by Tamarin Epstein, Educational Psychologist

Research in the field of psychology indicates that our children are actually smarter than us!

Since before 1930, studies conducted in over 30 countries found that, with every passing decade, people are becoming more intelligent. This phenomenon has become known as the “Flynn effect”.

Studies indicate that it is predominantly our abstract reasoning abilities that are increasing. Verbal reasoning, vocabulary, and mathematical skills do not seem to show the same consistent increases. Abstract reasoning is our ability to analyse information, draw inferences, identify patterns and deeper relationships between objects and ideas, and problem solve and formulate theories, at complex, nonverbal levels. It is one of the most important skills, in both academic success and modern life, giving us the ability to think beyond the concrete – flexibly and creatively, observing multiple meanings, visualizing, and solving problems logically.

A child with poor abstract reasoning tends to think only in very concrete, tangible terms. S/he may have difficulty with tasks requiring visualizing an abstract problem, such as completing a repeating pattern, making assumptions about future events, interpreting, generalising, or visualizing information that is not clearly spelled out, and understanding jokes or word plays. They may struggle with subjects involving abstract thinking, such as Maths and Science. As they get older, their academic difficulties may intensify, as abstract thinking is required more and more, in all subjects.

Although standardized IQ tests are limited, and not the only measurement of intelligence, there is a very strong association between IQ test scores and school/academic test scores, as well as success in life and socially. The average IQ score of a given population is 100 points, but because this keeps increasing, companies who sell IQ tests have to regularly update test questions and norms. These increases in IQ are surprisingly high: about 3 IQ points per decade. As Steven Pinker (2011) puts it, “An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have an IQ of 130, besting 98 per cent of his or her contemporaries.” “To do it the other way, the average person in 1910 who stepped through a time-warp to today would have an IQ measurement of 70”… “at the border of mental retardation”.

It seems that better health care, nutrition, hygiene, and safety are responsible for the Flynn effect. For the same reasons, each generation tends to be taller than the last. Just as undernourishment or disease during childhood prevents us from achieving our genetic maximum potential height, the same factors prevent us from achieving our intelligence potential and optimal health and development of our bodies and internal organs.

Interestingly, a study conducted by the University of Aberdeen and NHS Grampian found that children who grew up during World War 2 were considerably more intelligent (16.5 IQ points, on average), than those born 15 years before. Researchers suggest that food rationing during the war was responsible. Ice-cream, bacon, butter, sugar, and sweets were rationed, with families only allowed to purchase very small quantities. Pigs, chickens, and rabbits were often reared by families for meat, and vegetables grown anywhere possible. Although the food eaten by growing children during the war was not as appetizing, it was nutritionally superior – higher in organic, fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables, with very little rich, sugary, and fatty foods.

In addition, research clearly indicates that exposure to poor living conditions, abuse, or trauma in childhood prevents us from achieving the IQ capacity we were born with. Alcohol, drug, and tobacco use during pregnancy are also implicated in lowered birth weight, head circumference, height, and IQ. Research suggests that improved child care, better parenting styles (particularly positive parenting with no corporal punishment), and enhanced education are also implicated in improved IQ scores.

The Flynn effect seems to be slowing down, in developed countries, such as the UK, Norway, and Denmark. Researchers presume that we will reach a maximum intelligence limit, at some point. Effectively, this means that our children are more likely to develop to achieve their cognitive and physical potential, if they have a better quality of life (good nutrition, health care, and education, and a safe, stable, loving home).

But, how does all this translate to our South African situation?

It is estimated that we have almost 54 Million people in our developing country (53 581 698, according to Worldometers). 12 Million people (21.7%) live in extreme poverty, unable to pay for basic nutritional needs; 37% don’t have enough money to pay for both enough food and non-food items, like transport and airtime. Even the 53.8% of people who can afford enough to eat and necessary non-food items, are still widely defined as poor (living off less than R779 per month) (Daily Maverick, 2015). With such desperate statistics, together with our equally shocking violent crime and child abuse statistics, it is considered highly unlikely that most children in our country are placed in a position to achieve their academic, cognitive, and physical potential. But, what we can gather from all this is that we, South Africa’s people and our future generations, have a lot more potential than we are actualising.

So, how can we help our children achieve their potential?

When our children are small, it seems like we have many years to raise them, but in reality, we only have a few short years to affect and facilitate their optimal development:

  • Good nutrition is key to cognitive and physical development. Provide the best nutrition you can afford for your children. Avoid junk food and fast food, as these are high in fats and sugars. Buy/grow your own organic fruit and vegetables. Empower yourself with as much knowledge as you can, about good food. Good nutrition is not only about how much money we have, but the choices we make in spending it.
  • Provide the best health care you can afford for your children. Even a hospital plan is better than no medical aid. Physical and mental health problems left untreated tend to get worse, so seeking treatment as soon as we become aware of a problem is vital. Money spent treating today’s health problems is a wise investment.
  • Take steps to provide a safe, happy, hygienic home environment for your children. Seek help today to end abusive relationships, and alcohol and drug abuse, in your family.
  • Take care of yourself. As parents, we are our children’s most important emotional, financial, and practical resource. If we are suffering emotionally, lack a sense of meaning/purpose in life, are unhappy at work or in relationships, do not eat or sleep properly or take care of ourselves, our children will not receive quality care.

For assistance with emotional/psychological difficulties, substance abuse, abusive relationships, and for couple counselling, play therapy, and cognitive/psychoeducational assessments, contact PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre: (011) 450-3576,

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