The Speculist: The Challenge of Smart Kids


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The Challenge of Smart Kids

"What's the best way to parent a really smart kid?" That was the question I asked PJ Manney during Sunday's FastForward Radio show. Specifically, I wanted to know... "Do you bring attention to their intelligence to build them up, or do you play it down?"

I thought PJ's answer during the show was very good, but she emailed some further thoughts:

I think "self-esteem" is highly overrated, and if overdone, is potentially destructive to a young person's ambition and quality of life. It's fascinating that the most productive and satisfied people in the world were those who were NOT told they were God's gift to every moment of every day. They had to struggle and learn to live up to life's challenges. And we need to challenge our kids more. Get them out in the world interacting with it without them knowing they've got a net under their trapeze. Especially if they're smart. Or they get bored and complacent. Not good.

So I finished with you guys and I found my husband in our bedroom reading to our kids. They're 11 and 9. The book is called, "50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School" by Charles Sykes.

Here are some of those rules:

  • 1. Life is not fair. Get use to it.
  • 9. Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn't.
  • 14. Looking like a slut does not empower you.
  • 30. Zero tolerance=zero common sense.
  • 33. Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.
  • 35. If your butt has its own zip code, it's not because McDonald's forced you to eat all those Big Macs. If you smoke, it's not Joe Camel's fault.
  • 36. You are not immortal.
  • 48. Tell yourself the story of your life. Have a point.

Strange bedtime reading you may ask? Well I bought it for him to read, because my husband has a lot of kid interaction -- he was the cub scout pack master for Malibu and now he's assistant scout leader of my son's troop. He's also a big volunteer with our school, like chaperoning the 5th grade to Yosemite for a week. And he's not impressed with what he sees in today's youth in general (or maybe it's just SoCal youth... but I doubt it). And I thought he'd get a kick out of the book. It has the same pragmatic, funny take on life my husband has. Maybe because both the author and he are originally from Wisconsin! It's those classic Midwestern ethics. Eric thought he'd try it out on the kids to see what they think.

They LOVED it and thought it was hilarious and true. They can't wait for Daddy to continue it.

My 9 year old daughter says to me as I'm tucking her in, "Mommy, you should read that book. I think you'll really be surprised at the attitudes in it and you might learn something." When I asked her which rules she liked best so far, she said, "'Looking like a slut does not empower you.' I can't wait to say that to the girls who ask me why I don't wear low riders and a thong." From the mouths of babes... although not too surprising in a community where Pam Anderson is a PTA mom and Britney Spears is our former neighbor. Not exactly the kind of fashion (or any kind of) mentors you want for your kids!

Thanks again for a fun evening.

Take care,



I offer a slight re-phrasing of number 36, to wit:

"You are not indestructable."

Some of our kids may very well turn out to be immortal, or at least to benefit from an indefinite lifespan.

"Life is not fair. Get used to it."

Hmm. Sounds more like a problem description to me.

There was recently a very good article on raising smart kids at SciAm. The gist of it is to cultivate an attitude of hard work rather than just praising their intelligence.

The immortal issue is interesting. If we plan on large extension of life span with eventual upload and backup into computers, risk aversion needs to change.

I plan to teach my son (currently 8 months old), all about avoiding unnecessary risks in part by discussing opportunity cost of the expected worth of at least a few centuries.

This means things like tattoos and skipping school matter much less than skating tricks without helmets.

Parents of really smart kids should keep in mind that no matter how high their IQ, how many books they've read, etc. they still do not have the life experience that you do.
Over the years I've encountered several "highly gifted" kids who had real behavior problems. While the parents explained that children with such high intelligence often have trouble interacting with peers and adults in authority, I noticed that the parents seemed overawed by the IQ scores, and didn't trust their own judgement. Smart kids whose parents still see them as kids first, and don't make a big deal of their "giftedness" seem to do better. Even smart kids need adult guidance.

When my oldest son, soon to be 19, was a infant, I read an article in Parenting magazine with the same emphasis as the article to which Phil refers, hard work is more important than high IQ.

The reasoning was that even high IQ is (or at least appears to be) a limited quantity. You may be smart but you probably won't get smarter. But, you can always try a little harder.

While my kids are smart, I have emphasized hard work. So far, I love the results.

My line to my boys is Life is not fair.

And then I add, because if it was we would all be living in cinderblock homes with tin roofs. Be glad it is not fair and quit your whining. :)

Why do we have to substitute one set of barbaric non-Christian values (the 60s set, based primarily on sexual immorality) with another set of barbaric non-Christian values -- this time based on cruelty and hard-heartedness.

I'm not raising Samurais or Spartan warriors, nor Jewish oligarchs. I'll bring my kids up tenderly, to respect and to love; and feel respected and loved -- and a pox on both your factions.

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