Deveny: They’re No Baby Einsteins

Now that your children are back in school, there's something you should know. I'm afraid your kid isn't a genius. Chances are he or she isn't even gifted. Don't feel bad. By the most generous definition, only about 5 percent of kids can be considered gifted, according to educators. Even fewer rate as actual geniuses; those sticklers at Mensa accept only those people whose IQ puts them in the top 2 percent of the population. So let's face the painful truth: 95 percent of our kids are not gifted. They may be funny and good at soccer and quite possibly more knowledgeable than we were at their age. But that doesn't make them gifted. Statistically speaking, that means even my own dear child may not be gifted, though I would never admit such a thing in public.

In my increasingly affluent Brooklyn neighborhood, however, it certainly seems that all the kids are above average. I have nodded reverently as people have proclaimed the brilliance of their cooing infants. I have heard miraculous tales of 3-year-olds who write short fiction and 5-year-olds who spout baseball statistics like Bill James. "I think I'm the only mother in New York who doesn't believe my child is gifted," says the parent of a 9-year-old who declined to be identified out of fear that her daughter might be labeled as merely smart.

Proud parents have always bragged on their kids, but in recent years there has been an epidemic of specialness. "In their parents' eyes, every child on the west side of Los Angeles is disabled, gifted or both," says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist who's writing a book called "The Blessing of a B Minus." "What parents don't realize is that there is still a normal curve! Most kids are in the middle. Some kids will never love to read or never be good at math and they can still lead productive, happy lives."

It's hard to blame parents for believing their kids are brilliant, but there is a downside. Children who grow up hearing that they are the smartest kids on the block can get the idea that everything they do should be easy, which can make it really scary to try new things. If our kids aren't actually gifted—only well above average, say—we're giving them false expectations of the way the world will treat them. And telling your kid that she is vastly superior to her classmates is probably not going to help her make friends in the lunchroom.

How did smart kids become a status symbol? The phenomenon is more pronounced in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where smarty-pants parents congregate and many of their kids have to compete to get into private schools starting at the age of 2. Other parents view gifted-education programs as a way to make up for failing public schools.

But until a few decades ago, parents tended to see their kids as the brainy one, the pretty one and the athletic one, rather than the one headed for Harvard, the one headed for Yale and the one who had to settle for Brown. During the 1990s, though, researchers began to think that a child's early experiences played a greater role in development. It wasn't long before parents got the message that gifted kids could be created through intelligence-enhancing parenting techniques. Marketers fed into their anxiety such products as Baby Einstein videos and "smart" baby food spiked with fish oil that promise to help transform the average toddler into a high achiever. So strong is this "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," writes Alissa Quart, author of "Hothouse Kids: How the Pressure to Succeed Threatens Childhood," that affluent parents who don't aspire to discover some evidence of early talent in his or her child are considered "less than fully American."

I'm starting to think being smart is overrated. We all know adults who are supersmart but somehow never learned the basic playground rules about how to play with others. And while it would be nice if my child turns out to be gifted, it would be even better if she turned out to be kind, confident and happy.

Join the Discussion