Archive for March, 2014

Why Words Matter: Intellectual Diversity


We spent some time last night reading the flurry of blog posts and comments following another recent article describing how “all children are gifted.” It seems like this is an annual Internet discussion – something we all feel the need to talk about, with many of the same pro and con points made, year after year. Interestingly, we didn’t have the same visceral response this time that many of the parents did, on both sides of the argument, in large part because we don’t have to care anymore – we homeschool, and “gifted” is really a word we associate with traditional school.  We did, however, relate to the frustration felt by many about the ignorance regarding the diversity of intelligence. Based on reading the material, we’re wondering if we don’t need to have a different conversation entirely. At the core of that conversation is a definition. What does it mean to be smart, and who defines it?

When we were growing up (and granted, we’re pretty old), being smart was considered a positive attribute. It was understood that some kids were smarter than others, and that was OK. Everyone had different strengths, and for a small percentage of kids, that strength was being smart. Sometimes, the smart kids did well in school. Other times, they did not. Just like sometimes kids made the soccer team, and sometimes, they did not. It didn’t mean those kids weren’t good at soccer, it just meant they didn’t make the team. Everyone moved on, and learned from disappointment.

Ironically, “gifted” likely came to define smart kids because it was felt to carry less emotional baggage than the word “smart.” It might have been easier to hear from the mom down the street that little Susie was “gifted and talented,” rather than the plain fact that Susie was smart. That way, when you told that same mom how your little Johnny made the Little League team, it felt more fair. In the interim, though, the word “gifted” has become just as – if not more so – emotionally charged.

Currently, if your children are attending school, the definition of smart is “gifted.” The words have become synonymous, to our collective detriment. Many parents spend hours working with the school and advocating on their children’s behalf to get appropriate instruction arranged. For these parents, the “gifted” program is just a starting point, because many of their children need much, much more then they are given. Unfortunately, there are other parents who feel that getting their child into the “gifted” program at school is a ticket their child’s success. In the minds of these parents, the “gifted” program will lead directly to honors classes, AP classes, top-tier colleges, and top-tier graduate schools, ultimately culminating in the parent being able to tell everyone their child is a ______ (insert name of brag-worthy profession here.) These parents, as far as we can tell, don’t seem to care if their kids are smart. They just want their kids to have a chance at what the kids in the gifted program “get.”

So that’s one issue, and we’ve seen it in practice. But there’s a second issue that’s more problematic: some parents also don’t want any one child being smarter than any other child. For them, being smart has become a negative attribute, an elitist and imaginary point of differentiation among equals. Smart kids are expected to hide the depth of their intelligence, because it might make other kids feel bad about themselves. Realistically, though, some individuals are just smarter than others, just like some individuals are more athletic/artistic/musical/creative/expressionistic than others.  We think it’s best to let these parents live in their imagined world of equality. Sooner or later, despite their parent’s insistence, their kids will figure out the truth of life – that there is always someone smarter than you.

And thank goodness for that.

Kathy notes that as an internal medicine physician, she works in a world of generally smart people. Physicians and other health professionals generally have a higher IQ than the average population. As a subset, specialist physicians have the highest IQ of all those groups. When she refers a patient for a specialist consultation, she is counting on the specialist physician being smarter and more experienced with the condition than she is. This is true of many other professions as well. When we cross a bridge in our car, we are counting on the fact that the engineer who designed the bridge was smarter than us, and knew a great deal more about bridge-building. We feel the same when we get into an airplane – we trust that the pilot is smarter than us when it comes to flying a plane. Sunday evenings, we are all thankful that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is vastly more intelligent about the Cosmos, so he can teach it to us. Frankly, we love the fact that there are many individuals in this world who are smarter than ourselves.

So we exist on a continuum of intelligence. Great. Where does that leave us? We’ve discussed that “gifted” really applies to school services, not necessarily being smart. And, we’ve discussed that there are times in life where we are all going to need people more intelligent than ourselves. So back to the original question – what does it mean to be smart, and who defines it?

The fact is, all parents think their kids are smart, and this is a wonderful part about parenting. We wouldn’t want any child growing up with a parent telling them they are not smart. As long as a parent values a child for who they are, it doesn’t matter what society says; they will feel loved, valued and smart. However, telling your child they are as smart as every other child in the world doesn’t let them accept the reality of the diversity of intelligence. Does that mean you need to tell your child their IQ? Not if you don’t want to, or if you think that information would not be helpful to them. What we tell our children are three things: we know they are smart, there are lots of people out there who are smarter than them, and we encourage them to seek out individuals who are their same level of intelligence and share their same interests, so they can feel someone understands them, and feel that they belong.

Who defines smart? Mensa, a society for people with high IQs, has one definition of smart. According to their website, to qualify for Mensa, you must have scored in the top 2% of the general population on a standardized intelligence test. They state that members come from all walks of life, and they share one trait – high intelligence.  If we use the Mensa definition, then 2% of the child population has high intelligence, and 2% of the adult population has high intelligence. If we use an alternate definition, for instance individuals who scored in the top 0.1% of the general population on a standardized intelligence test, then the definition changes. How do we know? Because we’re using an established population statistic; we’re measuring against societal norms.

By our definition above, we are both highly intelligent people, and we have highly intelligent kids. That high intelligence, however, comes with a basket of intensities that makes life with us hard and incredibly interesting. Our kids do not conform to much of what has become the societal vision of “gifted” children – quiet, studious, industrious, well-behaved children who are all “plus” and no “minus” from a human behavioral perspective. Because we homeschool, we don’t have to worry about how society, or school, labels our kids. We don’t hide the fact that we have high intelligence, and we don’t expect our kids to hide it, either. In our world, being smart is a positive attribute, and finding others at our own intelligence level – and higher! – is a wonderful part of life.

“Gifted,” as we’ve written about before, is a burned word. We’ll never unload the emotional freight from it; it’s simply become so electrified a third rail as to be unrecoverable in the conversation. We applaud the advocates who continue to help educate the public about the diversity of intelligence, and how it affects parents every day. Frankly, though, we’re not going to spend our time trying to define the word “gifted” to everyone who asks about our children.  When those moments occur, we’ll simply state the facts: that we have children with high intelligence. We figure if anyone stays around to ask us what that means, then we can start a meaningful conversation. Until then, we’ll be exploring our world, and anxiously awaiting the next installation of Cosmos.

Tiny Green Shoots

snow storm, spring bulbs 029

A homeschooling year is a great deal like writing a book: there comes a day when you realize that, barring some asteroid strike-level cataclysm, you really are going to finish it. It’s going to come to a conclusion of some type. You’re over the hump.

I’m feeling it right now. I’m a seasonal person. I tend to enjoy the living hell out of the first month of any season, accept the second with grace, and volunteer to pack its suitcase and drive it to the airport by the third. So when I see tiny green shoots emerge from beneath the snow in our garden, it dawns on me. Spring is here. Oh, it will still be a snowy horrorshow here in Colorado from time to time, but the seventies are going to make a guest appearance this week, and the shorts are going to come out of the closet.

What does it mean for us to be on final descent into the summer capping our first year of full-time homeschooling? It’s a great time to look back and think about what happened, and what didn’t.

Nobody freaked. Nobody. I was thinking someone would (Vegas odds were on me), but it just…didn’t happen. No one threw a rod that they weren’t taking part in any traditional-school stuff; we did our own versions of Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and Christmas was probably more fun for them (especially given that they each had a tiny USB-powered Christmas tree for the month of December). Nobody pitched a fit that we were doing things differently, not even our newest arrival, A.

Everyone grew. You’d hope they would, in a year, wouldn’t you? But in years past, by this point in the calendar year, there’s been trudging. There’s been grudging. There’s been I’m-not-budging. We’ve watched the lights go out by the time TCAP rolled around, watched them tilt slowly off their toes in their education and back onto their heels. The juice has been sucked from the orange. Not this year. It’s March, and they’re still designing social studies projects with the same vigor they were in October. They’re still throwing themselves into swapwriting with the same creativity and collaboration they had when we were outside, WiFi hotspot-writing under the huge tree on our greenbelt path in September. They’ve even – dare I say it – come to peace with the subjects they don’t like. Historically, by this point, those subjects were out on a plank with a cutlass in their backs.

Our definition of ‘school’ expanded. School ‘went’ a lot of different places this year – on long walks, on bike rides, on museum trips, on park afternoons. Everywhere we went, we talked, Googled, learned. School is a construct of geographic convenience: kids are gathered together in one place not because it’s the world’s greatest learning model, but because it makes sense to centralize something that’s traditionally dispensed one-to-many. Take that factor out of the equation, and what we’ve learned is that school is everywhere that curiosity exists.

Our love for each other did, too. You don’t see much of your kid in an educational setting in life until you work with them in a homeschooling environment, and I wish everyone could see what we’ve seen this year. It’s funny: there’s ‘take your child to work day,’ where we provide our kids with a window on what we do in our jobs, but there’s really not a ‘take your parent to school day.’ Sure, there’s volunteering opportunities, and parent-teacher conferences, and such – but how often do you get to see your kids at their jobs? I love what I’ve seen from them this year – they’re focused, diligent, caring, collaborative workers that want to learn, want to grow. I love them all the more for that.

It’s easy to forget, in the depths of winter, that green shoots are coming. It’s almost impossible to conceive of the true arrival of a new season until it’s upon us. We’re going to do this – and next year, we’re going to do it again, and we’ll learn new lessons next year, too.

I’m glad for the tiny green shoots, though. They remind me, in no uncertain terms, that this year’s particular voyage is nearing its end, and to enjoy every moment of life and growth that the spring will bring us.

Pink and Blue


Statistically, you won’t like this post. You won’t identify with it, won’t understand it, and won’t care for many of the points I’m going to make.

That’s OK. You can leave if you want. I’ll wait.

<drums fingers>

Fine. Still with me? You’re probably a homeschooling mom with a husband who’s not super-involved in the task of teaching your kids. He’s probably got a busy job, and you ended up taking over this responsibility. Am I right so far?

If I am, that’s because you’re the statistical norm. I’m the outlier – I’m a husband who, like his wife, works part-time and homeschools part-time. In our house, everybody fights; everybody eats. We don’t have assigned roles. That dishwasher has no gender, and neither does the checkbook, the math curriculum, the garbage cans or the household repairs that need doing. If you buy 1950s-style gender roles, that’s fine. We don’t, and neither of us takes kindly to being pigeonholed by society in responsibility sets that were starting to lose relevance when Ford was President. So when Facebook sites post sexist cartoons portraying moms as the exclusively beleaguered providers of kid-related everything, it sets my teeth on edge.

Mostly that’s due to the fact that this is happening in your experience. In your home. In your perceptual set. And it may be true for you, but it isn’t true for everyone. There’s a strong human drive to make our own experiences the common experiences, to belong to something greater than ourselves that includes and validates our own way of life. We want to feel that those things that make us laugh make others laugh, and that those things that make us cry make others cry, and that our joys and miseries are one with a greater body of such sensations. We like to paint red and white rings around the spot the arrow landed. That’s natural – but if the goal is progress, or change, and not just self-pity, it can be counterproductive.

Here’s what endlessly fascinates me about these posts: they ‘gender’ the task of educating children. It’s women’s work. I’ve posted before about how untrue this was millennia ago, how the natural state of a human family is in sharing the task of teaching children to grow into responsible adult members of society. But you’ve been taught differently. And recently. In fact, you’ve been taught so many wrong things that it’s worthwhile to talk through a checklist of them. We’ll start off easy, though; we’ll start with something you know is right – or at least something you think you know is right. We’ll start with pink…and blue.

That’s easy, right? Didn’t a hundred visuals just flash before your eyes? Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. It always has been, hasn’t it? Didn’t your own mom teach you that? She was probably born in the 40s or 50s, and even her mom might have taught her that. But maybe she didn’t; consider that, just three generations ago, these colors were completely reversed.

…a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” (Smithsonian Magazine)

1918. It’s taken a hundred years, a blink of an eye in human existence, to get you to agree that black is white and white is black. That’s all. A hundred years. A hundred years ago, men taught their sons, sitting behind them on tractors, palm atop palm, working a stick shift for the first time in blazing Midwestern sun. Fathers squatted in rich black earth and explained how to rotate crops, how nitrogen was fixed in plants, how to manage the seasonality and risk of farm economics. None of this would have been outsourced. To whom could it have been, anyway?

A hundred years later, you believe that education is women’s work, and so does your husband. That’s wrong. The saddest part is not that you believe it; it’s that he believes it. You believe lots of things, don’t you? So when the loan officer tells you that your home mortgage shouldn’t be more than 20% of your household earnings, did you question whether it should be much less? Did you question whether, in an era of 300,000-mile duty lives, it’s necessary to have a new car every four years? Did you question anything being pushed at you as society’s norms?

I think you did, and I think that’s how you ended up here, but maybe you stopped short. Maybe there’s more thinking to be done about whose responsibility homeschooling is, and whether it might make sense to make room for this vitally important task in your lives instead of forcing it into cracks and crannies and gaps between more societally endorsed actions.

In the end, I don’t care whether you do or not, because I don’t write this blog for you. I write it for my son, and for my daughters, and for the men and women they will marry someday. I write it to impress on them the need to question what they’re being told. I hope the lessons sink in – because I hope that, someday, they’ll see a post like this and tell their own kids, “You know what’s funny about that? Let me tell you a story about when pink used to be the color for boys.”