I once dated a guy who compulsively tested and re-tested his IQ with online quizzes. When his scores rose each week I assumed he was a self-involved cheater, not a genius. Maybe I should have given him due credit for finding loopholes in the system. Perhaps cracking the codes of the interweb is today’s claim to genius status – after all, who needs complex symphonies and mind-numbingly difficult mathematical equations?
The truth is, society searches for composers and mathematicians – everyone wants to be reminded that works of staggering genius exist. Geniuses inspire us, Nathan Birch stresses in a recent article, as well as make the general public bemoan their horribly average mental capacity.
Popular television is rife with shows like the FOX program So You Think You Can Beat A Fifth Grader? Essentially, the show is a battle for wits and money – the smartest contestant takes home thousands of dollars – which takes place between full-grown adults and fifth grade students. The questions range from trivial details of the American Constitution to ‘which organ is attached to the human appendix?’
Children reel off answers like actual geniuses, or well-oiled machines, while the adult contestants mainly stare into the camera, dumbfounded. Paul T. Anderson’s Magnolia explores the heartbreaking corruption that often takes place in the dark backstage spaces of such shows.
Two of Magnolia’s characters are champions on the TV show What Do Kids Know? An ex-Whiz Kid, Donnie Smith, is a miserable middle-aged man whose only claim to fame is that he was once a veritable child genius. His money-grubbing parents long ago claimed the entire fortune he amassed from appearing on the show, leaving him to work as a salesman in a dingy electronics store. The other Whiz Kid, Stanley Spector, is the smartest child on the show – primarily because he has been turned into an obsessive study maniac by his forceful, money-hungry father. The film ends with him having a nervous breakdown; the pressure to constantly win was just too high.
Although Magnolia is an entirely fictitious film, I am inclined to think that Anderson’s rendering of the quiz show world speaks – albeit in an exaggerated manner – to the immense stress parents, teachers, institutions and peers often place upon teenagers.
It is important to recognize the wildly intelligent among us. Equally as essential is encouraging children to do their best. I commend Nathan Birch’s online article for turning dramatic differences in IQ into something laughable. Magnolia, however,is also laudable as a work that forces us to question the darker implications of childhood/teenage stress and over-achievement.
Encouraging one’s child to do well is a pivotal part of any parent’s life. However, helping kids maintain a healthy balance between work and play is absolutely essential. I attended International Schools around the world for most of my high school career. The pressure to do well in these schools is immense – some children start studying for their SATs in their first year of high school and many are involved in scores of extracurricular activities, in addition to earning straight-As.
While the pressure can have negative affects on some students, it is certainly better than the extreme lack of parental guidance that I witnessed during my only year of public high school in Quebec, Canada. The number of dropouts at this school was overwhelming; a few kids that I had known in elementary school didn’t even make it past grade 9. Many didn’t continue on to college or university – a striking contrast from a schools like ISB or WAB where students go on to some of the best post-secondary institutions in the world.
Returning to my earlier query, we must ask what parents can do? The Cincinnati Children’s Organization recommends, “appealing to a teen’s internal self-motivation.” This means being involved in your child’s social and academic life but also remembering to take a step back to help children find healthy motivation from within. Dr. James Myers argues that some teens allow their parents to do all the worrying about their academic success, causing them to lose all academic focus. Alternately, parents do so much worrying that children bend over backwards to please them. Neither scenario is beneficial for the parent or the child.
Read up on child prodigies–slip in a comment about Akrit Jaswal’s plans to cure cancer and create a dinosaur to inspire your child if you must – but remember that everything is relative and the contemporary mass media obsession with ‘genius’ as a money-maker or celebrity may sometimes be more harmful for your teenager than it is fun.