Get Smart

Will iPod portait

Richard Nisbett, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist and researcher who teaches at the University of Michigan.  His recent book, “Intelligence and How to Get It:  Why Schools and Culture Count” (W.W. Norton, 2009) focuses on the heritability of intelligence and finds that culture, social class and education matter more than genetics alone which have tended to be given too much credit (in books like “The Bell Curve”) for smarts.

The importance of Nisbett’s findings, as outlined in a recent interview in Monitor on Psychology Magazine (September, 2009), relate to both social policy and cultivating intelligence individually in our children.  While high IQ folks tend to have high IQ kids, it turns out that the amount of the variance in IQ has tended to be over-attributed to genetic inheritance.  Thus, kids who are born into cultures that do not value education, or even devalue it, are at a very significant disadvantage for ending up smart, while kids born in middle-class homes are at a huge advantage (and tend to believe that they were simply born smart).  Nisbett’s work, for example, clearly demonstrates that differences in IQs between blacks and whites are a by-product of social inequalities and NOT inherent racial differences in intelligence (he adds that Obama, Chris Rock and Bill Cosby are all saying versions of what he’s saying—that there are black subcultures that discourage academic achievement, both in the hood and in integrated middle class schools).  This also applies to cultural differences in the Latino community, and altogether challenges us to be smarter as a country and stop slowing kids down and leaving them behind.

Privilege of Parenting sees our own well-being as interconnected with the well-being of all our collective children.  Thus when we allow schools to be under-funded, and when we allow teachers who do not deliver to keep teaching anyway, we fail our kids… and ourselves.  For example, Nisbett cites teachers in Japan who are observed and given tips and pointers by more experienced teachers; in Japan it is generally recognized that you won’t be a really top-rate teacher until you’ve been doing it for ten or twelve years.  Although a bit harsh, Nisbett feels that it’s essential to winnow out the lowest two or three percent of teachers each year.  In a way it makes sense to cultivate excellence (and pay for it) just as in any other competitive field.  Maybe it would even be a favor for a non-gifted teacher to hit the road while still relatively young and maybe find his or her true calling (I’m a big believer in failing at things as a foundation for succeeding that things).

Nisbett suggests that parents can help kids get smarter by actually teaching them that being smart is a malleable thing.  This dovetails with a strong emphasis on hard work.  Interestingly, Nisbett cautions against praising for intelligence, based on his observations that kids may then shy away from challenges because they don’t want to risk damage to their “smart” reputation.  He also isn’t very keen on too much praise in general, because it sets up a framework where kids may feel evaluated all the time.  Instead, he emphasizes that we want kids to feel that we are pleased with hard work (rather than intelligence).

Back on the social unfairness aspect of this, Nisbett claims that upper-middle class people do the right things to coax and facilitate intelligence such as breastfeeding, reading, taking kids to museums and talking to them.  Lower socio-economic groups, in contrast, don’t talk nearly as much with their kids (and while this may be a factor of being more stressed, over-worked, busy or not having been raised in a context of lots of parent-child conversation, the long and the short of it is that we need to help educate all parents and support those at a disadvantage to recognize that they too can get “smarter” as parents). 

Perhaps this is a good day to dedicate to the recognition that we can all keep growing smarter by staying intellectually active and also physically active.  Since a good portion of intelligence is earned rather than just doled out in our genes, let’s be sure to let all our collective kids in on this, and let’s do what we can to help… such as conversing and being interested in not just our own kids, but other kids who we might not typically take personal interest in. 

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Get Smart”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    This topic interests me — partly because I agree completely with the premise that children respond to social cues about the “okayness” of being smart. But there appears to be a larger answer that we can’t say out loud — if the issue is that parents are failing their kids, for whatever reason, the efforts of those of us with a value on intelligence “taking an interest” and making sure that schools are funded, doesn’t seem enough of an answer.

    What would happen if we, as a culture, stated out loud that ALL parents ought to be vitally concerned with their children’s’ education? What if we felt liberated to do what Obama has done in speeches, and admonish others to take reading at home, etc. seriously?

    I work in the classroom, and the reading lab, at our public elementary school. No matter what an interest I take, and have taken, in some children who are clearly struggling, there is an unspoken rule that I can never approach a parent that I know is abusive and neglectful, and call her on it. She is free to leave it to me, the mother who works in the classroom, and the community, who take responsibility for this child and others who are deprived at home.

    I recall one bullying child who was included in a birthday party invitation, who never responded. Later, it turned out that her mother was in Vegas gambling and the girl was touched deeply by the inclusion and crushed that she couldn’t respond politely. Okay, perhaps it is best not to say anything to a mother like that. But, partly out of jealousy, her child was bullying mine, to the point that WE had to change schools.

    At what point do we, as a culture, feel that it is appropriate to share the responsibility for holding education as a value? Right now, the few who make an effort to supply support and time (and money) are being taken advantage of by the “busy, struggling, overworked” parents…who continue to opt out, oblivious to their negative contribution to a system that regularly fails everyone. And we let them. Is that really any way to make a system work?

    I never confronted either family. But what would life be like for either of those children if I, or anyone else privy to the situation, had? Is there a chance those kids might have experienced a higher standard of parenting? Or was I also bullied by their parents? Did I, as a respectful, responsible, educated community member let them get away with murder?

    I tend to think the latter.


  2. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Lisa, Thanks for this passionate and insightful comment. I agree that we are all going to have to step up, be involved and care—about our own kids AND each other’s kids. And I wrestle with the question of how much compassion and understanding, and how much “tough love” and higher expectations would be effective with regard to parents. I tend to believe that the cycle of shame and abuse is what leads to much of the checked-out behavior of parents. Perhaps even their passive aggressive anger is part of what you have been left holding as they maintain in denial.

    As for bullying, there have been some great results in schools that implemented peer councils to address bullying, and in schools that actively cultivate an ethic of bullying being uncool. But I have also seen situations where teachers feel oppressed and that oppression can then trickle down to students and their acting out behaviors. Bullying is a complex issue, and one that we also need to work together as parents to curtail at a cultural level (after all, it’s not too long ago that our country was generally seen as the bully on the world’s block… and we can only hope that this is changing).

    Thanks again for good thoughts and questions well worth considering. Namaste.

  3. krk Says:

    A reply to Lisa;
    I understand your frustration and anger. I have worked in many classrooms where I often wanted to confront the parents,but the lesson I learned was that I had more impact on the child if I continued to be positive and loving to the child. I would not have an impact on the parent.

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