How Is Your Child "Smart?"

by Rae Pica

Helping a child to utilize his own special strengths and skills may mean looking beyond what the policy makers and society typically consider "smart." Or as developmental psychologist Howard Gardner has put it, you shouldn't be trying to determine how smart a child is; rather, you should be trying to determine how a child is smart.

Gardner wrote an influential book called Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In it, he contends that intelligence isn't a singular entity that can be measured only with paper and pencil. Rather, he says, we each possess many different kinds of intelligence, in various combinations and to varying degrees. To date, he has recognized nine different intelligences, all of which he's identified through a rigorous scientific process. For our purposes, though, the important point is that Gardner describes an intelligence as the "ability to find and solve problems and create products of value in one's own culture."

Although Gardner intended his work for the field of developmental psychology alone, an interesting phenomenon happened: educators pounced on the idea. Why? Because for generations they've witnessed multiple intelligences in the children with whom they've worked. Although our society most values the linguistic ("word-smart") and logical-mathematical ("number-smart"/reasoning) intelligences -- the two intelligences measured by IQ and other standardized tests -- teachers could see that many of their students had other gifts, other ways of "learning and knowing."

In addition to the linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences, Gardner has identified the visual/spatial (an understanding of how things orient in space), naturalist (determines sensitivity to one's environment), existentialist (belonging to people who question why they exist), interpersonal (the ability to relate well to others), intrapersonal (knowing oneself well), musical (a fascination with sound and the patterns created by sound), and bodily/kinesthetic (the ability to solve problems or create with the body or body parts).

It's important to remember that each of us possesses all of these intelligences but, as mentioned, to varying degrees and in different combinations. A surgeon, for example, has highly developed logical/mathematical and bodily/kinesthetic intelligences; the former incorporates the scientific aspect and the latter the meticulous use of the hands.

Where do your child's strengths lie? Does your son love to putter in the garden with you? He may be strong in the naturalist intelligence. Does your daughter create art everywhere, using everything from building blocks to mashed potatoes? Her greatest strength may lie in the visual/spatial intelligence. Is your child constantly dancing, indicating a developing bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, with some musical intelligence thrown into the mix?

When you're tuned in to a child's passions, skills, or intelligences -- whatever we may call them --you can support their development and offer the child encouragement. Biology will certainly have played a role in her interests and strengths, but the mainstream culture and the home culture are also influences. And since the mainstream culture -- society and the school system -- focuses on only two intelligences, you can help provide some balance in a child's life. This will be especially important if her strengths don't happen to lie within the linguistic or logical/mathematical intelligences.

As Gardner and his followers point out, it's difficult to identify special skills when we don't introduce young people to a variety of experiences. When the focus of schooling is on so few subjects, how is a child to discover passions that lie beyond such narrow boundaries? How is a child to unearth a love of landscape design, note a talent for composing, or cook up a desire to be a chef if his experiences have been limited to grammar, numbers, and technology?

One other point of which you should be aware: a child will use different intelligences for different tasks. For example, if she makes up a poem to help her remember historical dates, she's using her linguistic intelligence. If she makes up a song, she's using her musical intelligence. If you ask her to find a way to fit all of the toys back on their shelves, she'll have to call on her visual/spatial intelligence. And if she has to add by counting on her fingers, she's using her bodily/kinesthetic intelligence to get the job done. That's why it's important to give her a chance to further cultivate all of the intelligences. Opportunities to dabble and play can provide that chance.

At the preschool and elementary school ages, follow the child's lead, but don't get too invested in any one particular pastime. You certainly don't want to decide the rest of his life based on what you see in the earliest years. Children -- and their interests and skills -- evolve. And when he eventually discovers skills in many areas, as he's likely to do, he'll be able to make his own choices about his passions. That's why, whether we're talking about predominant intelligences, school grades, or the results of standardized tests, it's important to refrain from putting any labels on a little one. Instead, just know that the real standards for "smart" aren't found in school grades and test scores.

Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child (Marlowe & Co., 2006). She has shared her expertise with such clients as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Centers for Disease Control, Gymboree Play & Music, and the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. You can visit Rae at

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