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For Parents Over Forty: Raising Happily Productive Kids

An interview on Lee Schneider's new podcast, "Baby Crazy", for parents over 40

Lee Schneider
Source: Lee Schneider

Lee Schneider interviewed me about Beyond Intelligence: Raising Happily Productive Kids, a book I wrote with Joanne Foster. Lee was particularly interested in implications for parents over 40.

Listen to the podcast

Transcript, condensed and edited for clarity:

LEE SCHNEIDER: Dona, welcome to the podcast.

DONA MATTHEWS: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

LEE: You have a great quiz right at the start of your book. I want to run down a few of those questions. You’ll tell me the answers and we’ll talk about it a bit. One of the first questions you ask is, by the time a child is three years old their intelligence level is set for life. Is that true or false?

Intelligence Develops Over Time

DONA: That’s absolutely false. It's a common misconception that kids' intelligence is set for life by age three. What is true is that those first three years are extremely important for building the brain. There’s a whole lot going into the child’s experience of those first three years that are going to make a difference to their subsequent intelligence. However, the more that is learned about the brain and how it develops, the more researchers learn about neuroplasticity and the measurement of intelligence, the more scientists are coming to the conclusion that intelligence is something that develops over time with opportunities to learn. It’s not static. It’s never set. It’s always developing. The brain is always capable of change.

By the time a kid is three years old, there’s a whole lot of really important learning that has gone on. But how smart they are or how capable they seem to be at that stage is only a very rough indicator of what’s going to happen in the future.

LEE: So that means when our child is three our job as parents just isn’t over.


LEE: There’s more to be done.

DONA: There’s quite a bit more to be done. Absolutely.

LEE: Right. How about this one: Parents should protect their children from setbacks, obstacles, and experiences of failure. Is that true or false?

DONA: Overall, in general, it’s false. The true part is it’s a parent’s job to keep their children safe. So if it’s about their safety, yes, it’s important to protect. However, it’s only through setbacks, obstacles, and failures that people learn. If people are protected from setbacks they never learn how to deal with them. So continuing to learn and grow and develop requires mistakes and failures and then paying attention to those and say, “What do I have to learn about this?” So that attitude of welcoming failure is what makes the difference between somebody who does continue to learn and grow and tends to be a lot more successful, and somebody who tries to avoid setbacks and failures.

LEE: Someone who understands that failure is going to come with the territory — that’s going to be a more resilient person a person who is willing to change versus the risk-averse person who will probably learn less.

It’s Good to Embrace Failure

DONA: Exactly. In fact, it is good to embrace or welcome failure. There’s been a whole lot of research done on this showing that people who look at failures as learning opportunities and therefore actively welcome failure achieve a lot more than others. Nobody feels good when they fail. But when something happens that might feel or look like failure, it's good to say, “OK, what can I learn from this?” And therefore learn to thank the universe for giving me this failure opportunity. People who do that, the research shows conclusively that they do a whole lot better in their lives in every way. Academically, professionally, financially, psychologically, in relationships, every domain of life is enriched by that embracing-of-failure attitude.

LEE: Fascinating. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.

DONA: We live in a culture that doesn’t support that. We live in a culture where we’re embarrassed by our setbacks and our failures. People try to hide them.

Do Highly Intelligent Children Have More Problems?

LEE: How about this one: Highly intelligent children have more social and emotional problems than other kids. True or false?

DONA: That again, as with the other two questions, the overall answer is that it is false. Yet it’s another one of those widely-held misconceptions about high intelligence: a lot of people think that those who are highly intelligent are weird. More volatile. Even more likely to have problems with mental illness.

But in fact, the research again is really clear, saying that intelligence and social-emotional development are pretty independent of each other. So you get people who have really good social and emotional strength who are also extremely intelligent. You also get people who are extremely intelligent who have terrible problems socially and/or emotionally. And vice versa. So those two things — high intelligence and social-emotional development — are independently developing variables.

The only connection between those two things — high intelligence and social-emotional problems — is that sometimes, especially with young children, it’s hard for really advanced kids to find friends of their own age. It can be hard for extremely advanced kids to connect with kids who are developing in a more normal way. It’s a temporary thing. Because as people grow older they’re more and more likely to find people who share their way of looking at the world.

LEE: Let’s go there for a second. You can see that a six-year-old kid who’s highly intelligent would be a bit of a fish out of water. The differences between a four-year-old and a six-year-old and a six-year-old and an eight-year-old are huge. How do you help that highly intelligent child get a cohort going and make friends?

DONA: These kinds of questions can only really be answered case by case. Every situation is so different. Every child is so different, so unique in their development across a number of areas. But a basic principle or a rule of thumb around all of that is that a four- or a six- or an eight-year-old is about so much more than their intelligence.

Let’s take an extremely gifted six-year-old who’s speaking and thinking much more like a nine-year-old than like other six-year-olds. There is so much more happening in that six year old’s life than the cognitive dimension. That little kid is also developing socially, emotionally, and physically. That six-year-old can play baseball with other six-year-olds and do just fine. That kid can learn music and all kinds of other things at that six-year-old level.

They’re going to be reading different things. They’re going to be asking different questions of their teachers. But the other domains are really a lot more important at that stage. So it’s important that they have areas where they are going at their own pace intellectually that can be extracurricular or it can be in a school situation.

Some kids who are extremely advanced intellectually really have a hard time socially until they find intellectual peers. For some of those kids, they’re going to need a special gifted class environment or they’re going to need extracurricular activities that keep them engaged.

The Child as a Whole Person

LEE: This really brings on the idea of looking at the whole person, seeing a child as a whole person.

DONA: Yes.

LEE: How do we define intelligence, particularly when we’re talking about kids?

DONA: There are so many ways to think about intelligence. A lot of people use an IQ or a score on a test as their short form understanding of what intelligence is. But the more that people who spend their lifetime working in this field think about it, and I would include myself in that (I’m one of those people who has spent decades thinking about what is intelligence), the more we say, “It’s really hard to pin it down. There are a lot of different well-considered definitions."

The definition that I’ve come to in my own work is that intelligence is the ability to understand complex ideas; to adapt effectively to changing environments; to overcome obstacles as we encounter them; to engage meaningfully in various forms of reasoning; and to learn from the experiences that we have. So it is not static. It’s something that develops incrementally, step by step a step. Intelligence develops in a whole number of different domains.

It makes better sense to think of a profile of intelligence across a number of different areas. You might have really highly developed mathematical or scientific or linguistic intelligence and have really bad or less developed social and emotional or musical or some other kind of intelligence.

LEE: It’s not all a bunch of horses running and at the same time.

DONA: Yes, that’s right.

LEE: You could have emotional intelligence way out in front, you could have number intelligence way out in front, or anything, right?

DONA: Exactly.

Love Is the Essential Ingredient

LEE: This is a podcast with an audience of parents over 40 so I want to talk about how different really a young child’s mind is from the mind of his or her 40 plus parents. Young children see the world differently than we do. Should we try to bridge that gap?

DONA: The mind of a 40-year-old adult is worlds apart from the mind of a baby or an infant or a toddler or a young child. There is a step-down necessary. The parents’ mind and brain are really well developed to handle complex ideas and complex reasoning and a whole lot of things all at once. Whereas the baby’s brain, the child’s brain, is just developing. So you’ve got this highly complex brain on the one hand and this brain that’s just beginning to develop on the other hand. The way to bridge that gap is love. It sounds so simple, but the more that people study the brain, the more they come down to the essential ingredient is love.

That sounds so trite. But by loving your child, by being present, by being calm and patient and present and loving, by listening to your child, you won’t go wrong. No matter how old or smart you might be.

LEE: I’m just digesting that for a moment. Because it’s clear that children really want to be witnessed, seen, and heard.

DONA: Yes. Exactly.

LEE: Among the most valuable thing you can do as a parent is seeking to understand your child in their own way. Because the uniqueness of the child is a big factor.

DONA: That’s really well said. That’s the secret.

LEE: It’s so easy to talk about and so hard to do.

DONA: It sounds so simple, right? But for that 40-year-old or 45-year-old brain, it can be really hard to step it down and forget all the intellectual stuff and just be present. As you say, the child craves being witnessed, being seen, being listened to, being understood. And it’s hard in our very fast-paced world to slow it down. To be present to a child requires a lot of disciplined patience, and the older we get, the harder that is to learn.

One of the concerns for an older parent is you’ve got this whole lifetime behind you of being the owner of your own life, being the author of your own life. Of deciding moment to moment, today, what you’re going to put your energy into.

All of a sudden when you have a little child, if you’re going to do a good job of that, you have to let all of that go. It is really hard. I think in some ways younger parents have a big advantage because they don’t have their way of living their life as set as an older parent. I think it’s more of a challenge for an older parent to slow it down and to truly listen, to be present to the young child.

The Older Parent Can Be More Reflective

DONA: People in their forties have the capacity to become more reflective. And that is really really good for children. It’s one of the reasons that grandparents can be so important to little children. Grandparents typically understand how critically important those early years are. They don’t have as much trouble slowing down to the child's thinking and feeling and processing level.

LEE: Grandparents have a great strength in being able to take a moment and really be there.

DONA: Exactly. That’s right. That’s what people in their forties are usually better at than parents in their twenties.

LEE: Yet it’s kind of a mixed bag. A few years ago I could say unequivocally that the older parent is more settled in their job, settled in their life. That’s also a liability because they’re less willing to change. But the positive side of that is they can take some time to be with a child. The household is more stable. Their relationships are more stable.

DONA: With any luck.

LEE: That’s the thing. Because in the work environment of today, a lot of us are in flux. Maybe we’re restarting a career at age 40. Things are changing for us at age 40 or 50 even.

DONA: Absolutely.

LEE: It might not be, “Oh, now I have time to pay attention to this kid.” It’s that divided attention issue which is the bane of everyone’s existence Trying to find enough time to just be present is really difficult.

DONA: That is so true. That is the challenge for all parents in our crazy fast world.

LEE: The liabilities of the older parent would have something to do with being a bit set in your ways, deciding “this is the way life is going to go.” And then this kid comes in with a completely different agenda and a completely different storyline. You have to adjust.

DONA: It’s really hard for a lot of people. The older we get the harder it is.

LEE: There’s that thing of, “Well, I know. I’ve got this. I know how to do stuff. I’ve decided.” But it doesn’t really work like that.

DONA: Exactly. Parenting is a tough job at any age.

We Can’t Predict Who Our Children Will Become

LEE: You talk in the book very interestingly about “smashing the crystal ball,” coming to terms with how we can’t really predict who our children will become in later life. But that’s the motivation for most parents. You know you say, “My kid is brilliant. So, therefore, I’m going to keep giving this parenting gig my all. I’m going to give this brilliant kid everything I’ve got.”

Parents probably don’t want to hear that their brilliant toddler may not turn out to be super brilliant later in life or will turn out to be brilliant in a different way. They may be confused that their struggling kid could turn out to be just fine. So with all those variables, with all that complexity, how do we motivate parents to keep encouraging their children? How do we get them to not consult their crystal ball?

DONA: I think the key to wise parenting for intelligence is understanding that intelligence is dynamic. It is not static. Intelligence develops over time with opportunities to learn. So the fact that you’ve got a kid who’s doing really well right now, maybe looks to be a little genius, that is fantastic. BUT there’s a whole lot of responsibility then to continue to provide learning opportunities and appropriate challenges for that child.

For many years I had a private practice where I worked with families who had issues around giftedness. So I saw a lot of kids who were really smart, but there was usually some kind of problem with that in one way or another. One of the issues that I saw over and over again with parents was a sense that, “My kid is really smart. He should be doing really well in everything.” Well, no. Your kid did really well in Grade 1 and 2 and 3, but now the challenges are different. Now maybe he’s needing to learn more about the social world. How to get along with other kids. He has something else going on in his mind. My recommendation to parents is, “Don’t get stuck in thinking about test scores." I’ve seen too many parents with kids who get a high IQ score and they think their kid is set for life.

Well, no. The child may have done really well on a certain test on a certain day. And that’s terrific. It does show a capacity for doing that kind of work at that kind of level. That’s great. That’s worth celebrating.

However, the child’s brain is continuing to develop. So it’s not over yet. The important message to all parents, whether your kids look like they’re little geniuses, or look like they’re not doing OK at all, is be positive. Understand that their brain is developing. It will continue to develop all through their lives. And you as the parent make a big difference in how well that will happen. Give them love. Listen to them. Respond to them. Again, back to those basic building blocks of good parenting. It’s just being present, calm, patient and trusting that your child will find their way with your support.

You see among parents and among people in education this idea that once a kid has a high IQ, then they are set for life. They’re smart. They’re a genius or whatever. Sometimes, maybe. But, really, it’s a work in progress.

That’s the important message for all parents. No matter how well, or poorly, your kid is doing right now, they are a work in progress. They need to be understood as a dynamic human being, somebody who’s learning and growing and changing all the time.

LEE: That’s true.

Be Open to Change

DONA: To parents, one of my frequent messages is to be open to change. Be open to the idea that a kid who’s extremely interested in math as a little kid may or may not stay interested in math. By the time the kid is 15, they may have shifted to music or social stuff or the arts. You just don’t know. Be open to change.

LEE: I wanted to ask about dealing with the super-smart super talkative kind of kid. They’re always ideating, always concepting, always working on stuff, and they’re driving everybody just a little bit crazy because they’ll talk your ear off. Now this could be a really good trait later, that inquisitive, relentless intelligence. But right now, when you’re trying to get out the door in the morning to go to school, it’s like I can answer 12,000 questions, but I can't make dinner while answering all these questions. What do you do?

DONA: I think the answer to that question is in the question itself. As a parent, you do have things you need to do, so you need to get yourself and your child out the door in the morning, and you need to get dinner prepared. What I would do with a child like that— and one of mine was like that — is leave enough time for questions. Schedule this time in, because it’s important to them and is important to their development that they have time for their questions, their ideas. “Ok, sweetie, we’ve got 10 minutes before we go to school. Let’s talk.“

Make sure that happens often enough. Maybe three times a day for a child who’s super inquisitive. There are also a lot of ways to address those questions as you’re making dinner, as you’re eating dinner, as you’re proceeding with daily life. Taking that child shopping, make sure you schedule more time for the shopping expedition, because they’re going to need to explore. This goes back to the importance of patience with children. With a child like that, your job is harder, but if you look at it right, and schedule the time right, it’s also more interesting. It is exhausting, but it’s worth spending the time and energy on scheduling time to talk. And also understanding that a lot of those questions can be answered as you go through your daily routine.

LEE: What if I’m convinced that my kid is smart but I’m not seeing it manifested in the usual in-the-box ways? Maybe the test scores are not so great. How do we recognize this unorthodox smartness and these unusual abilities?

DONA: Parents should ask not "How smart is my kid?" but "How is my child smart? What are the domains in which this kid is interested and might excel?" Then follow their curiosity and give them opportunities to engage with a wide variety of activities. See what the kid is interested in, and give them opportunities to excel.

Be patient and listen to your kid. Provide all these opportunities for engagement and just see what works for them, and hear what they have to say.

Not how smart my child is, but how my child is smart.

LEE: That’s really interesting. If there’s one thing that is the takeaway, that we want people to come away with from this conversation, what do you think it should be?

DONA: As I said before, it sounds so trite, but by being present to your child and listening to them, you’re going to do the very best job of supporting their intelligence as it develops.

LEE: Dona, thanks so much for being on the podcast.

DONA: My pleasure. I enjoyed it.

The interview transcript

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