Here’s an episode of 60 Minutes where there’s a kid who got put in special ed at school and survived. In fact, they think the kid is “on track to win a Nobel Prize.” But what 60 Minutes really wants you to realize is how great 60 Minutes is for telling you about how the kid was caged for his genius but is now doing typical genius activity.

You know what else is typical genius activity? Look at A Beautfiful Mind – the guy destroyed his marriage and his kid’s life over and over again. And look at Kay Jamison’s relentless study of some of our greatest artists and authors, Touched with Fire, which will not inspire you to wish for a genius child.

The hyperbole of 60 Minutes is only second to the insipid reaction from homeschooling parents: “Oh, my kid is a genius too and school was not good enough for him.” Look, genius is not a justification for homeschooling. Because the implication is that being a genius somehow makes a good life. Which it doesn’t of course.

So we don’t need to argue that homeschool decisions should be based on whether a child is potentially a genius because no decisions should be based on genius potential. Who cares if you’re a genius? Shut up and hold the door for someone.

Do you know how long it took me to brush my teeth every day? Until I was 27. Because I had two geniuses for parents. This is just one in a million examples of how much I am so sick of people talking about how we have to protect geniuses from school. Do geniuses not deserve to be in special ed but stupid kids do?

Shut up about your genius kids okay? Genius doesn’t get you anyting in adult life. We go through this all the time:  the list of attributes that make a good life looks like grit, determination, resilience, kindness. Genius, or even extraordinary intelligence short of genius, is not on the list. What makes life good are just those traits, which are open to smart people and not-smart people but not people who go to school.

20 replies
  1. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I know two genius kids. Their parents do not talk about their genius. Their parents are trying to figure out how to manage their genius, help them find friends, finding ways for them to deal with the behaviors that correspond with that genius.

    On the other hand, I know kids who most definitely are NOT genius. Their parents are busy talking about their level of genius. The kids are struggling under the weight of their parents expectations knowing full well they are of average intelligence.

    No one in my home is genius. We are loud, hard working, inventive, demonstrative, and determined, but genius? No. Thank God.

  2. christy
    christy says:

    Speaking as someone who has been repeatedly told by professionals that I am a “genius” in terms of IQ, blah, blah, blah, I assure you that genius does NOT equal happy.

    Genius is something you manage; like Aspergers, diabetes, or OCD. Sure, you might come on some amazing thing and be recognized by the world for it. This is really no different than the way in which some actors are propelled to stardom.

    It’s luck. The rest is managing the borderline madness in ways that keep you from becoming another Ted Kaczynski.

  3. Karen
    Karen says:

    It’s just another example of a certain type of parent who has a patholigical need to live vicariously through their children. You see these parents everywhere but I think it’s most visible in athletics. The parent didn’t make it as an athlete so they are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that their kid does – even if it kills them and they seem to thrive on making spectacles of themselves on the sidelines – screaming and yelling all the time. For whatever reason they are people who just cannot accept that they themselves are not special or extraordinary so finding that kind of quality in their kids becomes an obsession.

  4. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    It’s SO refreshing to hear someone call out the cult of “genius worship” in our culture!

    Thanks for reminding us about the realities of genius’ often troubled personal lives ala A Beautiful Mind—I find that movie so scary, it’s hard to watch.

    People really need to rearrange their priorities and help their kids be good and happy—not hailed as “geniuses”!

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    The truth is… all kids are caged in at school; not just geniuses. As long as education is compulsory then the comparison to prison will always be a valid one.

    We can say schools cage in geniuses, average intelligence and below average intelligence students. They cage in right-brained and left-brained students. They cage in boys and girls.

    The canned curriculum and one size fits all Common Core standards are just another prison level being enforced.

    Geniuses will not thrive in traditional school… but then again, take away the word Geniuses and insert your own child’s name and it’s still a true statement.

  6. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    Yes Yes Yes!

    The only thing telling a kid they are a “genius!” accomplishes is to make them feel like everything they do is not quite good enough. Because if they are a Genius! they should be accomplishing MORE and FASTER, right?!

    My husband has always been good at math and science, which makes a kid particularly ripe for Genius! labeling, and I think it has done nothing but make his life harder, particularly harder for him to be happy with whatever he is doing. And anyway, it’s more about the size of your pond than how big of a fish you really are- you can be a Genius! in a small town and then just be a regular smart person someplace else. Best to not build your identity on qualities that are totally relative.

  7. Barchbo
    Barchbo says:

    I have been a teacher of both the gifted and special ed. People say: wow, that’s a big difference! In the truly gifted, that giftedness truly becomes something to manage much like any accurately identified disability that would get an IEP. They all fall under the umbrella of special populations but good luck getting an IEP for a gifted kid.

    School gifted programs are a joke and totally over-identify kids just to build up the class sizes and the poor truly genius kids are still struggling to fit in AND get services.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Thank you for your resposnse Barchbo. Schools are not particularly well designed for any children, but the further from the norm that the child is, the more toxic school is for them. Most non-Genius!-children may not flourish. But the Genius!-children are in serious danger for all kinds of serious psychological and emotional shit. And people seem affronted that they may deign to drain resources because “they’re smart, they’ll figure it out.” But they probably won’t because of attitudes perpetuated by people who insist that being gifted is, indeed, a gift. It can be. but only with the right support. And if people are shamed into silence, how on Earth are people supposed get the help they or their children need. This post makes me so sad.

      BUT, I am so very happy for the students that had the good fortune to have encountered Barchbo.

  8. Zak
    Zak says:

    I’m almost 20 now and being a “Genius” has caused me all sorts of problems. Most of which I’m only just beginning to realise.

    School was easy for me. Far too easy. For over a decade I never had to work hard to get top grades, so I didn’t. Last year I had an offer to study Mathematics at Oxford University, and lost it because I finally encountered exams which required some serious effort to ace, and putting in serious effort was completely alien to me.

    If I could, I would gladly trade a chunk of my IQ for Self Discipline and Motivation.

    Your blog has really resonated with me Penelope. I need something to keep reminding me that potential is useless without application.

    Thank you for your work and please keep it up.

  9. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    I think you could replace “genius” with “talent” and have the same problem. If you’re told how talented you are, you get the idea that you have been chosen and do not have to work at it. There are also expectations that come along with that that causes a lot of pressure. Maybe we should praise perseverance, determination, discipline, etc. instead of “genius” and “talent.” Plus, I really hate when parents brag about their child being “gifted” because it’s nothing more than a p–ing contest where parents compete with each other through their kids.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Who cares if you’re a genius? Shut up and hold the door for someone.”

    LOL! because this so true. I’m just so glad I wasn’t drinking something at the time I read this gem. Otherwise, it would have been coming through my nose!

    The real genius from the 60 minutes story is Jake’s Mom. She pulled him out of school and didn’t take the advice of professionals. She gave him enough “space” and the correct environment to pursue his interests – the things that made him content and satisfied. I think a lot of homeschooling parents make similar decisions although many times not based on the IQ of their child. I think the decision to homeschool is a hard and brave decision for many parents (especially for those who are doing it for the first time and who aren’t familiar with it) and yet have to “give it a go” because the school experience for their child is that bad.

    • J-Madison
      J-Madison says:

      “The real genius from the 60 minutes story is Jake’s Mom. She pulled him out of school and didn’t take the advice of professionals.”

      I agree, and this was what intrigued me about the story. I wanted to hear more from the parents about what they did and how they did it.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        J-Madison, if you do a search for “The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism” (title of the book written by Jake’s Mom), you’ll find numerous links to web sites that sell the book as well as articles that reviewed the book and even an interview (audio) of Jake’s Mom by WNYC.

  11. redrock
    redrock says:

    True genius is rare – very rare. It seems out of proportion how many here confess to either have tested at genius level or have genius level children.

    Apart from this statistical discussion: talent is good, and hard work is good. Talent should be treasured and supported in its development, and hard work should be treasured and supported. Why minimize someones achievements if they are combined with a talent? Is it less worthy to be an excellent physician if it is combined with a unique talent? Why not be positive about talent and hard work? Hard work can make a talent bloom – solving a problem is not less worthy if one has a talent for problem solving.

  12. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Parents of truly gifted children often feel very torn. They want to do what is right and best for their child but they don’t want others to think they are “bragging.” For this reason It is hard to find people to talk to about all the problems associated with being gifted. The parent knows it is no fun in so many ways to be gifted. If a parent has a truly gifted child, they would not be bragging, believe me. Very often it is actually very hard to come to terms and to accept that your child is gifted so it would be nice to withhold judgements of parents when all the facts are not known.

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