Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz intelligent girl 150x150 Nobody’s Born Smart: Intelligence Develops with Time, Motivation, and LearningQuestion: My 13-year-old daughter, Piper, was tested for the gifted program and didn’t make the cut. My husband thinks we should encourage her to work hard and follow her dream of becoming a neuropsychologist, but I don’t think he’s being realistic. Is he harming her by supporting her in this dream of hers?

Answer: Your husband isn’t harming Piper at all! In fact, his attitude is beautifully aligned with current research showing that intelligence develops over time, with motivation and opportunities to learn.

Psychologists and other experts have been debating about the nature and definition of intelligence for a long time. I love the way Stephen Hawking put it: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

The current consensus (nicely aligned with Hawking’s perspective, and your husband’s) is (1) there are individual differences in how people interact with the environment—some babies start off as more curious than others, and—if their early environment is characterized by warmth and learning opportunities—it’s easier for these babies to become exceptionally smart; (2) early individual differences are not stable—people can change in their interests and abilities over time; and (3) a person’s intelligence quotient can be markedly different from one assessment to another, and depends a lot on the measurement tools being used.

Gifted testing and programming often give parents (and teachers) the wrong and outdated idea that some kids are highly intelligent, and that others aren’t, and that that doesn’t change. When schools identify some kids as gifted (and others, therefore, like Piper, as not gifted), they ignore the truth that intelligence develops, and instead foster the misconceptions that ability is hard-wired, limited, and measurable, none of which are true.

Interestingly, it’s neuroscience itself—the focus of Piper’s career hopes—that’s providing some of the best evidence that intelligence develops, and that Stephen Hawking was right. Recent findings on the brain’s plasticity—the way the brain changes itself in response to environmental circumstances—totally supports your husband’s decision to encourage Piper’s dreams.

If intelligence is something that changes over time, and if IQ depends on the measurement tool that’s selected, it makes good sense to encourage Piper in working hard toward her dream. And it makes no sense at all to restrict her dreams because of a so-called gifted test.

Intelligence is all about learning, and about change over time. It’s not something that some people are born with, and others not. Especially when it comes to parenting, it’s important to realize that intelligence develops, and that most people (even adults!) have a lot more intellectual ability than they ever develop .

The more that’s discovered about neuroplasticity—how the brain continues to change across the life span, even into old age—the more evidence there is that intelligence is a gradual, open-ended process. Piper’s potential success at anything (like neuropsychology!) cannot be accurately measured, much less predicted.

Norman Doidge is a neuroscientist who has written about the evidence for neuroplasticity:

Carol Dweck has done some important work showing why it’s important to realize that intelligence develops:

Joanne Foster and I have written about the nature of giftedness, and parents’ roles in supporting the development of their kids’ intelligence: and


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One Response to “Nobody’s Born Smart: Intelligence Develops with Time, Motivation, and Learning”

  1. Laura Hedgecock Says:

    Great post. It’s so important to keep benchmarks from becoming pigeon holes!

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