Is Your Child REALLY a Genius?

beautiful caucasian girl in the library

By Ann K. Howley



Pablo Picasso’s parents were so convinced that their son was an artistic genius that they saved almost every childish scribble he ever made, making him one of the most well-documented artists in history.

Conductor Lorin Maazel’s parents, who were both accomplished musicians and educators, recognized their very young son possessed perfect pitch when little Lorin correctly declared that the fading sound of a flushing toilet was a B-flat.

Every parent likes to think their kid is smart. When 2-year old Johnny uses five words instead of two to communicate he wants a ball, his proud momma smiles and feels justified that she listened to Mozart concertos while she was pregnant. For another mother, it’s a shining moment worth documenting in the baby book, when 5-year old Daisy wants to read Where the Red Fern Growsinstead of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

What does that mean, though? Is your child just smart? Or super-smart?

At 5 years old, cute Presidential expert, Arden Hayes, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show and wowed the host and audience with his knowledge of the details of the lives of presidents. Does the fact that he knows that Calvin Coolidge was born on the 4thof July mean the child is a prodigy?

When Jimmy Kimmel asked him if he was a genius, Arden honestly and adorably responded, “Yes, since I was, like, 2.”

Obviously some kids are smarter than others, and scientists, psychologists and educators have long tried to measure degrees of intelligence. There is, however, no clear definition and a lot of discussion about whether or not kids, even super-bright kids, are actually geniuses.

Prodigy, gifted or genius?

Sometimes people throw these terms around as if they can be used interchangeably to refer to kids who are super-smart. However, there are sometimes stark, sometimes subtle, differences between them.


According to a popular vocabulary website, a “prodigy” is someone who is so naturally talented at something that they become a master of that particular skill as a child. Mozart, who started composing music and playing for European royalty at age 5, was widely considered to be a musical prodigy in his era and ours. Of course, when a child is talented enough to perform at the level of a highly-trained adult, there is an expectation that this child will continue to dazzle the world with his or her amazing gift into adulthood. Interestingly, this happens less frequently than expected. Some research, including a well-known study in 1984, finds that children with prodigious talent and/or high IQs, achieve only slightly greater success in adulthood than children with average IQs. In fact, there is ample evidence that not all prodigies necessarily perform above average in other areas. In an in-depth study that began in 1975, six children who demonstrated remarkable talent in chess, math, music or writing, performed at age-appropriate levels in logic, role-taking, spatial reasoning, and moral judgment.

So the bottom line is that achild prodigy could conceivably just be extremely talented or precocious, and may or may not grow up to be exceptionally good or influential in whatever they were exceptionally good at as a child.


Perhaps the more popular, and most meaningful, term to describe highly-intelligent children is “gifted,” which, according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), has been defined, with only slight variances, by the federal government, almost every state, and the NAGC itself. Although some state definitions are based on comparing gifted children to others of the same age, the general consensus among psychologists and educators is that giftedness is a characteristic that is evident in the top 2% of students.

In Pennsylvania, being “mentally gifted” is not just equated with an IQ score of 130 or above, but could include a student’s performance and potential, as assessed by a certified school psychologist. For those children who are assessed to be gifted, the Pennsylvania state legislature requires that they have “specially designed programs or support services, or both, not ordinarily provided in the regular education program.”

Stephen’s Story

Stephen’s mother realized her 3 year old knew how to read when she went grocery shopping and he started reading store signs to her.

“We always read to him, but we didn’t realize that he had actually taught himself how to read,” she said.

Stephen’s kindergarten teacher realized that he could already read and sometimes asked him to read stories to the class. But even so, when his mom asked about having him tested, the teacher hesitated. A school counsellor explained to her that they don’t usually test kids in kindergarten. But that year, Stephen did get tested and he got into the school’s gifted program.

Today, Stephen is an easy-going, well-adjusted 5thgrader who enjoys the gifted enrichment activities, like the Geography and Architecture Bowls. He was really excited when he qualified to attend the CSI competition, which is so popular amongst the kids that only a selected number of students can participate.

Stephen happens to be the only boy in the gifted program, which, his mom says, is good for him.

“My son tends to be introverted,” she says. “But unlike most 5thgrade boys who are terrified to talk to girls, Stephen isn’t because he has to talk to them all the time.” She laughs. “He doesn’t quite get it now, but everyone tells him he’ll really appreciate that in a few years.”

Michael’s Story

When Michael was pulled out of his first grade class for several days to meet with a specialist, he didn’t know he was being tested.

“I played with blocks and the specialist asked me a lot of questions,” he recalls.

But because he was performing well beyond his grade level and qualified for the gifted program, Michael completed the first and second grade in one school year, entered third grade, and participated in the gifted program until he graduated from Bethel Park High School in 2008.

“I mostly remember the gifted program as being really fun,” he says. “We did a lot of semi-independent projects, like researching medieval times, or building bridges. The kids in the program appreciated being together and the teachers were great.”

Michael’s father recalls a heart-to-heart conversation he had with his son when he was 3.

“As I pushed him in the swing, I was telling him what his grandpa always used to tell me, which is that he would rather have a kid who was polite and kind than the smartest kid in the class. To my surprise, Michael started to cry.”

“You don’t love me because I’m smart,” Michael said.

Remembering that conversation, Michael laughs.

“Yeah, I’m probably still processing that,” he jokes.

What are indications that your child might be gifted?

I asked Lori Sutton, Director of Special Services for the Bethel Park School District, to describe the signs, behaviors or qualities that teachers look for in identifying gifted students.

“A teacher might first notice a child has advanced reading or math skills,” she said. “Chapter 16 of the Pennsylvania Code identifies multiple criteria to look for, like high level thinking skills, academic creativity, leadership and communication skills, and foreign language aptitude.”

Teachers pay close attention to a student’s high level performance on regular curriculum and diagnostic tests. Once a student is screened by these general assessments, a teacher might refer a student to be evaluated further by a certified school psychologist.

Parents, too, who think their child may be gifted, also have the right to request that their child be tested.

The purpose of gifted education is not to give parents and kids bragging rights, but to give students the individualized tools and resources they need to succeed. Sometimes this means that educators give parents the option to allow their child to skip a grade.

“The data for skipping grades goes back to the 1900s and it is considered a very effective outcome in many cases,” Lori Sutton says. “But it’s always considered on a case by case basis.”

For example, if a child has an older sibling in the next grade level, skipping a grade may not be the best outcome for that child or that family.

What about gifted underachievers?

Educator and author, Carolyn Coil, Ed.D, who specializes in learning resources and assessment, describes some of the most common myths about gifted children in a November 2012 blog post for CNN. Dr. Coil also agrees that being identified as gifted is not a guarantee of success.

“Most schools have their share of gifted underachievers,” she writes. “They often lack study and organizational skills because in the early grades they don’t need to develop them. Some get discouraged when the work doesn’t come easily, and others don’t want to look gifted because it isn’t ‘cool.’”

Lori Sutton says, “There has actually been a lot of research on gifted underachievers, who might have perfectionist personalities.”

There are other social and emotional complications that can arise. I heard of one middle school-aged boy who didn’t want to take the gifted test as his teacher and parents wished because he was afraid he would fail.

That sure seems like a lot of pressure for a 5thgrader.

Gifted education is tricky. Is it possible for a child to get straight A’s and still not qualify for a gifted program? Yes.

Is it also possible that students enrolled in a gifted program may not really be gifted? Yes, but not likely.

However, if your child does qualify for your school’s gifted program, this certainly represents the best opportunity for your child to find challenge and success in school.

So is your child REALLY a genius?

Genius. This term has, perhaps, the least clear definition. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a genius as “a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable.”

It’s true that many people think that to be labeled “genius,” a person must have an IQ over a certain number, for example, 160. But not even Mensa, the international organization of people with high IQs, requires members to be “geniuses” in order to join. The only criterion to be eligible to join Mensa, even for children, is to score in the top 2% on an approved standardized test.

Perhaps there is no broad agreement on the definition of genius because the term may have more cultural than scientific meaning. In fact, the definition of genius can be widely subjective. While many parents today might scoff if their teenager thinks Miami Cuban-American rapper, Pitbull, is a musical genius, how many made their own parents cringe when they thought the same thing about Ozzie Osbourne?

In a 2010 Psychology Today article, science writer and academic, Andrew Robinson, said that the concept of “genius is highly individual and unique,” so much so that even famous and influential luminaries can’t escape the genius debate. For example, although the general public widely accepts physicist Stephen Hawking to be a genius, some of his fellow scientists who understand his theories more than people outside the scientific community, may consider him only one of several influential and highly-respected scientists in the field of cosmology.

Essentially, there is no consensus amongst psychologists, educators, researchers, parents and teenage social media whizzes on the definition of a genius. So if you suspect your child is one, should you contact the Lifetime Channel and try to get an audition for your kid to appear on their new reality show called “Child Genius” about Mensa-worthy kids who compete against each other for a $100,000 prize?

Probably not. Although parents may feel a great deal of pride to think that their super-smart cookie of a kid is a genius, it may actually not mean much. In fact, many academics and scientists who study intelligence believe that the term “genius” should only apply to a person who makes a profound and lasting contribution to their field of excellence or study over a lengthy period of time. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development believes that “creative contribution meriting the designation of genius is one that transforms an entire domain of human knowledge.”

We’re talking Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity here.

That’s a tough bill, even for a super-smart kid to fill.

Does it really make a difference if your child is or isn’t a genius?

Having a gifted child is a rare and wonderful thing. However, if a non-gifted child, who is hardworking, diligent and organized, has almost the same chance of success in life, it makes me wonder – maybe Michael’s father was right?

Maybe all parents should appreciate having a kid who is kind and polite, whether or not he or she is the smartest kid in the class.


Ann K. Howley, author of Confessions of a Do-Gooder Gone Bad, is very proud that her two kids and two stepkids are kind and polite.