In Which Zontar the Enormous Opines on the Topic of Giftedness

(For the origins of the title, see this post.)

I know this will come as a shock to many of you, but I was an… unusual kid. I spontaneously started reading when I was 18 months old. By the time I was 5, I was reading on an eighth-grade level. For those of you who prefer more standardized data, various estimates have put my IQ anywhere between 166 and 190, depending on the day, my age, and the test — and yeah, I know IQ is a bogus measure in many ways, but bear with me, because the point isn’t how bright I was, but how bright my parents were.

You see, when the folks in Nashville in 1971 found out I was … unusual… they called my parents and basically suggested I get the Doogie Howser  treatment. Years later, my folks told me that apparently someone had suggested a program at Vanderbilt, but I don’t know if such a program existed or was merely someone’s brainstorm, and in any case, the issue was moot, as Mom and Dad said not only that they weren’t going for that, but that no, I wouldn’t be skipping any grades at all, and I was going to attend my neighborhood school like the rest of the kids in my neighborhood. Their reasoning? As Mom said, “We figured you’d have your whole life to be smart, but you only get one chance to be a kid.”

This is something I’ve tried to keep in mind as the father of a remarkably gifted kid. On the one hand, when she tells me about being bored at school, or about telling jokes and using terms that none of her peers get, I remember exactly what she’s talking about, and the sense of ostracism I felt at her age. On the other hand, I’ve pointed out to her that life involves a wide variety of people, and one of the things you have to be able to do is deal with that variety,  understanding that different people have different abilities and perspectives, but that they’re still people with hopes, needs, fears, and dreams — and that there’s stuff we can learn from all of them (even if it’s how not to be).

Now, like all parents, I want the Spawn to have a better life than mine, and I try to advise her not to repeat some of the mistakes I made — many of which involved my own lack of self-discipline and my unwillingness to do things that didn’t interest me. At the same time, though, I try to remember my folks’ wisdom, that she only gets one chance to be a kid. Consequently, we’ve never pressed MondoSpawn into activities. Our only rule has been that if she chooses an activity, she has to stay with it until the “season” (typically a school year) is over. At the end of that time, she can walk away if she wants to, and she has on several occasions. Since she’s not a big joiner, this means she spends lots of time reading, writing, and drawing, and she’s very good at all of those, especially for her age. In that regard, we’ve encouraged her to be the intellectual version of the “free-range kid“, although I sometimes have to remind myself that there’s a difference between laziness and disinterest — just as my folks had to with me; both they and I had various level of success.

Now, my point in all this was to introduce an interesting article that ran at Slate last week. Emily Yoffe examines a new movie, Race to Nowhere, a first effort at documentary filmmaking by Vicki Abeles, a lawyer with three kids. Her contention is that it’s too easy for parents (especially of a certain — elite/elitist — type and class) to buy into the Tiger Mom myth that we’ve heard so much about lately, and to thrust their kids into the Red Queen’s Race. The result is a realm of overscheduled, overstressed parents and (especially) kids. It’s kind of like when someone stands up in the first row at a concert or a ball game. As a consequence, the folks behind them have to stand, which means the folks behind them have to stand, and so on. Ultimately, everyone winds up having to stand, even though no one really gets a better view.

One key point Abeles makes is that one of the things that puts the Red Queen’s Racers into full panic mode is the specter of our/America’s kids being passed/humiliated by kids from elsewhere on standardized tests. Now, Robert Weissberg has made some interesting points about why that is, but as Abeles observes:

[W]e’ve never led the world in test scores: “We’ve led the world in innovation.”

And that, in turn, leads me back to my parents, and my efforts to balance my worldly hopes for the Spawn with my spiritual/emotional hope for her to have the most joyous life available in our postlapsarian world. It’s a balance that’s important to remember, but easy to forget in a culture panting down our necks. But she’ll have all her life to be smart. This is her only chance to be 14.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Family, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to In Which Zontar the Enormous Opines on the Topic of Giftedness

  1. Andrew Stevens says:

    Reputable IQ tests (administered one-on-one by a psychologist) don’t actually have such scores. Stanford-Binet (16 SD IQ) has a ceiling score of 160 and Wechsler (15 SD IQ) has a ceiling score of 150.

    • profmondo says:

      Yeah, I know — between my own experience and the Spawn’s, I’ve done a fair amount of reading about this stuff. At the extremes of the Bell, the tests break down — hence the 24-point(!) variation in g I describe. Frankly, it doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m not a Mensan, Promethean Society member, or any of that crap — even as insecure as I am, I don’t really require that sort of validation. And my IQ (whatever it is) isn’t something I’ve done; it’s just something I have. I had no more control over it than I did over my eye color.

      For an even more important point, I turn once more to my dad, who said, “An IQ is like the number on the outside of the measuring cup. Whether you fill the cup with flour or [manure] is up to you.” I hope for flour. As ever, Andrew, thanks for dropping by!

  2. Kate P says:

    I appreciate your post on this, Prof. I’m still struggling to forgive my parents for letting me languish in an incredibly awful parochial school (after a nightmare transfer done mostly for religious education reasons). I don’t know my IQ but I started reading at an early age too (although about twice yours). . . I know I was tested and my parents know the results but they won’t tell me. My mom to this day still seems scared/shocked/uncomfortable, and will not talk about it.

    Is it better to know? I wonder what I’m going to do if/when (God willing) I have kids. And if you know, how do you walk that fine line of keeping “normalcy”/encouraging giftedness? It’s interesting to read what you do with the Spawn.

    • profmondo says:

      I know that some folks get really hinky about IQ, and I think some of that is because they don’t really understand it. For one thing, as I mentioned (and Andrew underscored), for extreme values, the numbers really don’t work so well anymore.

      When I was very young — x<7 — my parents and my pediatrician sat down with me in his office, and the doctor explained how the Bell Curve worked, and showed me that I was over in this section for size (99th %ile), which meant that I was bigger than almost all other kids my age (which I had kind of noticed), and much bigger than most. Then he explained that I was even farther to the right for intelligence, which meant I would be really good at learning things. That was all I knew for a few years, until I got a few looks at my school files, and until I was tested for a gifted program in junior high school. And that was really enough for me — I knew there were things I could do really well (although for most of my adolescence, they were things my peer group disdained), and so I did those things. And as painful as parts of my youth and adolescence were, as I met gifted kids who were skipped grades and such, they didn’t seem any happier than I was. If anything, they were even greater misfits than I was, because there’s a difference between intellectual ability and emotional maturity.

      Did I know I was different? Absolutely, and even had I not figured it out, the other kids were more than happy to make it clear — I had some friends, but I was definitely an outlier — and if anything, I dove into that status, in a “You think I’m weird? I’ll show you weird!” kind of way. I think in some ways, that taught me that I shouldn’t worry about what was “normal”, and instead I started thinking in terms of what was “normal-for-me.” I’ve never really had much protective coloration, so I’ve just always been me; I don’t have any experience being anyone else. Likewise, I’m not terribly worried about what’s normal as much as I am what’s normal-for-the-Spawn.

      That’s kind of the approach my folks took, too. Mom told me that people would ask her what it was like to be my mom. She said, “It’s like being an eight-year-old’s mom. He’s smart, but he’s still an 8-year-old.” Yeah, they made sure there was always stuff for me to read, and Dad would take me along to his college courses at night and let me read his textbooks, but they also let me play football, listen to rock and roll, and watch Gilligan’s Island and Bugs Bunny. If there were things they thought I might like, they exposed me to them, and they didn’t talk down to me, but they didn’t force anything on me either.

      They also were pretty laissez-faire about letting me read or listen to whatever I wanted to — they trusted me to make good decisions, and I trusted them enough to ask questions about the stuff I didn’t understand. Sometimes this got kind of odd — I was reading Henry Miller when I was 14, and when I was in fourth grade, a book on famous murders I found had a post-mortem shot of Sam Sheppard’s wife that gave me nightmares for a while — but I’d like to think I’m a reasonably functional member of society. Since it worked for me, that’s pretty close to the approach I take with MondoSpawn as well — although since the culture has coarsened over the intervening decades, I’ve maybe been more restrictive than my folks were (she can read anything she likes, but she doesn’t watch South Park, for example). When she’s curious about stuff, she asks me or Mrs. M. So far, so good, I hope. Being a parent is almost always a case of playing by ear, but it’s a tune I’m familiar with from my own experience.

      So to your question about normalcy and giftedness, we don’t really think in those terms as much as we think about giving her the resources she needs to find and follow her interests and (we hope) be a happy person. Hope that helps.

      • Kate P says:

        Definitely helpful. (And don’t get me wrong, my parents were extremely supportive of my reading and let me read anything I wanted, too.) After I transferred, I kept in touch with one of my former classmates–we were in the accelerated reading group together. My old school did end up having her skip 8th grade.

        I was annoyed at first that I didn’t get to skip 8th grade (Leave all those bullies behind? No three days on the same freaking lesson? Sign me up!) like she did, but I don’t think she was ready for high school. I mean, she did fine grades-wise but I was not a fan of the company she fell in with. I think they took advantage of both her immaturity and her inherent good-naturedness. So I definitely would’ve been in over my head in the same situation.

        I’m glad the Spawn feels she can go to her parents and ask questions. That’s wonderful. I tend to feel sorry when I see kids in cars and their parents are talking on the phone non-stop–never talking to the kids in the car. That was good conversation time for us.

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