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.


2 responses to this post.

  1. It’s exhausting to try to define the word because of the tremendous diversity within the gifted population. If we narrow it down to mean one thing, we run the risk of doing what has happened before: only giving the title to few clear-cut models and ignoring whole groups of people. This a great essay and an important contribution to the discussion. Thank you BOTH.


  2. This is a wonderfully well written and thought out piece. Thankyou. In personal conversations, I find myself using asynchronous learner because, as you say, if they are really interested, they’ll stick around!


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