In our culture, childhood has become a pretty competitive place. Many parents are pushing their kids to stand above all the others, to be the prodigy that earns the most applause. In school, students are divided up into “gifted” and “regular” classes, and some are deemed worthy of “honors” classes while others are not. Media outlets regularly air stories about kids who can paint like Rembrandt or are ready for college at twelve, and TV shows like Little Big Shots perpetuate the idea that some kids are more special than others.
As an educator, I feel a bit uncomfortable with this trend. While some kids may thrive under the pressure to succeed in the extreme, many other kids are left behind, adopting at an early age the belief that they are not one of the smart or special ones. This is a tragic loss of potential since not all talent blooms in childhood. In fact, there is no reason at all to think that someone who develops a skill early necessarily ends up ahead of someone who does later in life. While there are some Mozarts in the world who showed great ability in childhood, there are also many great figures who were just ordinary children. As parents and educators, I believe our job is to nurture the genius in every child, not just a special few.
Recognizing every child’s genius begins with transcending a narrow definition of intelligence. Too often, people define as “smart” those who excel in traditional academics, which focuses on math and language skills. In the 1980s, a developmental psychologist, Howard Gardener, challenged this notion with his “multiple intelligences” theory. Per his theory, there are many other intelligences beyond those typically measured by IQ and SAT exams. Gardner now identifies nine distinct types of intelligence:
- Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence – the ability to recognize shades of meaning in words, to develop a good vocabulary, and to form words into complex, original sentences. Talents: writing, poetry, speaking, reading.
- Mathematical-Logical Intelligence – the ability to think abstractly and to recognize and understand logical and numerical patterns. Talents: mathematics, science, computers, problem solving.
- Musical Intelligence – the ability to recognize and repeat rhythm, and to reproduce pitch and harmony in songs. Talents: singing and musical instruments.
- Visual-Spatial Intelligence – the ability to think using imaginative, abstract visualization and to form effective visual compositions. Talents: drawing, painting, decorating, designing.
- Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence – the ability use one’s body skillfully, as in athletics or in crafts that require fine motor skill. Talents: athletics, dance, crafts.
- Interpersonal Intelligence – the ability to recognize unspoken social and emotional cues from others and to respond appropriately. Talents: empathy, care-taking, nurturing of animals and people.
- Intrapersonal Intelligence – the ability to know and understand one’s own feelings, values, and thought patterns. Talents: emotional equanimity, moral integrity, and constructive expression of emotion.
- Naturalist Intelligence – ability to understand and categorize natural phenomenon. Talents: biology, zoology, geology.
- Existential Intelligence – the ability to comprehend the larger philosophical questions of life. Talents: wisdom and spiritual understanding.
As an educator who has worked with thousands of children, I can confidently say that all children excel in one or more of these types of intelligences. There are truly no “dumb” children out there, only children that don’t fit our limited beliefs about what intelligence is. As Albert Einstein famously said, “Everybody is a genius. But if we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Unfortunately, we adults often fail to recognize, reward, and cultivate all these differing intelligences. By obsessing over grades and test scores, we have let other subtler types of intelligence, such as interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences, remain undeveloped and unrecognized. Others, like musical and artistic ability, are not treated as priorities and fall to the wayside when budgets are cut.
All these intelligences are vital to a healthy, vibrant culture and society, however. Indeed, many of the most successful people in our communities weren’t good students in school but were able to utilize passion, creativity, perseverance, and people skills to achieve great things as adults. Indeed, children who have talents in all sorts of intelligences deserve the chance to develop them fully to become the best version of themselves. Also, those who are less talented in some intelligences deserve the chance to develop those more, too. For example, everyone needs to develop intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence for the sake of good relations with self and others, even if that does not come naturally. The same is true for musical, artistic, and athletic abilities. Even if a child is not gifted, or even if he or she is struggling in these areas, he or she needs to learn about them to become well-rounded and balanced, and to learn about overcoming challenges and obstacles. They depend on it, and so do we as a culture.
Here’s to encouraging all our geniuses to reach their fullest potential.