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In our work with families and schools, we’ve noticed that people sometimes confuse encouraging the development of children’s real-world intelligence—that is, raising smarter kids—and raising their IQs. It’s a distinction worth noting. Here’s why.

Intelligence is so much more than a score on a test. Secrets for raising smarter kids, include keeping the emphasis on thinking, learning, challenging, creating, finding balance, playing, working hard, collaborating, persevering, and becoming wise. Boosting a child’s real-world intelligence may boost his intelligence test score, but not necessarily. And vice versa.

If someone achieves a very high IQ, it means she’s great at analytical problem-solving, especially with words; she’s fast on her feet on short-term memory tasks, and she’s got a good store of general mainstream knowledge facts at her disposal. But it doesn’t mean she’s creative or practical or kind. It doesn’t mean that she’s good at making friends, or that she knows how to grow vegetables, throw a ball, play a musical instrument, or fix a computer. There are a lot of ways of being smart that are not included in a person’s IQ.

Intelligence tests were originally created to assess learning problems, and that continues to be their main—and best—use. An analysis of how a person does on a test can be helpful in identifying problems in processing information or informing teachers about useful changes they can make. A high IQ is a meaningful indicator of advanced reasoning ability (as well as excellent test-taking skills) at a certain point in time, but a lower score may or may not indicate less advanced intellectual ability.

Although many people believe that IQ is permanent, it isn’t. If a child doesn’t do well on an IQ test, that doesn’t mean he won’t do a lot better if he’s tested a few years later. How well a person does at a given point depends on a lot of factors, including his motivation and health when taking the test; what else is going on in his life; and the way the test is designed, which changes across the age continuum. And the younger a child is when he’s tested, the more likely his scores are to change substantially over time.

One of the biggest problems with IQ testing is the persistent scoring differences across race, geography, and socioeconomic status. For decades now, in spite of many attempts to reduce the scoring gaps, there continues to be a large difference favouring children from white and Asian suburban middle-class homes. These differences reflect real differences in opportunities to learn.

In addition to all these limitations, IQs have little to do with how effectively children adapt to different environments, how well they learn from experience, whether they’re likely to invest the hard work overtime that’s necessary for success, or how they deal with obstacles. There’s good reason to think these attributes and habits of mind are a lot more important in developing children’s intelligence than are the skills that are signified by a high IQ.

So, if intelligence-building isn’t about boosting IQ, what is it about? What are the secrets of raising smarter kids? We’ve developed a short quiz to help parents get started in thinking about the possibilities:

  1. Do you listen carefully to your child, and respond thoughtfully to his questions, comments, and concerns?
  2. Do you encourage playfulness, ensuring she has ample time for unstructured play and discovery?
  3. Do you look for opportunities to kindle your child’s interests? His creativity? His curiosity?
  4. Do you help your child develop a growth mindset—emphasizing effort and practice, and seeing setbacks as learning opportunities?
  5. Do you pay attention to what’s happening at school? Does it match your child’s learning needs? If not, are you working with the school to figure out how to make the necessary changes?
  6. Are you available to offer support and guidance when needed (especially including times of change, adversity, or challenge)?
  7. Do you step back to the extent it’s possible, so your child can take responsibility for her own learning and growth?

A parent who can answer “Yes” to five or more of these questions, is probably already doing a great job of raising smarter kids. And no matter the score, any questions you’re not sure about containing some new secrets to explore.

Intelligence-building occurs step by step over time, and no test score can reflect that dynamic process very well. As Malcolm Gladwell said, “If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” That’s not what IQ measures, but it is real intelligence!

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