miscalculated when it comes to smartening up our kids? And when we say that a child is smart, what do we mean?
Sometimes it's simply that she started talking early, or that she wrote her name when others her age could barely wield a crayon. But other times... it's that je ne sais quoi. The kid has it: a curious, intuitive, natural maturity that makes her stand out.
Last fall, when Steve Jobs, the renowned head of Apple and the brains behind the most prized of digital tools, passed away, pundits around the world sought to define exactly what made him so brilliant. The answers they often came up with seemed grayer than the computer boxes Jobs so magically transformed. However you perceive intelligence, the assumption about those who possess it is that they will ace not only tests but life.
But can it be measured? And what can you do to help your child get it?
First things first: "Genius" is a cultural term. There is no statistical definition of genius. Even the well-known international high-IQ society Mensa's stringent testing identifies not "geniuses" but, rather, people whose ability and creativity put them in the top 2 percent of the population. A more common -- and politically correct -- term in the world of education is "gifted." Many schools have a "gifted and talented" program, but how many kids actually belong in them? According to the National Association for Gifted Children, about 6 percent of U.S. children.
Other experts find this number to be on the generous side. "Gifted children are very rare...in your average classroom, there will be none," notes Michelle Rhee, CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, an organization devoted to improving our public schools at the grassroots level, and former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. "My daughter is in a class for 'gifted and talented.' Twenty percent of her grade is in this class. Hmm... twenty percent of the population is not gifted."
The special classes can start as early as kindergarten, and making the cut usually depends upon both observation of the child and the results of several commonly used "school ability" or reasoning tests geared to young kids. Some parents also enlist the help of child psychologists to determine giftedness, often through IQ testing.
The Lowdown on Testing
Standardized tests given in public elementary schools measure how much of the state-mandated subject matter taught up to that point has been learned. IQ tests, on the other hand, are more about logic and reasoning ability. "They measure a child's ability to find solutions to problems. The results very much show how much practice the child has had...how often he's had a chance to solve a similar problem before," explains Frank Lawlis, Ph.D., American Mensa's supervisory psychologist and author of "The IQ Answer." Yet many experts say both types of tests can be poor indicators of a child's true ability.
"What if the child didn't get a good night's sleep or is getting over a cold? Maybe the room is too hot or the kid next to him is fidgeting and distracting him?" notes Vivian Kirkfield, former Head Start and kindergarten teacher and author of "Show Me How! Building Your Child's Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking." Standardized tests are just one gauge of student achievement and should never be used as the lone measure, adds Dennis Van Roekel, National Education Association president.
"Performance on a single test actually tells you very little about your child. We all know -- parents and teachers -- that our children are much more than a test score." In other words, tests are only one tool in the toolbox. "Do you need a hammer to build a house? Yes, but you can't build a house using only a hammer," Van Roekel notes.
Even Lawlis admits that an IQ score in the highest range is limited in how much it can predict about future success. It can be more helpful to look at what tests can't illuminate: the ability to appreciate the perspective of others, self-control, and persistence -- traits that are crucial to school and life achievement. "Kindergarten teachers are more concerned about kids who are behind in social and emotional markers like those than academic ones," notes Brenneman, who has done extensive research on early cognitive development. "It's about much more than math, science, and language skills."
The Power of a Parent
Steve Jobs' adoptive dad taught him rudimentary electronics as a kid. It seems likely that he couldn't have imagined how that time would pay off. Perhaps we all have the potential to work miracles. Intelligence is 49 percent genetic and 51 percent stimulation, says Lawlis. Other experts agree that, if anything, environment (read: parental influence) has the edge.
"We assume smart kids are born smart and you can tell practically out of the womb," says Rhee. "But I've seen it over and over again: You think a child will be a superstar...and he isn't. Or a child who was written off achieves tremendous things." It is a close call, as Brenneman points out: "It may be genetic -- or maybe he's been learning from you." Here's what you can do to help your child not only get better grades but have more enthusiasm for learning.
Talk, talk, talk Ask your kid open-ended questions, like "What would happen if we stopped for ice cream on the way to the beach?" Such questions help a child reflect on what he knows and tell him his opinion matters. Don't worry if he's too young to understand. Likewise, don't be afraid to use relatively sophisticated words, notes Brenneman. He may not understand them, but he will figure it out if the words are used multiple times in context.
John Shotter, a dad in Seaford, New York, makes it a top priority to talk to his son, Jack, 2, through daily activities. "We talk tools! I show him how the T-square, drill, measuring tape, and hammer work." The results are pretty impressive, reports Jack's mom, Melissa. "He honestly knows the name of every tool, as well as materials like Sheetrock, Spackle, and drop cloth. He's also learning measuring, right and left from turning a screwdriver, and colors from paint."
Read, read, read
Research has repeatedly shown that access to books and one-on-one reading time is a predictor of school success. "Reading stimulates the brain to make connections and builds background knowledge about the world," says Kim Davenport, chief program officer at Jumpstart, a national early-literacy organization.
"Reading is the foundation of all learning and will enable a child to absorb and apply content from all areas, including math and science." Modeling good reading habits may give him an edge. "Seeing his parents reading for enjoyment will be contagious," says Davenport. Invite your child to cozy up on the couch with you to read. Keep books out -- in baskets, on shelves, and on coffee tables. And share what you're reading with your child, and ask him to do the same. This will not only spark conversation but build his vocabulary and comprehension.
Stick-to-itiveness is a quality that will endear your child to teachers -- and employers. We as a culture are so busy making kids feel good that we've lost sight of the time it takes for them to actually become good, says Rhee. "My kids both play soccer, and both stink. But judging by the trophies and ribbons that line their room, you'd think I had the next Mia Hamm here," she notes. It's hard to accept failure if you're constantly told you're the best. When these kids go to school and get a problem wrong, they think "It can't be me."
Giving the right props is key, says Stephanie Rosales, a licensed educational psychologist in La Quinta, California: "Children who are praised for solving a problem tend to be more motivated in school than children who are told they're smart. The latter, ironically, often become frustrated when something doesn't come easily." So instead of giving broad praise ("You're a star!"), give kudos for accomplishments ("I'm proud of how you found a different way to get the answer"). And if you're going to hold up a gold standard, make sure it's truly gold. Say "You're almost there. Keep trying."
Preschoolers very nearly glow with curiosity. But sometimes kids lose that as they get older, says Brenneman. Keep them excited by honing in on what interests them. If you ask questions about what they're playing with or talking about -- "Yes, even if it's 'Pokémon,' as it was with my son," says Brenneman -- you've initiated a give-and-take that will pay off in a smarter kid. Your child will ask questions and look for more good stuff to share in return. Take time to turn your kid on to what you're excited about: Check out a museum or watch an interesting show together, and tell your child what you like about it and why. Rich Braun, a dad of two in East Islip, New York, used to work weekends. So to be able to share his interests with his son, Erik, when he was in elementary school, he occasionally pulled him out of school to visit a museum. His teachers always agreed, since the next day he told the class what he had learned. "Erik felt like the expert for a day, which over the years boosted his confidence and eagerness to learn more," says Braun.
Seize teachable moments
You can help your child sharpen school skills as you go about your day. Say you drive by a windmill. Instead of saying "Hey, a windmill!" ask a question: "What do you think they do?" Encouraging observation of details will help your child do the same in class, says Rosales. And a trip to the store can be a chance to build vocabulary, math skills, and money smarts. Tell a 2-year-old the names of fruits as you bag them. Ask a 3-year-old to find four cans of peas. Have a 5-year-old write down which cereal she wants. Older kids can compare prices and sizes, and sort coupons. Sarah Brown, a preschool teacher in Hollywood, Maryland, had her 2-year-old students paint with apples, bananas, and then skinny carrots. When her students advanced to the 4-year-old group, the teacher noticed that they had better prewriting skills than the new students.
Whether your child is advanced or average, the best thing you can do is be involved. Taking her on this journey of self-discovery is what'll drive her personal genius. In one word: What do you most want your kid to be? Happy? Funny? Confident? Loved? We're betting "Valedictorian" didn't pop to mind. Your goal is to help your child be the best he or she can be, right? If you've read this far, you're both well on your way.
Thanks, Steve: Lessons from the Apple icon to pass on to your kids.
1. Love what you do. Clearly, passion fueled his genius, and he had his parents to thank. Paul and Clara Jobs raised him in a supportive but hands-off environment. When kids are allowed to experiment, creativity flows.
2. Think different. He never accepted the status quo. Next time your kid has a project to do, help her brainstorm at least two other ways to attack it besides the first thing that pops to mind.
3. Get it right. Jobs' perfectionism fueled anticipation for his covetable products. Resist temptation to gush flattery to your child for every "OK" job; he'll learn stick-to-itiveness.
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