Goodbye Genius

Expectations are straining high-IQ children

Abby Hernan, Staff Writer

   Hunter College Elementary School in New York is one of the most prestigious and selective elementary schools in the country, requiring every child admitted to have an IQ of 155 or above. The school was founded to train kids to become the country’s intellectual elite. However, when a study followed the school’s children into adulthood, they found that as adults, the child geniuses were not the exceptional overachievers they had predicted. They were happy with good jobs and graduate degrees, but none of them had won a Nobel Prize or become nationally recognized in their fields. The child geniuses were simply normal adults.

   The children at Hunter College Elementary School are just one example of high-IQ children being trapped by one label: genius. Once a child receives the title “genius,” an expectation is created that they are expected to meet. They must do what the average student does but better and faster. However, this false expectation doesn’t motivate the child, it just breaks their confidence.

   On average, children receive their first IQ test at age 5. An IQ test consists of multiple components such as spatial recognition, short-term memory, mathematical ability and analytical thinking. All these components are combined into one number normally between 85 and 110, with over 140 being considered genius. Many people are tested for IQ at a young age, especially if their parents think they will yield very high or very low results.

   When a child is given an IQ, their intelligence is permanently defined: a quantitative value for a qualitative trait. But it is important to remember that while a high IQ can lead to many benefits in life, it is not the only factor in determining success. 

   “I think that [IQ tests] have very little actual weight in terms of when a child is capable of doing,” clinical therapist David Martin said. “It simply shows us where they should fall based on the appropriate conditions of their education.”

   High IQ children have abilities that an overwhelming majority of the population don’t. A child that has all the countries memorized on a map or who can do high-level math problems with ease fascinates people who can’t even as adults. They are thrown onto news articles or daytime talk shows, all saying that they are geniuses and need to be praised for their talents. 

   In 2015, a show named Child Genius discovered high IQ kids through Mensa, an organization of people with IQs in the 98th percentile, and placed them into a competition to see who was the smartest. Former Trinity Prep student Ashley Headrick was a contestant on the premiere and would make it with her team to the season finale. 

   During filming, Headrick and her team would wake up at 4 a.m. to begin their competition. Headrick remembers the first episode of the show as one of the most stressful moments of her life. She and her team had to memorize a deck of cards and recite them faster than the other team. If they could not do it, they risked being eliminated.

   “The other team went first and got every single one of their cards right in record time,” Headrick said. “I was shaking and I was like I’m ready for this. But then, they took a commercial break. I had to stand there with my teammates, just shaking with nervousness. Everyone is drinking their water and having chips and I’m having a crisis. They started filming again, and I was like we got this. We ended up beating their time, and that’s how we moved forward. But that moment before was just the most stressed I think I’ve ever been and I was 11 years old.”

   For the six weeks of filming, Ashley and her team did not get a break from the show. Even when the cameras were off, the show was not over. Ashley and her team had to always be preparing.

   “On the days that we weren’t filming, my teammates and I would meet up, and we would just drill the things that they said they would ask us on,” Headrick said. “For example, they told us that they are going to be testing us on different nerves in the human body, and you had to learn those very quickly. It was a lot of memorization. I would wake up, get breakfast and just start memorizing and we would drill.”

   Child Genius is more than just an entertaining TV show; it is what genius kids experience every day. They are told they should be getting good grades or they should be in the hardest classes. The kids begin to overwork themselves, and when they eventually get too tired and do not perform as well, they blame themselves. 

   Gifted children are placed into a strictly linear path with the end goal of gaining the highest success. They are supposed to exceed their peers, earn the highest grades and do it effortlessly. However, life doesn’t happen on a linear path; no number on an IQ test can prevent adversity. The ability to fail and grow from your actions creates a stronger and healthier relationship with working towards success. However, gifted children do not have this luxury; they are not meant to make mistakes.

   Any simple mistake is a threat to their identity. Something as trivial as a B on a quiz can make them question who they are supposed to be. They are told they should be earning the best grades with ease, so when they try their hardest and still can not reach a basically unachievable standard, they lose their confidence.

    They are also conditioned to believe that they “should” outperform their peers. Being outperformed by another student does not motivate them to try harder, it instead destroys their confidence. The ability to handle competition and losing is what makes someone a hard worker and more successful than before. However, when you are told you do not have competition, you can’t handle the possibility that you actually do. 

    “There’s not a lot of wiggle room in terms of being funny or even making mistakes,” Headrick said. “Or just having bad days like making simple calculation errors, spelling errors, grammatical errors over text, even little things like that, I always get so embarrassed. I think I’m supposed to be acting like a genius, and I can’t spell over text. In general, when you speak to people, they always expect something from you. And I had never really experienced that until after I kind of had that label.” 

   The pressures and expectations that genius kids face can manifest themselves into mental disorders that will carry on into adulthood. A study that surveyed 3,715 members of Mensa found that Mensa members had significantly higher rates of varying disorders, such as ADHD, depression and even asthma. For example, while over 10% of the people in the United States are diagnosed with some form of anxiety, that percentage is doubled in Mensans.

   However, taking IQ tests can be beneficial. An IQ test ultimately tries to give an approximate value to how someone’s brain works. It can help decide how they learn or even how they should be treated for certain disorders. 

   “If there is a possibility of a kind of disorder of some variety, whether it be high or low, or some type of personality disorder, IQ also serves as a kind of a good marker as to where different disorders might lie, and then how best to treat them,” Martin said.

   It is important to remember that high IQ is a valuable trait to have, but it is not everything. Success follows hard work and perseverance. Instead of praising a genius child’s IQ score, praise their ability to overcome and work through adversity. There is no need to stop administering IQ tests but, when evaluating an IQ test, it is important to remember that IQ does not define intelligence; it merely tries to quantify it.