The Intelligence Myth
Why I cringe when someone tells me my child is smart.
I come from a “tiger” family. You know the Asian family that worshipped “science” and not god. The one where “grades” is paramount. The one that demands “success” above all. The one that supposedly endowed me with extra genetic gifts that I must live up to.
The idea of the Silicon Valley parent is not new to me. In fact, I was on the verge of becoming one myself as it used to be the only way I knew how to parent.
As an adult, I didn’t really know the definition of anxiety. I didn’t know intrinsically what it felt like. One day, when someone finally described the feeling to me: racing heart, shortness of breath, a pit in my stomach, I realized that I’ve always just lived with this feeling from a very young age. I learned to cope by suppressing this feeling.
As a little girl, I knew fear, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and anger well. Those emotions are more familiar to me than happiness. Those emotions are the ones that I have clung to all my life. Those emotions are familiar. I seek these emotions with a vengeance when I have a negative mindset. It is when I hurt myself with my masochistic tendencies.
This is the cost of being called, “smart”.
From a young age, I lived under the weight of being called “smart”. I was singled out by my parents at home. I was singled out at school by teachers. I was singled out by managers at work. I am an extroverted person. I learned to be very social when I was young due to poverty. I empathize with people and practice emotional intelligence whenever I can.
But, the weight of being “singled” out meant that I was always confronted with either “jealousy” or “competition” at any one time by my peers. At times, my parents, who were determined to deem me as “special” refused to let me play with kids who were different from me. Somehow, I was destined to be some kind of show pony and not a real person.
From a very young age, I was groomed to be responsible. The responsibility of “holding it all together in the name of success” is crippling for a young child. It is the reason that I don’t allow myself to “fail”.
I’m not a child development expert. But, every child goes through stages of healthy social development. When most of your social interactions are strictly controlled by the parents, it is as if the parents put you in a box and shut the lid.
At the core, I am a very optimistic person. I always look on the bright side of things. But, after having so many relationships, then have them all end in disappointment due to some kind of adult intervention, I grew up to be wary of relationships in general. In any social relationship, I expect some kind of negative ending to come.
You might say that it’s imposter syndrome. Perhaps it’s true, but I honestly feel that once people see me as being “different”, they will move on.
The Psychological Repercussions
Being intellectually “gifted” is somehow a fad now in the parenting community. All the Silicon Valley parents seem to scrutinize their children for a little bit of “specialness” in their intellect.
But, I can tell you that I have seen really “smart” people. In my line of work, I was privileged to work with many people who were just truly “gifted”. Those people are the people that you didn’t need to scrutinize to know that they were “special”. They knew that they are “special” intrinsically.
They are driven to the point of “madness” to pursue their interests and passions.
They often have no balance in their own mental well being. Once they have identified an intellectual need, they try to fulfill that need single-mindedly at all cost. These are the people who are truly “gifted”.
Their “intellectual giftedness” comes with a psychological cost. That psychological cost some times costs them their entire lives.
My mother whose intellectual need was so strong, in the name of work, she neglected to take care of the emotional well-being of her children. She often drove her children to madness.
A female technology manager that I knew who dedicated her whole life to work. Then, one day, her husband asked her for a divorce because she barely came home. After 18 years, her children realized that she wasn’t the one who raised them. It was her mother (their grandmother) who truly raised them.
A mathematician I once knew who was a gifted quantitative specialist, ended up in a mental institution to be treated for schizophrenia. His manager at work wanted to know how long he was going to be treated because he was the only one who built the model that made the company money. No one else understood what he was doing.
Are you absolutely sure that your child is that “special”?
Intellectual “giftedness” is a spectrum. At any point, even if your child is accepted into Mensa, there are other children who will be smarter. There are other children who are gifted in areas of specialty that your child is not gifted in.
Pitting children against other children in classrooms, on tests, and on playgrounds is just brutal. We are already in a world that amplifies inequality. In countries of billions of people like China and India, entrance exams to colleges are so vicious, many children do not have childhoods in their teens because they were made to study 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to prepare for those exams. I personally grew up with children who were literally locked way in their rooms for years due to preparing for these exams.
Intellectual “giftedness” is uneven. The nature of intellectual giftedness is that your child might be a genius in some skills. But, in other skills, your child may be just average or even behind peers.
By pitting children against other children, your child will internalize both what he or she is good at and what he or she is not good at. This leads to the mindset that intelligence is fixed.
Although in the first five years of life, our brains develop the fastest, the connections in our brain will continue to develop for many years to come. If your child internalizes a certain way of being, it’s difficult to change that mindset to a “growth” mindset later on.
The truth is that even someone who is talented in “painting”, might one day decide that he or she doesn’t want to paint anymore. Someone who is not talented in “painting” might decide to paint. Then, through years of practice, this “untalented” person might really become a master painter.
That is why it’s so important for the child to choose his or her own “specialty”. This specialty may be in the area of that child’s “giftedness”. This specialty may be in an entirely different area of that child’s “giftedness”.
It is up to the child to choose his or her destiny. It is never up to the parent.
The greatest disappointment I had in my life from being called “smart” and singled out is that I never felt I was actually “smart” or “special” in any way. I never understood what all the hype was all about. I had persistent imposter syndrome in such depth that it crippled me from being able to even make simple decisions.
Even now, when I master a difficult intellectual concept, I am often aware of the hours I spent reading the research, learning from others, and persisting on the journey. I have never thought of myself as anyone who is remotely “smart”. But, I have always prided myself on my “work ethic”.
As a child, due to a set of special circumstances, people around me wanted to think that I was “gifted”. They had personal and financial stakes in putting me up on that pedestal. But, I was rather wrongly diagnosed by others. My intellect was in fact much more average than anyone realized. It was my “work ethic” that made me seem like an “intellectually gifted” person.
Now, as a parent, I really try to rein in my own tiger mom tendencies. When my son climbs the playground equipment like a ninja, I am trying to remember the joy at seeing him succeed. I am trying to hold that joy of seeing him happy in my mind.
Later in life, even if he’s talented in a particular area, he may choose to pursue an entirely different skillset. That is entirely okay. It is always his choice of how to live his life. It may be the easier route to take to pursue a talent. But, no one has the obligation of pursuing that talent just because it’s there.
Everyone always has the right to choose what they want out of life, including the people who might be labeled by others.
About the Author
Jun Wu is a Content Writer for Technology, AI, Data Science, Psychology, and Parenting. She has a background in programming and statistics. On her spare time, she writes poetry and blogs on her website.