Picture the Renaissance Toddler. She can draw brilliantly, play piano beautifully, write poetry, built architecturally block towers, sing like a bird, recite Shakespeare, and know the name of every flower in the garden. When parents are pregnant—or adopting, or IVFing—it’s only natural to fantasize about their baby growing into a little Leonardo or Leonarda Da Vinci. Rest assured, approximately one couple out of three billion, every five hundred years, will get what they wished for.
The rest of us, however, will have to settle for a little bit less, nervously so. Although most of us brag from birth about our children’s achievements (“she found her toe at only six weeks!”), we’re also on the lookout for intellectual shortcomings. A kid isn’t reading Harry Potter by age 6? He can’t count by twos to one hundred by age 5? “Every parent worries that there’s something wrong with her child,” says Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius and In Their Own Way, among others. “The focus is on what the child isn’t doing—in terms of standard academics—instead of parents watching to see what the child does right.”
Forgive parents our pride; we can’t help but rush to quantify our children’s intellects. It’s so important, after all. SATs. College admission. Their whole future depends on how well they perform in school. We search for signs of genius every time a kid reaches for a book, puzzle or game. Early on, we read to them, show flash cards, try to lay the groundword, hope something useful will soak into their infant brains. The intention is honorable. But parents’ efforts to push the standard academic agenda ignores the kids’ potentially deeper, innate intellectual gifts. Parents shouldn’t be asking “How smart is my child?” but rather “How is my child smart?”
“A lot of parents typically think there are two ways to be smart: reading and math,” says Laura Kennedy, elementary school director at the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho. “But there are many ways to be smart. If you’re a good athlete, you’re smart. If you’re a so-called social butterfly, you’re smart.” You might not be aware (I wasn’t until I started researching this article) that there are, actually, EIGHT ways to be smart (possibly nine; jury still out on “existential”), as defined by Harvard University psychologist and professor of education Howard Gardner in his groundbreaking book and/or theory Multiple Intelligences (henceforth referred to as MI). Each of the eight types is distinct. Most of us have a dollop of each, with one or two dominating.
Although, inarguably, some types of intelligence might be more useful in a classroom than others, “Parents should realized the value of each type, and be open to seeing it in their children,” says Armstrong. “Think in terms of gifts, not trouble areas. Fixating on words and numbers limits the vast range of what we recognize as intellectual behavior.” (For the record, intellectual behavior as such is the ability to solve problems, and produce objects or ideas of value.) Without further ado, prepare to open your mind and see a spectrum of smarts, a wide world of wisdom. To wit, the eight types of intelligence are:
1. Verbal or Linguistic. In a word, words. Children with this type love reading, writing, word play, books, stories, letter games, talking, debating. Picture a pintsize T.S. Eliot.
2. Mathematical or Logical. Go figure, numbers. As you might expect, kids here excel at math, pattern recognition (2, 4, 6, 8), reasoning (if a + b = c, does c – b = a?). Think of an eensy Einstein.
3. Spatial. Imagine, pictures. The visually atuned kid loves to draw and paint. They obsess over building towers, think in three dimensions, are fascinated by maps, charts, coloring books, mazes. A future Frank Lloyd Wright.
4. Kinesthetic or Bodily. Contrary to the popular misconception, jocks are not dumb. They have body smarts. Kinesthetic types are athletic, express themselves with movement (tiny dancers), dig play-acting, prefer toys with moving parts and think better on their feet, literally. A mini Michael Jordan.
5. Musical. Kids with resounding musical intelligence hear tunes everywhere, recognize notes, pick up melodies, hum and sing constantly, are drawn to music, learn via song, communicate with music, like Mozart.
6. Interpersonal. These are kids who work and play well with others. They are born communicators, comfortble in groups. They’re leaders, sensitive to others, grasp social dynamics, are often back-handedly complimented as “social butterflies.” Hello, Oprah Whitney.
7. Intrapersonal. The self-knowledge type, for kids who are reflective, introspective, spend lots of time alone, ask questions about themselves, make observations about themselves. A potential Plato.
8. Naturalistic. Possessing not only a love of the great outdoors, little botanists are classifiers, experimenters. They observe and study, run tests, make lists, such as (1) Charles Darwin, (2) Jacque Cousteau, (3) Louis Pasteur.
Intelligence typing will, no doubt provide amusing fodder for your next dinner party. But you might be wondering how the theory, fascinating as it is, can serve you as a parent. “If you nurture an intelligence, it will no doubt grow stronger,” says MI godhead Gardner. “What may also happen is that a child will gain in self-confidence and that may embolden her to try out something challenging that she might not have been prepared to tackle before.” What’s more, he says, “By nurturing strengths, you let the child see that he’s good at something. It’s terrible to go through life thinking you are incompetent. Everyone has relative strengths. We don’t all have to become law professors, poets or statisticians. Better to know and value your strengths than to feel frustrated forever by your relatively deficient linguistic and/or logical capacities.” Kennedy says, “I hate it when parents are dismissive about non-academic forms of intelligence. Don’t downplay it. Celebrate it!”
“Well, my two year old Jo has a habit of eating his food and then spitting it out. Is that regurgitative intelligence? Should I celebrate that? My four-year-old Eoin loves to put all his toys on the floor and kick them around the room. Is that destructive intelligence?” asks Jon Kuhlman, father of two from San Carlos, California. “Are there eight types of stupidity, too?”
We laughed at his jokes. I can understand his resistance to MI theory. Kuhlman, I can tell you, is a bona fide genius at mathematics. He scored a perfect 800 on that part of his SATs. For academic stars, it’s only natural to be suspicious of a theory that puts athletic ability and social skills on par with mathematics, giving these “intelligences” equal value and weight. The world irrefutably insists that reading and math—linguistic and logical talents—will always be prized above any creative, social or athletic proclivity. The SATs will never include a section on four-part harmony. You won’t get into Harvard (paging Dr. Gardner) if you can sink ten shots in a row from the foul line (actually, maybe you could . . .).
Then again, another tenet of the theory is that strength can compensate for—or be used to overcome—a weakness. For example, “You can mobilize linguistic and spatial intelligences to negotiate a math problem,” says Gardner. In other words, a budding artist can learn that one plus one equals two like this: Ask her to draw one cupcake for Barbie, and one for Kelly. If both were to sit around the table, it’d be a tea party for how many? She thinks it’s an art project, but you know it’s a math lesson.
In the school environment, Principal Kennedy says, “Good teachers and parents open pathways for kids to capitalize on their natural strengths to build up weakness.” For example, how to make reading and math easier for a kid with a kinesthetic leaning? “Teach the alphabet with tiles that he can move around; teach counting with clapping,” she said, citing top-of-the-head examples. What of the spatially inclined kid who can’t remember letter sounds? “Have her draw the letters to match a sound. S is for snake. O is for orange,” she says. “Give musical kids tapes to learn with. An interpersonal child will do best by talking and in groups. Intrapersonal kid might prefer keeping a journal.” On the other hand, a kid can’t use his fabulous verbal skills to jump higher and run faster. Some weaker intelligences can only be improved by facing the challenge head on with hard work and practice.
Tailoring learning for intelligence type is a fairly straightforward refocusing. A parent need only filter input through the prism of a child’s dominant intelligence. But first, you have to figure out your child’s natural speciality. Sometimes, if you have a little Mozart on your hands, dominant type is easy to identify. “Oliver, my two-year-old, is an athlete,” says Tomas Rossant, father of two sons in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. “He walked early. His favorite toys have always been balls. When he goes to the park, he zooms right up the jungle gym, and can play by himself for hours. He’s all about the physical. He talked late, in fact, he doesn’t like to talk much at all.” Along with kinesthetic, I suspect Oliver is an intrapersonal intellect. To wit, his ability to amuse himself in a park full of other kids, he’s not a chatty Ken. “It’s true. Oliver is independent. He always tried to solve his own problems.” Problem solving, eh? Well, that could indicate logical intelligence, too…
This is tricky business. Gardner doesn’t like any kind of test or paper evaluation. “I recommend going to a richly furnished children’s museum,” he says. “If you just watch what your child gravitates toward, sticks to and, most especially, gets more skilled at, this will give you a rough and ready view of his present profile of intelligence. So if the child spends a lot of time building with Legos, that points to spatial and perhaps bodily or logical intelligence. If the child spends a lot of time listening to music, or creating melodies out of bells or a xylophone, that points to musical intelligence.”
“Points to” he said. That hardly instills confidence. “First of all, parents shouldn’t get hung up on finding only one dominant type. Each child has a unique combination of intelligences,” says Armstrong. Besides which, the dominant intelligence may be fluid. “Your child might be focused on art now,” said Armstrong. “She might be in an art phase. Spatial intelligence could be one among several of her gifts. Her greatest passion might not emerge until later on.” So there’s the shifting floor to contend with, too.
Kennedy uses a checklist along with observation to evaluate each student’s MI profile at the beginning of the school year. “Over the course of an afternoon, in a variety of settings, I observe a group of students,” she says. “Always, the kids gravitate toward their interests. One kid curls up with a book, another wants to talk, another plays by herself with cars and building bridges with blocks. In combination with the evaluation form I give to parents, I can identify their strengths fairly easily.”
Armstrong prefers an extended diagnostic period. “The home environment should be full of music, art, books, plants,” says Armstrong. “Over the course of a week, or month, present opportunities for your child to engage in all their intelligences. Provide experiences in all areas—going to concerts, museums, taking hikes in the woods, playing sports—and observe how you child responds. I know some parents would love a checklist, or a kit on how to assess intelligence type. The answer won’t be found signing up a kid up for a million classes, either. Instead, offer a variety of activities to do together. You pick up on your child’s intellectual strengths, and strengthen your relationship at the same time. You won’t do either by turning on the TV.”
Almost as challenging as figuring out a child’s intelligence type, is accepting it. Parents can be unwittingly prejudiced by their own talents. For example, a writer with the initials V.F., who doesn’t have a musical bone in her body, might be looking so eagerly for linguistic talent in her daughter, that she overlooks Maggie’s—I mean, her daughter’s—musical talent. “Parents need to be wary of positive narcissism—the one thing I could do was play soccer, so my child must play soccer,” says Gardner, “as well as negative narcissism—the one thing I could not do was play the clarinet, so my child must do it.”
“I’m relieved my sons don’t seem to like to write,” says Laura Billings, mother of two (number three pending) in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and her husband Nick Coleman are both columnists for Twin City newspapers. “Not to say writing isn’t important. But my kids could ignore it entirely and go on to have good, lucrative careers that are important in the world. I’m not working hard to discourage an interest in writing. We’re sitting back, and letting them find their own passions.” Billing’s son, Mac, 3, appears to have found an abiding passion in insects, presenting naturalistic smarts. “He can name every bug in the yard,” she says. “We watched Master and Commander together, and the Paul Bettany character—the ships surgeon who was obsessed by animals and bugs—reminded me of my son. I though, ‘Mac is the beetle loving doc.’”
Jon Kuhlman says, “Okay, my son Jo has a talent for imitation. He makes animal sounds, and tries to copy my speech. He loves to make weird noises and bang on the piano. I guess that would point to linguistic or musical.” He pauses. “But that’s not all he is.”
Goes without saying. A child is not a type, or a label. MI is a guide, to help parents understand their children better and help them learn and gain confidence. Labeling is Kennedy’s pet peeve. “I hate that,” she says. “Putting a label on a kid is a disservice, even if it’s seemingly positive. I was labeled a smart kid because I was an early reader. My entire academic career, from kindergarten, was based on that, and I was pushing in only that one direction. So many kids have potential in the arts or athletics. I always ask groups of parents, ‘How many of you struggled in school or weren’t great students?’ The number of parents who raise their hands is astounding, and yet, here they are, in a community of high achievers. Using MI in a school curriculum eliminates the damage of feeling inferior, and allows kids to be successful in a wide range of areas from the start of their academic careers. I don’t want parents to be limiting about their child’s abilities—or the abilities themselves.”
With good reason. Discouraging a child’s natural talents can have life-long consequences. “Say you’ve got a kid who loves to draw,” puts forth Armstrong. “But the parent doesn’t want his kid to be an artist. He thinks that’s a waste of time. He doesn’t see the value in it. The child is coerced to give it up, and put all her energy into reading so she’ll be a better student. Twenty years later, she’s working at some desk job, using words, looking back sadly at art as something she loved but left behind.”
Right about now, you might be reminded of a friend or acquaintance whose parents pushed him to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, when what he really wanted to do, more than anything in the world, was dance.
My own father comes to mind (not the dancing part). He was pushed to become a doctor by his parents, when what he really wanted to do, more than anything in the world, was be a farmer. Hand to God. For various reasons, he had to stick with doctoring, but he retired as soon as possible at age 60. Immediately after, he moved to a farm in Vermont, and went to grad school to get a Masters in geology. He’s happier than he’s ever been, finally getting the chance to put his born naturalist intelligence to work after a wait of six decades.
That won’t happen to my daughters, even if they do, as they’ve threatened repeatedly, try to become rock stars. I will support them. I’d hate for my kids to look back sadly at music or art as something they loved and left behind. We can all agree, with a generation or two of enlightened parenting under our national belt, that our kids’ potential happiness does not hinge on making their parents’ dreams come true.