What do you do if your extremely petite son dreams of being in the NBA or your bright daughter struggles in the school you thought would be perfect for her? How do we help our children follow their dreams, and be all they can be? Local dad David Shenk’s new book, The Genius in All of Us:Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong gives plenty of food for thought.
Don’t be put off by the title. This isn’t a book about “hot housing” your kids. It’s really an exploration of human potential. Shenk takes a fresh look at genius though the prism of the latest research about human achievement and concludes that genius is not what most of us think it is.
Achievement, he argues, is not simply a matter of innate talent or of effort, but the intimate synthesis of both of those factors. Genes and environment interact on a micro level throughout our lives, shaping our predispositions in complex ways. This means that even cloned animals are never identical. They may have different coloring or temperaments. Without looking at their DNA you might not know they were clones at all.
We don’t clone people, of course, but we do study natural clones: identical twins. Even twins who share the same DNA, the same womb, and grow up in the same families are never exactly identical. When identical twins are separated at birth and raised in different families - the classic way researchers have tried to tease out the distinction between genes and environment - their similarities are significant. Shenk contends these similarities may be equally due to their genetic makeup and broad similarities in their up-bringing, such as social class or regional culture.
What does this tell us about achievement? Basically, it says that our capacity to influence our children is different from what we think it is. How our kids turn out is highly mediated by our circumstances. Variables like genetics, environment, culture, etc. are often far too closely knit together to untangle. This means we may as well forget about the simplistic formulae offered by parenting books and magazines and adopt a skeptical attitude to the received wisdom about child rearing.
One example is offering praise as a form of encouragement. Offering praise is second nature to most parents, but it doesn’t always turn out as we intend. Shenk draws on research by Caroline Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, to show how in a series of tests with puzzles, kids who were praised were affected differently depending on the type of praise was given. Those commended for their innate intelligence with phrases like “you must be smart at this!” consistently did far worse than children who were praised for their efforts (e.g.“You must have worked really hard!”)
Shenk isn’t the first person to write about these issues. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explore some of the same research in their book, Nurture Shock. Still, Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us is a longer, more thorough exploration, one that sheds new light on “genius” by questioning our underlying assumptions about the concept.
At the end of the book, he offers up some strategies we can use to help children realize their full potential. Recommendations include teaching our kids to “embrace failure” or helping them to pace their efforts and to stick with them over time. He also touches on things that need to be tackled collectively, such as fostering a “culture of excellence” that supports commitment and hard work. It’s a taller order than the “Parenting for Dummies” style sound bites we’re used to. In many ways its lessons apply as much to us as to our kids. Shenk’s approach demands a level of thoughtfulness foreign to the world of formulaic parenting advice. At the same time, it is more forgiving. In Shenk’s exploration there are second, third and fourth chances; parents are an important factor but not the only one. Most of all, there’s a more balanced view of potential with room for individual parents and kids to find their way together.