Monday, July 30, 2007

Mensa-Wannabe Moms

The Savannah Morning News ran a humorous column called "Mommy I don't want to be a child prodigy" a few weeks ago. Columnist and new mom Anne Hart made fun of the British family that had their 2-year-old child (Georgia Brown) take the Mensa test. She passed and got in, which in theory could set off a lot of dithering among other parents. After all, we all want to believe our children are brilliant.

But personally, I've never understood the appeal of Mensa. It's so easily mocked (the Washington Post once put a note in the paper asking people to send in stories of Mensa members doing something really dumb -- the phrase "the wise man knows himself to be a fool" comes to mind). There's obviously something to be said for being around smart people socially. That's one of the reasons ability grouping is so important for kids. But with some careful career planning as an adult, you can work in an office of very smart people. With some careful social planning, your group of friends will share your intelligence. Kids can't choose their lives and choose who they spend their time with. Adults can. Which makes Mensa seem less necessary.

But I could be wrong! I'm curious if any readers of this blog have joined Mensa, thought about it, joined and quit, or what have you. Have your children ever expressed interest? Is there a place for a social organization made up of intelligent people? Or in this era of "bowling alone" is this another group that will lose clout?


Noshua said...

Hi Laura,

The only reason my sisters and I were ever tested (IQ, taking the SAT early) was to get into various gifted programs. My parents never showed us our results and made it a point never to tell us what our IQs are. I'm not sure why, but I think they wanted their parental opinion of our behavior and treatment of each other to matter more to our self-esteem than some external judgment.

An editor at a certain financial publication that used to employ me and you once suggested that I apply to Mensa and write a story about it. The problem was that my former school district no longer had my IQ test results and my GRE scores were too old. I couldn't be bothered to follow up because I have a life.

There's nothing wrong with wanting your child to excel. But taking all the tests in the world doesn't accomplish that, aside from helping you gain entrance to job or educational opportunities. That's why parents and kids who go after useless world records seem so idiotic to me. Unless you live in Manhattan, Mensa scores aren't going to help your 2 year old get into pre-school.

robin said...

First of all, I take anyone making fun of parents or children seriously. I don't think that it's ok, and I wrote the author to let her know my view.

Second, the author used the specific of Georgia Brown to attack the general case of "better baby" products. I agree wholeheartedly that the better baby products are misleading and pointless. But I call "Foul" at using Georgia Brown as any kind of example of the "better baby" products. To me it shows a lack of character to write a column making fun of a child in order to decry a social trend. Yes, Character is what we should be teaching our children if we want them to succeed in their lives, not trying to pump up their IQ scores by 5 points. The fact that parents in the US are worried about the severe differences between then "haves" and the "have nots" needs to be considered. Now I'm going to make a joke: Perhaps we should be marketing "better baby" product that strengthen Character rather than raise IQ. "Baby Mother Theresa" DVDs anyone? Or maybe we should ask Nickelodeon to add scenes to "Zack and Cody" where they show moral development?

As for testing a 2 year old - I think that is a parental decision. I think the benefit of testing is to help parents understand their child, and plan for the educational needs. I found the article from the British newspaper that featured Georgia Brown, and read the reader responses. My least favorite was "Nobody likes a smartie." That gives me chills.

BTW - I think that you are not correct about "careful career planning" being all that is needed to have intellectual peers in ones life. I did my career planning while I was still totally "in the dark" about my own intellectual needs - going from a town where "nobody likes a smartie" was clearly stated, to a university where all my favorite friends were much more accademically able than I was, so I didn't think I was really smart. I had never learned to study, and didn't shine, although I did learn, and I did "well enough." For the highest ends of the gifted tail, even university towns are not really going to provide a wide range of peers. Of course, neither will Mensa. I certianly know adults who are gifted who are lonelier than they should be, due to lack of planning for their social life.

BTW - all of my friends are gifted, usually in ability to care, but not all of them are intellectually gifted. I look for character first when choosing a social circle.


Anonymous said...

I applaud Robin’s response!


Anonymous said...


Firstly, Georgia Brown didn't sit the Mensa test as the IQ tests used by British Mensa aren't suited to testing children under about the age of 10 and a half. She would have been assessed by a qualified psychologist and their evidence that her IQ was in the top 2% of the population would have qualified her to join.

I sat the Mensa test when I was 18 as I was curious about my IQ. I joined when I was invited as I was curious about Mensa, really knowing nothing about it before joining other than the name and membership criteria. I didn't socialise with other members for a few years, just getting the magazine monthly and being too lazy to get around to cancelling the automatic payment I'd set up. After about 8 years of membership I went to one of the Mensa weekend gatherings and made a few friends. At each other event I attended after that I met up with a number of those friends and made a few more, and wish now that I hadn't waited those eight years. I met my (now) wife at a Mensa party almost 8 years ago (I've been a member for 19 years).

Part of what I enjoy about Mensa is the wide variety of backgrounds other people come from, that their range of ages gives them different experiences to influence their opinions and that the conversation isn't just work-related (for example). Meeting and chatting with other Mensa members can be very enjoyable, especially (for me) over a beer or two.

However, I'm not sure what children would gain from Mensa membership. Certainly we've had younger people at meetings who are often children of members and also quite often seem to become members themselves when they are old enough to decide that they want to take the test for themselves. However, I don't think young members who would need to drag out a non-member parent are particularly likely to attend meetings. I've not many anyway. As has already been commented on, it may help with regards proof of qualifying for any gifted programs, but so I guess would any evidence that qualified the child to join Mensa in the first place.


Gretchen said...

There is actually a lot of pressure on kids not to be "too smart". There is also social pressure for adults not to be "too smart". I know firsthand. Mensa is primarily a social group. Although one might make friends and like minded acquaintences on one's own, belonging to a social organization can increase your probability just like any social organization. If I want to find stay at home moms in their 30's that live in my neighborhood, I'll have better luck meeting one if I join a local mom's group than either on my own or if I were to join an unrelated organization such as Underwater Basketweavers United. I myself live in the SF bay area, and I have not lived here a long time. I could spend years getting to know people at a rapid pace and still not connect with a group of people I feel comfortable having intellectual discussion with.

I think gifted kids need to be given a break. Gifted children are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. Parents with truly gifted kids are often deperate to find others who understand and can lend guidance. This is not Mensa's organizational purpose, but there are subgroups and resources for parents and gifted children within Mensa.

I think that any resource that can have a positive influence is a good thing. People who join Mensa are seeking out something, and if Mensa helps them find it, there is not much to criticize. The "joke" from the Washington Post is just another stab at those who *dare* to identify themselves as being smart. Smart does not equal being perfect or inhuman.

As for the parents of Georgia Brown, none of us know what it is like to be her parents, and none of us know her personally. It is not a good idea to pass judgment on a situation and a fmaily that we know nothing about.

Anonymous said...

Do we all want to believe our children are brilliant? I don't. And despite evidence that my kid is brilliant, I'm quite disturbed by that information. I was hoping for normal - able to blend in with peers, able to feel that he fits in with others at school. That's tough when ability level is several grade levels above what is "normal."

I do find that anytime I try to address educational issues with school personnel, family members, or friends, I'm usually met with the assumption that I'm "proud" of this brilliant kid or that I want him to be extraordinary because ordinary wasn't good enough for us. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that assumption does make it harder for me to convince people that I actually just want to meet the educational needs of my kid, not stroke my own or his ego.

The story of Georgia Brown could be read with skepticism as a tale of overzealous parents who want to have a little genius in the family. But it could also be understood as parents desperately try to figure out how to address the needs of a child who seems extremely different than the books, manuals, and milestone charts explain in typical. I hope Mensa can help them with that, but I doubt it. If her IQ is really 152, she's not going to find many peers in Mensa either, but there will be many people sneering at her and her parents as they try to find answers. And I think that comes from the assumption that we want brilliant children. I think most parents want happy, well-adjusted, kind and caring children, and find the brilliant part pretty hard to deal with effectively.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am pleased to have a brilliant kid, as I wouldn't know what to do with a typical one.

But I really don't see the point of Mensa, or for that matter of any social organization whose only purpose is to socialize. I'd much rather spend time with people who share some common interest with me---and I've had enough different interests over the years that it doesn't narrow my choices much.

Of course, I've spent all my adult life in universities, so finding intelligent people has not been hard. Someone in an occupation populated mainly by people of average intelligence or below may well feel different social needs than I do.

Since Mensa is mainly a social organization for adults, I don't see much point to a 2-year-old belonging. It's not as if they were going to meet other brillinat toddlers there.

Anonymous said...

I think that Mensa deserves another look--they are trying to provide services for gifted children: see their webpage at

k-man said...

I strongly urge parents of gifted children to steer clear of Mensa. The organization's origins and activities do not show the gifted in a good light.

The notorious eugenicist Cyril Burt was involved with the founding of Mensa in the late 1940s, though the international website does not mention this. Another eugenics proponent, Victor Serebriakoff, is a past president of UK Mensa who was awarded the post of honorary international president.

A common topic with members is the need to practice eugenics, specifically such actions as sterilizing—or exterminating—those of lesser intelligence. Former members have reported that the topic pops up frequently at chapter meetings. There was a big stink some years ago when such comments in a West Coast chapter newsletter received national publicity. Mensa has numerous "Special Interest Groups"—one of which is openly called "Eugenics". Check the US website,, if you don't believe me.

In short, the gifted will be known by the company they keep. It is one thing to desire to be associated with peers. It is another matter when certain "peers" wish to use discredited Nazi-era thuggery against those perceived as "inferior". Being associated in any way with Mensa is a great way to ensure distrust and dislike of the gifted in a society that already disdains intelligence. Don't join Mensa.

Terry said...

I'm dismayed by the interpretation that Mensa has some sinister agenda. As a member who qualifed decades ago, I identify with other members who tell about childhoods feeling like "outsiders" being around others who "didn't get my jokes."

Mensa offers the opportunity to get together with people you may not get to see in other areas of your life at home, school, church, or work. Families and communities vary widely.

With its single criterion for membership, Mensa allows you to feel confident that conversations will have some intelligence. Whether or not they are also obnoxious, kind, prejudiced, humorous, or anything else will depend on the individuals any other organization based on a single trait, like Little People, Left-Handed, Blue-Eyed, or named Linda. You make of it what you will.

People who are over seven feet tall will have some similar issues, whether they play basketball or sell cars.

To label or blame an entire organization for the unrelated behavior or beliefs of individuals is a mistake. Those of us who have devoted ourselves to serving the needs of "gifted children" who will become the adults we are, already work to dispel the misconceptions voiced by the rest of the population.

People join Mensa for their own reasons. If it's not for you, don't join; you probably will be doing yourself and us members a favor. But please don't discourage others from seeking to discover if it might be right for them.

The Princess Mom said...

I qualified for Mensa in high school (though I didn't know it at the time) but didn't join until two years ago. I was urged by a friend who wanted me to serve on Mensa's Gifted Children's Program Team. So I joined Mensa and joined the GCPT. We are working very hard to offer social gatherings for gifted children because many local Mensan activities are geared for adults. Gifted children need to be able to hang around with other gifted children, just as gifted adults do.

I haven't been a very active member in my local Mensa chapter, mostly because my time is limited. I did, however, go to the World Gathering last August for some business meetings. I was miserable at the thought. I'd been to many other conferences with people who shared my interests and passions and yet spent most of those conferences in my hotel room alone. Excruciating.

At the WG, I forced myself to go to the hospitality room. Within minutes, complete strangers had come over to share my table and chat. I had a long discussion with a police officer from South Carolina about lots of superficial things like "The Apprentice." I suddenly realized that I hadn't once had to dumb down my vocabulary or explain my leaps in logic. This stranger I had nothing in common with got my jokes! I was astonished.

That is what Mensa has meant to me. I now know there is a place/a group of people where I can make small talk with complete strangers without feeling sick to my stomach. I'd spent my whole life thinking I was "shy" or "stand-offish" or "awkward" when really I was just hanging around with the wrong people. We're a Mensan family because I want my kids to learn that before they turn 40. I'm on the Gifted Children's Program Team for the same reason.