Don’t find out your kid’s IQ

We go to the pet store a lot, to play with the ferrets. My son is always trying to convince me to get one. We have had them. There was a time in my life when I traveling every week giving $15,000 speeches, and since I was never home so I tried to solve every problem with money.

The ferrets were one of those solutions. They were smelly so we bought bigger cages then they were poopy so I hired someone to clean the cages every day, then they got mean because they wanted to come out and play all the time. So I told the kids the ferrets had a terminal, contagious disease, and they had to go to ferrett hospice. Then I gave them back to the pet store.

The kids were young. I could do that then. Now we have to have more in-depth discussions, like my son tells me that the ferrets are really smart and smart pets are good pets. I used the opportunity to tell him that smart doesn’t mean good. I tell him many serial killers have high IQs. (True.) But also that being nice is way more important. It’s a good lesson. But mildly irrelevant to the ferrets so I add clean. Clean is more important than smart also. Play with the ferret at the pet store.

This is a lesson I’m obsessive about. I don’t want a kid who thinks IQ matters because I know it’s the road to hell. There’s such a huge movement to boycott testing in the US but we need that movement to fight against IQ testing too. Kids have to take IQ tests to get into lots of programs, and many parents give their kids the test “just so they know.” It’s wrong and here’s why and what to do instead.

1. Just tell your kid you know he’s smart.
One of the only things my parents did right was they kept us at home on the day we had IQ testing at school. My parents said they knew we were brilliant and they didn’t need a test to tell them. I’ve kept that with me ever since. Even when people told me I was stupid, I trusted they were wrong because my parents were so certain my IQ was high.

2. Value emotional intelligence.
The reason my parents were so certain is because both their families are rife with autism. Boys, girls, grandparents – it’s everywhere. So in our family, even the people who are crazy and homeless are clearly also geniuses. The problem is that IQ does not get you very far in adult life. No one taught me this. I had to figure it out for myself, for instance, when there were no books to explain how to figure out who is lying to me on a date. If you downplay IQ you leave your child nothing to value except self-discipline, hard work, and emotional intelligence – the very things that make the most headway toward a happy life.

3. Pay heed to the perils of labels.
The Atlantic provides a survey of the perils of IQ testing and finds that the labels discourage kids from self-discovery. If you tell a kid they are super smart then they think that’s an end in itself and discourages grit and determination. Conversely if you tell kids they are bad at something because they tested that way, then they are likely to believe you – and perform accordingly. So why bother doing the test at all? (My friend sent me a comic of a monkey, elephant and penguin facing a teacher who says, “everyone has to take the same test, so let’s see how fast each of you can climb the tree.”)

4. A high score is not a free pass.
Not everyone with a high IQ is built to solve earth shattering geophysics mysteries or write game-changing math problems. Some people have a high IQ but they like to work with their hands. Or they like to interact with people. In either case, putting a high IQ kid in school so they can blow away the competition is not a guarantee of success. Many kids need to put their high IQ to use in areas where it might be masked.

5. A high IQ is meaningless without other essentials.

Remember those ferrets? We never got to teach them how to solve a maze or bond with the kids because they smelled so bad no one could get near them. And this is the problem with high IQ people: they need other, essential attributes in order to put that IQ to work in a useful way. And too often, high IQ comes with no work ethic because a child has been raised to feel special for doing nothing.

5. Understanding kid’s strengths is most important.
Nassem Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness explains that one of the worst characteristics of an adolescent’s brain is that it tends to think in either/or models: should I do this or that? The adolescent rarely thinks, “I could choose anything. What should I choose?” As we get older, we need to push ourselves to widen the possibilities from either/or thinking.

But IQ tends to be either/or. For example, are you good at math, or science or language arts? This is how school tells you to think about IQ. But actually, a high IQ can allow you to think at a high level about infinite topics. And ironically, ignoring the whole idea of IQ is what gives a kid access to those topics.

31 replies
  1. Lisa S
    Lisa S says:

    The phrase I use is “character AND competence.” Seems like I am always nudging my kids along both of those paths, encouraging them to be productive, interesting people that others actually want to be around.

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Don’t give in to the ferrets! I’m the same way except with cats, I refuse to have cats and litter box smell everywhere. My kids want cats, and I don’t want cats. I take them to other people’s houses that have cats and litter box smell so they can pet the cats and chase the cats. Then we go back home to a nice smelling house with no cats.

    With the I.Q. stuff I totally can relate. We come from the same background minus the aspie part. Seriously high IQ brother, like Einstein high, in and out of jail and drug addict, it’s like things come so easy to them and yet they turn to a druggie homeless lifestyle. Seriously, I just don’t get it.

    Even though I know they are high I.Q. (from *gulp* testing) I’d rather teach my kids how to be good people than be something that society wants them to be, or put some sort of pressure on them that totally isn’t fair or even realistic.


    • Crystal
      Crystal says:

      I’m not going to say you should get a cat if you don’t want one. But I will say that if the people you know with cats can’t control the litter box smell, they’re doing it wrong. Yes I am grossed out by most cat owners inability (or refusal?) to keep it clean, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Crystal, I think I just have a very strong sense of smell… I am overly sensitive to smells and I have always been able to smell cats no matter what lengths owners go to hide or mask them. My husband though never smells things that I can. It makes for interesting conversations, usually they start with me saying “Can you smell that?” …

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Hey Penelope, I’ve had numerous friends suggest I take an AQ test and I did recently and it came back as definitely aspergers…not sure where to go from here but my husband says it makes sense to him…I feel uncomfortable finding this out at 34….

  3. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    This post is provokes more thinking for me.

    A helpful metaphor: IQ is like the hardware specs (RAM, running speed, hard drive space, graphics card, etc.) on a computer, but all the software is what actually makes the computer useful.

    An amazing computer with no, little, or poor software is useless compared to a “poor” computer with intuitive, efficient software.

    A scientist with an IQ of 110 with an amazing education and work ethic can school a lazy punk with an IQ of 160 any day in practical applications of scientific knowledge.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      We talk in similar terms in cello lessons. Being born with a gift for music doesn’t matter if you don’t practice very hard. Nothing that matters gets handed to us all neat and tidy on a silver platter. We have to earn stuff that matters – that’s why it matters.


  4. Johnna
    Johnna says:

    Everybody is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. –Albert Einstein

  5. Bob Durtschi
    Bob Durtschi says:

    Reminded me of one of Robert Kiyosaki’s book: “Rich Kid, Smart Kid: Giving Your Child a Financial Head Start”. In it he talks about 12 different “IQ”s, only one of which public schools address.
    You can see a review of the book here: (“He talks a lot about homeschooling in this book, although he has no children of his own. He talks about it because he talks about all the different types of learning styles and how the public school only caters to one learning style. He also states how the public school system does not give children a financial education. Children end up being label learning disabled even though they aren’t…they just have a different learning style. Some are born to be text book learners and do excellent in school. Some are born hands on learners, and don’t. Those are just 2 examples.”

    There’s a summary of the book here (PDF):

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      you honestly think that this story is a typical example of a real life scientist? No, a high IQ does not mean that you become a narcistic person with no regard for others or no comprehension of the world around you.

  6. mh
    mh says:

    I haven’t had my kids tested. Probably will not, but I’ve learned to never say never.

    Best way to handle that question is to tell everybody they are in the third standard deviation from the mean. Follow up with: “And that’s why I want you to take on this new challenge. I think you’re ready for it, and I know you’ve got the brainpower.”

    I also handle setbacks with, “Practice Makes Permanent. Keep working on it.” But not always. Sometimes I handle setbacks with, “You need a break. Let’s go swimming.” And then, just to be ornery, sometimes I handle setbacks with, “You need a break. How about you take out the garbage for me?”

    Because any amount of frustration at the piano is preferable to taking out the garbage, right?

    But anyway, the human brain is pure potential. It’s not a cliche to say that everyone has an inner core of genius. There’s a book called “Talent is Overrated” by Jeffrey Colvin (maybe I spelled that wrong) that emphasizes smart practice techniques to boost performance.

    Also, yuck. Ferrets. Don’t they spray their urine all over the place? My youngest is trying to talk me into Uncle Miltie’s Ant Farm (with connectors and accessories)… but we spray for ants around here. Importing them on purpose seems like wretched stupidity.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Good heavens. Do all my comments seem this abrupt?


      Note to self: chocolate makes you a nicer person.

  7. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    I’ve never been officially IQ tested, but I always scored at the top on all the various other tests. I wish now that I never knew about any of that stuff- even grades. I coasted on being smart and not working hard most of my life. Without the grades, maybe I would have done real things to feel more self-worth instead of just thinking I was so smart.

  8. Crimson Wife
    Crimson Wife says:

    Read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” for why #1 is problematic. Praise effort, not supposed innate intelligence. My kids get sick of hearing me tell them that their brain is like a muscle & the harder they work, the more they’ll build it.

  9. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I didn’t catch this until most people have probably finished reading that were going to read it, but your 6th point is marked as another 5th point.

  10. Karen Morrison
    Karen Morrison says:

    I see where you are coming from and as far as giving IQ tests as a standard school practice I can even go so far as to agree since these tests (Gate Tests in particular) seem to test for high achievers not necessarily those kids at the highest end of the scale.

    However, as a mom to a Exceptionally Gifted child who struggled in school all the way through 7th grade, who we could not figure out why she didn’t fit in, who she herself thought was stupid until we finally had her privately tested by a psychologist specializing in GIftedness.

    So while your intentions seem good, I feel you missed the point here. IQ tests can help us understand who are kids are and how they are wired. It can help us get them help for the emotional sensitivities and quirks that often come with giftedness. It can help us find intellectual peers for our kids who finally get them and comfort for ourselves from other parents of gifted kids who feel like no one gets what we are struggling with either. For our kids, it can help them feel normal for the first time in their entire lives.

    Yes, there are parents who go too far and put a focus on all the wrong things but there are also well meaning parents like myself who needed understanding and insight into how my daughter is different that my other kids, her school mates, her friends.


  11. Gwen
    Gwen says:

    I worry about the interpretation teachers give to these tests.

    Pure anecdata, and I believe the system is run differently now, but… here in the UK, young children used to be given intelligence tests to determine what level they would be taught at and even which of the local schools they would go to.

    I have an English friend who was given these tests as a child and told that her IQ was 98 – just on the low end of normal – so she wasn’t being recommended for the more elite “grammar” school. Her parents were surprised, and questioned it…

    Turned out she had scored in the 98th percentile, and the teacher didn’t understand the difference!

    She went to the grammar school, and then Imperial, and then I met her while she was a PhD student in Computational Neuroscience at Edinburgh. But she would have been able to do all that whether she was given the test or not. If they’d just accepted what the teacher said about her, I’m not so sure…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You know what? I agree. It feels really yucky. LIke I’ve lost an important connection. So I’m on it. Making changes to my schedule so I can get back on the blog horse.

      Thanks for this comment. You remind me of how sad I am when I don’t blog.


  12. Barnabas Holleran
    Barnabas Holleran says:

    This reminds me of something Calvin Coolidge said, when he talked about nothing in the world being as important as perseverance.

    “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

    My parents always told me I was smart, and for a long time I was content to rest on that knowledge and not do anything about it. Only recently have I realized that intelligence alone means nothing practically. Like you said, and as C.C. would agree, the things which are essential to life come apart from IQ, and I think that while encouragement and affirmation in intelligence are important, there are far more important areas to encourage and develop.

  13. Lily Zhang
    Lily Zhang says:

    Thanks so much for this. I was IQ-tested in the 2nd grade and based on that alone the psychologists let me skip to the next grade. Moving school districts helped me skip 5th grade and before you knew it I was constantly with students two years older than me and finished high school at age 16. My social skills and life didn’t really catch up until after university.

    Now I’m trying to disabuse myself of the notion that I’m special, although my choice of career isn’t making things easy (Chinese-American who translates and interprets Spanish and Russian to English). Have you made any progress on not thinking you’re special? Since this

  14. ^-^
    ^-^ says:

    I know I am smart. I think it’s ok to encourage them to read, problem solve and do things like that, but for a cause. When I was little I wanted to find out how gravity worked, and how enough food could be made to eliminate world poverty. Now I’m studying economics in Uni, and did physics in 6 form for fun. Set fun and interesting goals, and let learning be the means to the end.

    Learning simply for the sake of learning can be boring and can kill interest in children

  15. h.c.h
    h.c.h says:

    Which idiot wrote this nonsense?
    This is almost completely opposite of what you should do…

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