Dear Prudence

A Too-Beautiful Mind

My 4-year-old just scored high on an IQ test. Is she doomed to a life of high expectations?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
As a first-grader I was given an IQ test, scored more than 160 and was declared a “genius.” This led to years of heightened expectations, profound failures, disappointed teachers and family, and ostracism (I was skipped two grades and did not fit in socially.) I eventually dropped out of high school during my freshman year. I later managed to successfully continue my education and got a graduate degree. I’m basically happy, but not a highly successful person. My family was abusive, and I have a weird personality, but the “genius” treatment didn’t help. I’m now married and have a 4-year old daughter. Because she was somewhat shy and anti-social, we were advised to have her evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. They said she doesn’t have that, but she was given an IQ test. The psychologist literally came out to the waiting area shouting that she was “a genius!” I had a PTSD reaction to this, bundled her up and fled. I have not mentioned any of this to my husband. He was also labeled a genius at a young age, failed miserably in school, and has had a largely unsuccessful career. But he’s proud of his genius label and does not see it as part of his later problems. I fear that he would be boastful to his large and very competitive family and impose some of the heightened expectations on her that we both suffered from. Next year my daughter will begin kindergarten and I just learned that our district has a nearby magnet for students with exceptionally high IQs. My instinct is to keep my daughter far away from the school psychologist and the tiger mommies and daddies around that pressure cooker. I am not in the habit of keeping secrets from my husband or denying my child opportunities, so I’m feeling guilty. I also feel that once the cat is out of the bag, there’s little hope of normalcy for my daughter’s childhood. She’s a happy little kid right now. Advice?

—Just Wanting the Best

Dear Best,
It would be best for your girl if the adults in her life were able to not project their fears and fantasies on her little shoulders and just allow her to explore the wonders of being young. You raise a wise and absolutely legitimate point about your own early labeling and its destructive powers. In Mindset, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck explores the damage done by imposing on people a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. She writes that people who believe intelligence or talent are given and immutable end up expecting these qualities alone to lead to success (you’ve seen they don’t), and can spend more time documenting their gifts than developing them (as may have been the case with your husband). With the growth mindset, people understand their given qualities are just a starting point, and accomplishment requires effort and dedication. Understanding and applying these principles to the raising of your daughter will help buffer her against the adults in her family and at school who want to harp on an IQ number as an end in itself.

Don’t let anxiety and secrecy motivate your decisions about her education. You know you have to tell your husband about the test result and magnet school. But you don’t have to do it like the school psychologist and go bellowing her IQ and declaring her a genius. You just need to tell your husband that one of the tests shows that your kid—like the two of you—is very bright, and say this raises the question of what the best school would be for her next fall. Then you two should look at your choices with open minds. Your husband needs to listen to your concern that the magnet school will be a demanding hothouse fueled by insanely competitive parents. You need to listen to his worry that your child will eventually be bored by the curriculum at your neighborhood school. Then you should both read Mindset and get on the same page about the fact that your daughter’s intelligence test is but one data point, and that what’s important is nurturing a love of learning, an ability to take risks (and fail), and resilience. Since you and your husband both have had issues with fulfilling your expected promise in life—and you want to avoid visiting the same problems on your child—you might benefit from discussing this together with a psychologist. Just not one who believes in slapping useless labels on people.


Dear Prudence: Tempest in a Teapot

Dear Prudie,
I’ve been asked by my older brother to be the groomsman at his upcoming wedding. I’m an atheist and he’s a Pentecostal, so he’s making a significant gesture to me. However I’m uncertain about agreeing, because of his choice of best man. Some background: The “Smiths” were close family friends for many years, and they had several children, including “Paul” who was one year younger than me, and “Mary” who was a few years younger. Twelve years ago, when I was a senior in high school, Paul murdered Mary. It turns out Paul was jealous of Mary’s intelligence and popularity and craved attention for himself. He served four years in prison. Shortly after being released he was born again, joining the same church my brother attends. My mother and I both suspected Paul’s conversion was a matter of convenience. But Paul is such a pillar of the church community that my brother has selected him to be his best man. Mary, meanwhile, is no longer mentioned, as though she’s been airbrushed from the Smiths’ family history. A police officer I know who worked on Paul’s case told me that Paul never showed any remorse for his act. I’d like to know that Paul does feel remorse and abhorrence for what he did, but I also know that preparing for a joyous occasion like a wedding isn’t the appropriate time to explore this. As a result I feel uneasy about being close to Paul for this event. Am I being reasonable, or are my concerns about Paul irrelevant in this situation?

—Not the Best Man

Dear Not,
I wonder how many times Paul has read the story of Cain and Abel, and if he deeply identifies with the Bible’s first murderer, Cain, who took his brother’s life because God preferred the gifts Abel offered. What you tell is a horrifying, chilling story. But now Paul, who was a minor at the time of his heinous act, is a free man. I agree that he should be deeply remorseful and repentant in order to deserve the forgiveness he seems to have been shown, but since you’ve had virtually no contact with Paul, you can’t know if he’s expressed sorrow for what he did, or whether he feels his sins have all been washed away along with Mary’s life and death. What you’ve said points to the possibility that Paul is a psychopath and thus always a potential danger to those close to him. On the other hand, he’s been out for many years and you don’t say he’s done anything to raise alarms. So I think you should accept your brother’s offer and not mention Mary’s murder. You can be cordial to Paul during the events surrounding the wedding without becoming close to him. I know you’re an atheist, but your story makes me hope someone is lighting a candle or saying a prayer for the soul of Mary.


Dear Prudence,
I’m a guy in my late 40s in a long-term relationship and this summer I attended a street festival alone. While watching a performance in a crowded space, I couldn’t help but notice that the younger woman next to me seemed to be pointedly not shying away from the incidental contact that occurred. We were literally rubbing elbows. So I made a point of withdrawing to see if she initiated contact, which she did. At one point she seemed to be deliberately pressing her breasts against me, and I moved my arm back and forth a little. She did not recoil but eventually withdrew. We went our separate ways with no acknowledgement of what happened. I went away thinking that I may not be single but I’m also not dead, and this was the sort of tiny thrill that makes life worth living. But now I think about how ambiguous it all was and I worry that I’m a bad person, no more than a common groper. What are the chances that a younger woman would have enjoyed this casual encounter the same way I did? I’m 99 percent sure this was all consensual, but that 1 percent troubles me.

—Hands Off

Dear Hands,
As Louis CK observed recently of close public encounters such as yours, “The sensitivity of the male elbow to tit flesh specifically is unbelievable.” He goes on to say that such elbow-on-breast meetings inevitably mean “it was an accident or you didn’t have permission.” But apparently you found an anonymous woman who wanted you to rub her the right way, since from your telling she initiated it, then eventually melted into the crowd without complaint, Given your 99 percent certainty that this odd sensual encounter was consensual, you should stop worrying that you’ve become a repulsive street groper. It’s true the chances are tiny that a young woman would seek to give an older man such a thrill, but they’re not nil. So store this one in your memory bank, along with the recognition that as much as you liked what happened, it was also tawdry and left you uneasy. And the next time you’re stuck in a crowd, do not even think about feeling out the receptivity of the females pressing against you.


Dear Prudence,
At my office I buy birthday cards and circulate them for signatures and get a cake and arrange for folks to gather to celebrate. I enjoy it and nobody has ever asked me to do this. In all the years I’ve done it, nobody has asked me about my own birthday. More than a month after my birthday, I bought a card and cake for another colleague. While I sliced the cake, my boss announced that the cake was also for my birthday, and then my boss took responsibility for the fact that there was no card for me. I was embarrassed and my feelings were hurt. I would rather that my birthday be ignored than that it be acknowledged in such a shabby way. How should I handle this? My boss and I get along very well, although at times my boss can be passive-aggressive and has on a few occasions said thoughtless, hurtful things.

—Crappy Birthday to Me

Dear Crappy,
You are an attentive, thoughtful, sensitive person. It’s ridiculous that no one has thought to inquire as to which day of the year is your birthday. But you’ve got them all so spoiled with your Martha Stewart–like hosting that it’s never crossed their minds to reciprocate. You were hurt by your boss’s remark, but I don’t think it was meant to sting. Instead it was a blundering recognition that you deserve special birthday wishes, but you’re never going to get them because that would mean you have to arrange your own celebration. What you do is sweet but unnecessary. If you’re sick of it, stop. If you enjoy these birthday niceties, then when your day comes around, get a cake, have everyone gather, and say, “What do you know? Today’s my birthday!”


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