Your child is not a genius. Get over it
The desire for genius children is a powerful force in middle-class and it's making everyone miserable, especially our offspring, says Alex Proud
I’m not being mindlessly provocative here, I’m being honest. Depending on the definition of genius you use, the frequency of the ultra-clever in the general population ranges from about one in 750 to one in 10,000. I don’t know 750 or even 75 kids. So, even allowing for you being cleverer than normal, your child is almost certainly not a genius. In fact, even if you take the wishy-washy, special-snowflake, Andy-Warhol-was-a-genius definition of genius, I would still bet heavily against your child being a genius. And what is more, you shouldn’t want your child to be a genius.
Which brings me to the real question: why do you want your child to be a genius? Ten minutes’ dinner party conversation is enough to demonstrate the desire for genius children is a powerful force in middle-class Britain and is responsible for more bien-pensant angst than all the ethically sourced products in the world put together. This unhealthy genius-lust drives people to say things like, “My nine year old is reading Flaubert” before adding, “in translation, unfortunately” thus turning their ghastly boast into an even more ghastly humblebrag.
However, even though the chattering-classes are to blame for all sorts of silliness, I can’t bring myself to blame them entirely here. For some reason, in this country, we start educating kids the moment they leave the maternity ward. By four or five, we’ve got reading levels and parents are fretting: what can our preschooler’s reading level tell us about his Oxbridge prospects? About a year back, like any good parent, I was freaking out over my son’s remedial reading level. Then, suddenly, he leapt two levels in a single bound. I relaxed. Only a genius would jump two levels in one day.
All joking aside, this is hugely stressful for parents. It’s pretty horrible for teachers too. They have to write doctorate-length reports on six year olds. I imagine this must involve quite a bit of creativity. I mean, how do you stretch, “Poppy is happy, runs around a lot and can read” out over seven pages? Of course, these ludicrously over-written reports just fuel parents’ anxieties. They scour the text with all the attentiveness of a terrorist reading a nuclear reactor user’s manual, desperately looking for evidence of genius, when 90% of the report is oatmeal filler.
Parents’ evenings are a kind of role-playing version of this. You sit down an hour late because the progression-obsessed parents ahead of you have overrun their slots and the poor teacher has to construct some meaningful and compelling narrative from “Your child is doing fine”. The content of most parents’ evenings could be conveyed in a text message; I often wish it was.
However, while the middle classes are not wholly responsible for our genius fixation, they must shoulder their share of the blame. Over the last couple of decades well-off Brits have got it into their heads that they can buy anything. Leaving aside this being a slightly distasteful, American notion (we should be better than this, and not so long ago we were) it just isn’t true when it comes to your offspring. You can’t buy your kids clever. What’s more, if they’re merely above average, by sending them to some hideous Holland Park hothouse, you’re probably buying them miserable.
This leads to tragi-comic moments. When a child’s struggles with reading and maths become such that the genius hat no longer fits, parents suddenly decide they must have special needs (which, of course, are likely just a speedbump on the road to genius). Again, this almost certainly won’t be true. Alice will read in her own time – and she’ll be much happier for it.
All this can be quite funny. It’s the stuff you joke about with your wife and your more chilled out friends after a few drinks. But there are real downsides too – and these are not so amusing.
In the state system this endless scorekeeping is a terrible waste of money. Money that would be far better spent where it’s actually needed – on failing schools and kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is notable that the Finnish education system, which is widely held up to be one of the world’s best, is not obsessed with rankings. And guess what, it’s a system that works pretty well for everyone, even the gifted.
In the private sector, there’s a slightly different dynamic at work. Parents get caught up in a kind of advantage arms race. They send junior to the very best school they can afford – as that could be the crucial edge that means "ivory tower", not "redbrick". But they fail to see the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is mummy and daddy having to work so hard to pay the fees that the kids are raised by nannies, meaning the school advantage is more than offset by the parental absence and stress at home. If, five years down the line, these long hours lead to a divorce, that’s going to mess Jake up a whole lot worse than not sending him to Eton.
So choose a slightly worse school and be much better parents. Kids love being around you. Talk to them, read books with them and play games with them; teach them to talk to adults. These things are just as important as test scores – and what’s more they’re the basis of happiness. It’s not hard. Or rather it’s not hard to understand, but it is hard to put in the effort day-after-day. I am lucky enough to have the option of taking a 20% pay hit to spend more time at home. It’s been about a year now, but I’m working up to the point where, if someone asks me if my daughter is on reading level 86 or speaks fluent Mandarin, I’ll reply, “No. But she’s happy.”
Perhaps a final question we should ask ourselves is: who wants their child to be a genius anyway? In her 2010 book Gifted Lives, Professor Joan Freeman discovered that, of the 210 child prodigies she studied, only six went on to be hugely successful adults. More anecdotally, it only takes a few years in the workforce to realise that the smarts that get you four A*s are of limited applicability unless you really do want to be a rocket scientist.
Rather, intelligence is a kind of “sufficient” quantity - and someone with an IQ of 140 won’t necessarily be better at their job than someone with an IQ of 120. They probably won’t be better conversationalists and they almost certainly won’t be happier. It pains me to say this but all that whiffle about EQ and soft skills is true. Persuasiveness, empathy, resilience and charm – these have far more day to day use than having read and understood A Brief History of Time, aged 14.
In fact, I’ve always thought that there should be a class at the top universities, perhaps a week before graduation. Here you’d be taught that soon, you will be managed by someone thicker than you. And not only that, but they’ll be better at their job than you are – and a decent person.
So, as I say, your child is not a genius – and you should be thankful for this.