Richard Reeves

Why Your Kids Are Better Than You Are

WASHINGTON -- You have only to run into a computer glitch at home to know that your kids are smarter than you are. In my house, we call, "Fiona ..." She's 16, but she knows about 15 years more about the machines than we do.

And it's not just our house. IQ test numbers have been going up hugely all over the world in the past 50 years. In the Netherlands, the tested IQs of 18-year-old males increased by 20 points from 1952 to 1982. The results were identical in Israel. In Great Britain, IQ scores increased 27 points from 1942 to 1999.

Why is that? Well, as I'm sure you know, there are a lot of arguments about the value of Intelligence Quotient testing -- debates having to do with genes, race, environment, and probably diet and nose length, too. A new study, published in the current issue of Psychological Review, the journal of the American Psychological Association, is adding to the talk -- and to the "nature vs. nurture" controversy.

William T. Dickens of the Brookings Institution and James R. Flynn of the University of Chicago argue, among other things, that environment may have significantly more impact on why succeeding generations are testing smarter all the time. Their 25-page opus, complete with formulas, is almost unreadable for a layman, but if I can crudely summarize, they are basically saying that one important reason people are getting smarter is that their environment is becoming more and more stimulating.

TV, MTV, DVDs, CDs, WWW and IM -- and work that is more challenging than farming and assembly lines -- stimulate the brain and lead to more stimulation. "Higher IQ leads one to better environments, causing still higher IQs," say Dickens and Flynn.

Ironically, in the context of recent contemplations on the relationship between race and intelligence -- studies Dickens and Flynn challenge -- the authors try to explain their numbers by using baseball and basketball as metaphors for changing times and higher IQs. Baseball is simply less stimulating, they write, and then go on to say:

"The standard model ... applied to basketball, implies that good coaching, practicing, preoccupation with basketball, and all other environmental factors that influence performance must be unrelated to whether genes contribute to someone being tall, slim and well-coordinated ... (But) if someone's genes predispose them to be good at basketball, then somewhat better play alone is likely to lead him or her into an environment supportive of better performance."

Anyway, we all know that basketball players are better than ever. Runners are faster; so are swimmers. Some of this has to do with nutrition, and with better track and pool design -- and with bigger hands to throw and catch basketballs and footballs. Get a grip. And what the article is about is that people think faster, too, and know more, because there is more to know. As recently as the 18th century, it was believed that a man could know all there was to know of important things. Impressive that, but there was just less around to know.

Dickens and Flynn make sense to me. As a parent and sometime teacher, I am in awe of how smart kids are these days. Awesome!

And I'm happy to see I'm not alone in that admiration. I would recommend the cover story of the April issue of The Atlantic. The title is "The Organization Kid," by David Brooks, who spent some time in the stimulating environment of Princeton, trying to get to know the kids who are going to pay his and my Social Security.

The young men and women he meets may not have the glitz of the '60s or the '70s, or be as dedicated to greed as the '80s and '90s, but they sound OK to me. "Future Workaholics of America," Brooks writes. "Crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged children in Trenton, a capella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer sessions, hit the Stairmaster, study a few hours more."

All that, and they have higher IQs than we do.

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