Thursday, March 15, 2007

Can you boost your kid's IQ?

The popular press likes to promote the idea of the pushy, hovering parent doing everything possible to get a child into Harvard from birth -- see all the talk of Hothouse Kids and the like over the past year. This is a misleading stereotype; most parents are focused on simply getting through the day without major crises, and have not developed a philosophy on why Baby Einstein is better than Barbie. But there is a certain subset that apparently believes, rather egotistically, that their children's later success rides on their early parenting decisions.

For instance, I recently came across a book, by neurologist David Perlmutter, called "Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten." Dr. Perlmutter says that 30 IQ points are at stake between birth and kindergarten, and he has the activities you should do with your kids to maximize their allotment. Frankly, I'm not sure why birth is the beginning point, except that it's hard to interest a fetus in flashcards. An industry of womb music has sprung up for parents looking to get a jump start on all this after putting two and two together. You see, babies remember music they hear after 20 weeks gestation, according to this article, and countless elementary school science fair projects have shown that plants grow better when exposed to classical music. So in theory, playing Mozart to a child, in utero, should make him smarter later. Except there's absolutely no evidence of this. Research is even showing that breast-feeding, long thought to increase IQ, actually doesn't.

That's not to say that parents have no effect on a child's intelligence beyond their genes. Studies on adoption have shown that while adopted children with lower IQs don't match their new families' IQ scores, they do get a major boost. This boost is enough to take children from the borderline mental retardation level to just a bit on the lower side of normal. This has a huge payoff in terms of what kinds of jobs and what kind of life the child will be able to manage later on.

But the evidence is not so clear on what well-educated parents can do to raise the IQ scores of their already well-loved, well-stimulated children. Nor is it clear that a mildly higher IQ score -- beyond a certain level -- will do much to enhance a child's success later in life. As the "Praise" post a few weeks ago discussed, there's much to be said for self-reliance. For a child to develop that, a parent has to do one of the hardest things possible in our competitive culture -- step back and let the little one succeed or fail on his own.

It's human nature to want to believe that things are within our power that aren't. But it doesn't help gifted kids to have society believe that parents just hothoused them from conception to age five. As one mom told us in Genius Denied, she saw a father out jogging with his son, shouting multiplication tables back and forth to be sure the boy learned them. "Sam just learned them," this mom says of her own kid. "I didn't have to do a thing." Gifted children are a gift, often a complicated one, for sure, but not a reward for doing the right number of flashcards. Discussions of gifted education would benefit from a wider realization of this truth.


Lisa said...

Very well written Laura! If the parents who want to raise their child's IQ could only spend a day with my extremely gifted son, they'd stop all efforts! :)

He was going to be gifted regardless of how his environment I believe.

Anonymous said...

My son is not extremely gifted, whatever that definition is. He was tested to be highly gifted, then retested two years later with a further gain of 2 percentage points. Now how much do I take credit for that gain? A lot, I'd say, a credit I am ready to share with his school.

A Nature+Nurture believer, I believe a good fabric needs to be worked on with care and diligence. I continue to advocate for special educational provisions for my son, so he can pursue knowledge at his own pace and doesn't tune out of learning in school. I also follow his interest and supply him with related books and CD ROMs at home. My aim is not to lift his IQ score by a point a year, but to do my best to prevent him from underachieving his good potentials. There is after all a huge difference between being gifted regardless, and being a gifted achiever.

To all other parents, what you do and don't do for your kids do count. We can only support them in every way we can, the rest is up to them.

SteveH said...

"The popular press likes to promote the idea of the pushy, hovering parent doing everything possible to get a child into Harvard from birth -- see all the talk of Hothouse Kids and the like over the past year."

Helicopter parents. Very pejorative.

Of course, many of these labels come from those in education who set very low expectations and use very poor curricula and teaching methods. The correlation between high SES parents and children's success in school is only partly explained by IQ. Most of these parents do huge amounts of supplementing at home (or paying for tutors). This is not just to get little Johnnie or Suzie into Harvard. It has to do with making sure their kids have a decent BASIC education and can make it into the honors track in high school. I would love to see a study done about honors track kids and how much help they got outside of school. Our public schools have a curriculum gap between 8th grade and high school. It's a major shock for some parents when their 'A' student child starts getting bad grades in high school. This is not just an IQ or gifted issue. There are big philosophical differences of opinion over what constitutes a proper lower school education. Schools currently do not provide the education needed for most kids to reach their potential, whatever their IQ.

"As the "Praise" post a few weeks ago discussed, there's much to be said for self-reliance. For a child to develop that, a parent has to do one of the hardest things possible in our competitive culture -- step back and let the little one succeed or fail on his own."

This is a fine line, and for education, parents cannot leave it up to the schools. They have to set the line much higher. Parents have to take control. Many of the GATE programs I have seen are big, fuzzy time wasters. Play learning. So I disagree that it is a matter of stepping back. Parents must take charge. I remember a quote somewhere that said that all parents have to think of themselves as homeschoolers. The regular schools are only helpers. Parents must step forward, but this does not mean protecting kids from failure.

"Sam just learned them,"

My son (Sam) learns things very fast, but it's not magic. There has to be a plan. It may seem like a child "just learned them", but that isn't the case. When my son was five, I would leave out math worksheets and would give him a little bit of explanation. He loved them. He was (and is) a sponge for knowledge. By the way, his Kindergarten teacher was horrified that I was giving him (torturing him?) with math worksheets. He loved geography so we studied maps. He knew most countries, states and capitals in first grade. His teacher called it "superficial knowledge". It almost seems like some teachers don't like smart kids.

Please don't get hung up about IQ. The problem has to do with maximizing potential for all students. The problem in lower schools is that they have a fuzzy idea of education and they really, really, really don't like grouping kids by ability. So they keep them all together and then try to differentiate instruction. The problem is that this means NO ACCELERATION. They can't have it both ways and what many kids need is acceleration, not play-time enrichment learning.

Many GATE programs seem to exist as a "special needs" approach to get around this full-inclusion education philosophy. However, ALL students need to be able to move at their own pace, not just the gifted kids. There is no magic gap point in IQ where kids need a different kind of education. For most public schools, the expectations are very low and the IQ point where kids need more is very low. Some parents (very few) might get hung up about IQ, but most just want to maximize potential. The schools can't or won't do this, even for many non-GATE kids.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,
I did go to the link, curiosity peaked, and found this:

Any child can memorize his ABCs or learn to count if he is drilled long and hard enough, but these are not highly effective brain-building activities. It's far more important for the developing brain to learn the symbolic nature of letters and words than how to spell, as well as to fully understand what numbers mean and how to identify different shapes. You want your child to understand what these letters represent--that they are symbols and that they are made of shapes, and that numbers are also symbols made from shapes, and each of these symbols means something different.

Creativity is at the core of all problem solving, whether you are solving a math problem, writing an essay, or designing a science project. For example, if your child is confronted with a new challenge, such as a difficult math problem or a challenging essay question, what does he need to succeed? First, he must be comfortable with being in a novel and challenging situation. This comfort level is fostered during the first five years by allowing children to explore challenging situations, engage in creative play, and learn that failure is an option. In other words, it's okay to take intellectual risks. Next, his brain connections need to function at peak performance, allowing him to draw upon a variety of types of stored information from past experiences to find solutions to the new problem at hand. It could be solving a math problem, writing a song, reading a poem with understanding . . . it all requires creativity.

So I'm guessing the fellow wrote a reasonable "parent advice book" that is being hyped in the great tradition of capitalism, that is, lets get the money out of that market segment, any way we can, through fear and intimidations if necessary.

My evidence? The blurb itself strikes a much less reasonable tone: Between birth and age five, your child has up to thirty IQ points at stake. Scientists now know that the human brain is undergoing a constant and dramatic transformation in the first years of life. During this peak time of development, every activity and experience leaves an indelible mark on your baby’s brain, for better or worse. The right kind of stimulation and nutrition will create connections in the brain that promote intelligence and raise IQ. The wrong kinds of activities and foods can stifle intellectual development, destroy brain cells, and leave your child more vulnerable to learning or behavior problems down the road.

Parenting is a interesting job, in that it is unpaid and the only training offered is on the job. Also the hours are a bit long. If parents want to read books to give them ideas about how to help their child be secure, creative and physically active, I think that is terrific. At least this book isn't suggesting any flashcards!

Mom who doesn't have all the answers

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa -
You have a good point. I console myself with imagining all the parents that sign up for genetic engeneered genius offspring when that becomes availible. I'd love to be a fly on the wall of the complaint department when that day comes!

Hi "My son is not,"
IQ scores aren't that precise that they can be compared year to year, sorry.

I am glad to hear that your son seems to be learning stuff. That's unusual for a hightly gifted kid.

I agree that there "should" be some standardization in the termology for the range of gifted. But until then, we're stuck with this mess. I don't even like the word Gifted, but when I start calling my son a "highly able learner" and asking for a "developmentally appropriate school placement" (grade skip) I get blank looks - so I say "gifted" and "grade skip."

Parenting is hard work. parenting children with needs and developmental paths outside the norm is even more work. Hats off to all parents!


Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember the name of the book written in the 1980s by an Asian-American mother of 2 geniuses

I have 5 gifted kids out of my 7. I probably didn't do the best by them, in that I had 5 kids in 5 years and the only thing we did correctly was that my ex taught each one individually to read at age 4. Also, the tv broke when the oldest was 5, and I said enough! We couldn't get them to the park for their 4 hr play because "Pound Puppies (cartoon) is coming on!" So there was a lot of recreational reading going on at home. But they were in parochial schools, and had occasional weekend gifted activities at the local university, but that was it. My last 2 are in mostly gifted classes at the local public schools--a big improvement, I suppose.
Thus, I would like my own gifted kids to read this book when they are parents so that they don't emulate their parents' disasterous child-rearing practices.

Thanks for your help.

Anonymous said...

I should have previewed my entry. Did I make a few mistakes! First off, we got rid of the tv when my daughter was age 5, and I haven't gotten one since, 20 years later.
I will when my 7th grader gets into high school, I think.
Next, I read a book, The First 3 Years of Life and followed some of the stufff for my oldest 2, then when the 3rd was born, things just got insane, I was lucky to get to work on time.
I myself am a huge lover of reading, it gets me thru my anxious times in life as well as is just fun and entertaining--and yeah, educational. So I wanted readers, and was hugely successful, except for the 2 in the vry middle (#4 and #5) who were so neglected, and one of them was a very very smart baby, but just got TOTALLY ignored.

I wanted the title of the book by the Asian-American mom who had 2 babies who were geniuses. She did certain things in their first year of life to stimulate them.

And, please don't hate me, mom who doesnt have all the answers. Because of all my reading, I happen to know that it is "curiosity piqued" or "interest piqued". I think that might be a French word? I see "peaked" a lot these days, but I am old and have read a long time, I have only seen "piqued" in the books I have read. But--English is a living language, before long it probably will be "peaked"--it makes sense that your curiosity would reach a certain heightened level that would propel you toward that website, which I am also going to have to peak at, having read these interesting blogs. Thanks for the referral.


Mom who blew it but loves to read anyway

Anonymous said...

Whoops! I mean PEEK at. I gotta stop hitting the Submit button before I think about what I have written!

Anonymous said...

What does learning multiplicaiton tables at a young age have to do with intelligence?

What do we want kids to be able to do? I think we want them to have great memories, understand and be able to maneuver in social situations effectively, and have life-long curiosity and interest in learning. I must also put in a plug for lifelong reading for entertainment. Pehaps I have left out something, no doubt, I haven't studied this subject too intensively. And, we also want our kids to be kind to other people.

So, whatever we can do to instill/develop those things, we should do.

Those parents with kids in the above-average range are the ones looking for the way to loft their kids standardized test/IQ scores higher--just an ego thing. Instead, they should look at what their kids are naturally good at, and go after exposing their kids to experiences in that area of study. Often, that what you have native talent for is that which you want to pursue as a job/career some day. This idea of exposing kids to all kinds of things is essential when they are young, before age 10. But you should also be attentive to what they are just naturally good at during this exploration. After 10, the die really is cast, and if they resist some areas of learning and embrace others, hey, that's their calling and you can't do anymore than you have already done. Let them be who they are at this point.