Posted by: Hallie Levine | May 11, 2012


It seems like the last few times I’ve logged onto Facebook, I’ve been inundated with status updates of people bragging about their kids’ intellectual prowess. So and So got into the preschool program for exceptionally gifted children! So and so is the brightest child their teacher has ever seen! So and so is only two and a half but is already fluent in two languages!

I have to admit, I read these posts, and they crack me up. A couple years ago, it would have hurt, to read about “exceptional” children and to know that my daughter wasn’t considered one of them. But now when I read or hear such things, I feel bemused, almost as if I were watching members of an alien species conduct a tea party in my backyard. It feels so out of my own reality, it’s fascinating.

All this came back to mind this morning, when I saw a clip from the Today show about a three year old , Emmelyn Roettger, who has an IQ of 135 and is already a member of Mensa. The little girl was on the show with her proud, beaming parents as TV host Natalie Morales tried to get her to answer questions about the solar system. Alas, the little genius was too busy sticking out her tongue and waving to the camera to answer questions.

As I watched, I thought, are you kidding me? Let the kid be a three year old. Don’t put her on TV and expect her to show off like a trained poodle.

But then the real moment came.

The child prodigy had to do a number two. And she announced it in no uncertain terms on camera. Morales tried to distract her, but Emmelyn was having none of it.

Her mother looked mortified. “I knew this would happen,” she mumbled, and I thought snidely, “that’s what you get when you make your 18 month old take an IQ test.”

Some people may call it sour grapes on my part, that I’m just bitter because my own daughter’s IQ will ultimately end up being no more than half that of little Emmelyn’s. I’ve thought about it a lot, and the answer is, no, I don’t think so. But I do think that having a child with developmental delays has made me question so much of what we value as “gifted.” Is being able to recite all the planets in the solar system at age three really what we deem important in our society? Is it not enough to be proud of your preschooler because she sings and dances and gives you wet, sticky kisses rather than the fact that she got into some supposedly incredibly difficult to get into program for intellectually gifted children?

This morning, I went to Johanna’s preschool for a Mother’s day breakfast. I watched as my daughter sat among her typical peers, and I watched as her typical peers (literally) ran circles around her. But then I watched as her teacher leaned over to show her something, and at the way her eyes crinkled together and she beamed back at her with delight. I watched as she shouted yay and clapped and cheered for the other kids in my class, and I was, to use that Jewish Yiddish phrase, kvelling. I couldn’t have been more proud if she’d stood up and demonstrated to everyone a new formula for Pi.

Personally, I think IQ tests are somewhat bogus. The party line among many in the Down syndrome community is you’re never, ever supposed to let the school system perform IQ testing on your child. I’m not going to let a school administrator within a foot of any of my kids with an IQ test. I think it’s dangerous to label any child with a number, whether it’s to bolster the case that they’ve got intellectual function way below or way above the norm. I’ve even heard parents of other kids with Down Syndrome boast that their kid did take the IQ test and scored in the borderline/low normal range (which usually then gave school districts an excuse to take away some of the services that were helping boost the child’s IQ in the first place), and I’ve always thought they were missing the point. They, even though well intentioned, were buying into the belief that their son or daughter’s value lies in a number.

But that’s something I never would have thought before I had Johanna. I would have assumed—like so many of us do—that the highest label you could ever hope to bestow on your child would be intellectually gifted.

I believe my daughter is just as gifted—perhaps even more so—than that poor kid Emmelyn, whom I am assuming will need years and years of therapy to deal with a world who only seems to see her as the sum of all her cognitive accomplishments. And perhaps Johanna’s greatest gift is her ability to force me to view our lives—and all we consider worthy—through a completely different prism.

Sounds hokey, but it comes from the heart.Image



  1. I totally agree! Of course I am proud of my other children when they succeed in school and sports but I am so proud of my son who has ds when he succeeds in his milestones. Mostly he can light up your face in an instance. I was like you before I had my son. I never really gave much thought to people with special needs and my values were much different. Now that I have my son for some reason “life” seems much simpler! Things I thought were “important” are not the things I think are “important” today. I thank God for giving me this gift and showing me what the true meaning of ” life” is!

  2. Oh so true! As a special needs teacher and Nana of Colin, these tests just become a headache. Kudos to all of you great parents out there that are truly looking out for your children! What a precious picture of Johanna. Truly beautiful!!

  3. I came across this post in a google alert because I wrote about that interview on the Today show–albeit from a totally different angle–but I was similarly appalled at the “parlor tricks” they were trying to get this young girl to perform. That was about the parents, not the little girl.

    For me, as I watch my kids grow, the moments that mean the most to me are the ones that show their emotional growth–empathy, caring, love. And joy…especially joy.

    I’m so glad I came across your blog–I’ve been reading back over your past entries, too. Congratulations on the National Magazine Award nomination!

    • Thanks Margaret! Lovely to connect

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