05/02/2016 01:25 EDT | Updated 05/03/2017 05:12 EDT

All That Stimulation Won't Make Your Kid A Genius

Christopher Hope-Fitch via Getty Images
A young boy doing a large painting on a piece of card at home.

Screwed up parents almost always produce screwed up kids, but screwed up kids don't always have screwed up parents.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had the ability to ensure our children turned out well-adjusted, functional and happy? I would give anything for that guarantee.

Rats and enriched environments

There were some classic studies that showed a clear pattern: Rats raised in enriched environments appeared to do much better at tests of intellectual functioning than rats raised in regular environments.

From these studies, we concluded that poverty and many or our social woes could be overcome if we improved children's environments. It was felt that if we stimulated children enough we could raise a generation of Mozarts and Einsteins. This led to a number of government initiatives and enriched programs in schools. Parents bought multi-coloured mobiles and exposed their children to classical music, sometimes even in the womb!

Somehow, the benefits didn't seem to materialize. Many kids continued to struggle in school despite ample stimulation. Something seemed amiss with the research findings. That's when the original studies were questioned and seen in a different light.

Rats and deprived environments

The rats in the "enriched" environment were given rocks and crannies to explore, tubes to crawl through, exercise wheels, etc. The rats in the so-called "regular" environment sat in their lab cages with a feeding tray and water bottle, sleeping away most of the days on a bed of wood shavings. Since when is this a normal rat environment?

This doesn't mean we can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and create geniuses by throwing more stimulation at a kid.

It had been assumed that the enriched-environment rats got more stimulation and this gave them a leg up. But in fact, those rats simply were exposed to a relatively normal environment. Rats in the normal world crawl around and explore their surroundings. They climb rocks, slip through cracks and are constantly exposed to new smells. It turns out that rats in the standard lab environments were in fact living in extremely deprived conditions.

These studies showed us a simple reality. Deprivation can have a serious negative impact on an organism's development.

For us humans, this means living in a normal world, with exposure to many aspects of cultural and intellectual life, will allow us to reach our fullest capacity. That's pretty good. But this doesn't mean we can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and create geniuses by throwing more stimulation at a kid.

Kids will develop into who they are with the right environment -- one where they are shown love and are exposed to a multitude of experiences. They should turn out to be fairly normal, whatever their own normal may be. Some will still have psychological problems, but it won't have much to do with their environments or with the quality of the parenting. On the other hand, if a normal kid is treated badly, neglected or abused, then that person is almost guaranteed to develop problems.

Not all screwed up kids come from screwed up environments, but screwed up environments will almost always produce screwed up kids.

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