Mensa babies

Younger and younger children are getting IQ tests. Kate Lunau follows one family’s journey into the land of the supersmart

photograph by Chris Bolin

When Anthony Popa-Urria was born, his family noticed he was an especially alert, curious child. By six months, he could recognize colours. When he was eight months old, “I showed him flash cards, like ‘1,2,3,’ or ‘A,B,C,’ and he picked up what I requested,” his grandmother Felicia Popa proudly says, and at 10 months, he could recite the alphabet. Around his first birthday, Anthony surprised his family by reading numbers off the calendar in their family doctor’s office, shouting them out as he went. A pediatrician in Calgary, where his family lives, later concluded he was gifted.

Curious to find out more about this precocious toddler’s intellect, Felicia and Anthony’s mom, Laura Popa, took him to London, England, to see psychologist Joan Freeman, who specializes in kids with high intellect. She gave Anthony—then two years and eight months old—a full examination including an IQ test, and pinned his score at an incredible 154.

Anthony, who turned three in June, can speak English and Spanish, and understands Romanian (his father, Juan Carlos Urria, is Cuban; Laura and her parents are from Romania). He knows 60 countries and their capitals, Felicia says, “and what he doesn’t know, he looks up himself.” He’s been able to read “almost any word” since he was 18 months old, and can count to 1,000. Anthony can boot up the family computer and do Internet searches on his own. What’s a family to do with such a bright child, who isn’t even old enough for kindergarten? “There are limited resources for kids this young,” Laura says. “We thought, ‘Mensa caters to a high IQ.’ ”

When he was two years old, Anthony became the youngest Canadian member of Mensa (those who score in the top two per cent of the population qualify). He’s not the only little genius who’s earned a spot in its ranks. Heidi Hankins was 4 when she joined British Mensa this year, although she was older than Elise Tan-Roberts, who became British Mensa’s youngest member in 2009 at age 2. In March, Emmelyn Roettger, then 2, became the youngest in American Mensa. Despite her IQ, Emmelyn’s age was evident on the Today show, when she announced she had to “poop.”

Parents seeking enrichment for their kids have tended to focus on gifted programs, private schools and extracurriculars. Mensa is the newest frontier. Whether it’s in search of educational resources, to hobnob with other bright kids or to mark their child as exceptional, more parents are seeking out the high IQ society. Dan Hoch, gifted youth coordinator for Mensa Canada, says he’s getting “lots of inquiries from parents of kids, many in the two- to three-year-old range.” More than 2,200 of American Mensa’s membership of 56,000 are under age 14, and four are 3 or younger. Mensa Canada has about 2,000 members, 21 of whom are under 14; the next youngest member after Anthony is 6, and there are two eight-year-old Canadian Mensans.

Mensa membership is based purely on one’s “intelligence quotient,” as measured by an IQ test. The organization has a specific test it gives to would-be members, but this test is only good for people ages 14 and over, says Maggie Davidson, supervising psychologist for Mensa Canada. Separate IQ tests are designed for kids younger than that, but they have to be administered one-on-one by a psychologist like Freeman. And even those are tricky. “It is notoriously difficult to get a good score for a kid that young,” says Lisa Van Gemert, gifted youth specialist at American Mensa. Critics question whether putting a child who’s barely out of diapers into Mensa is a good idea—and even Freeman has her doubts. “When I test these toddlers, there’s no way I would tell them to join Mensa,” she says. “It doesn’t seem quite healthy for the child to be promoted in that way.”

Freeman has spent the past four decades working with exceptionally bright children. In her offices in central London, she’ll see kids from all over the U.K. and other countries: the week before she saw Anthony, she had another Canadian family, from Toronto. Her services are in ever-increasing demand. “I cannot cope with the people applying to see me,” she says. “I’ve got waiting lists for months.”

Freeman’s subjects are typically aged 4 to 10, but she’ll make exceptions. She says evaluation involves “quizzy games,” like jigsaw puzzles, comparing and contrasting, or “little bits of knowledge, like what makes a sailboat move.” (Parents wait in another room.) Freeman evaluates the “whole child,” from how they interact with her to whether they can focus and sit still instead of charging around the room. Finding out about a child’s intellect is important, she believes. “It’s like height or weight. It’s something you should know.”

Freeman’s work is unusual; not every child psychologist will administer these tests to very young children. A child’s IQ score reflects what they’ve learned and their future learning potential, but over the years, that score can shift: the human brain isn’t fully developed until we reach our mid-20s. A 2011 study in Nature showed these changes are reflected in brain structure, suggesting such shifts are related to brain development—not simple measurement error. Cathy Price, brain imaging expert at the University College London, looked at teens in early adolescence, and followed up four years later. “IQs could swing from being an intelligent kid into the genius range, or from average to not average at all,” Price says. “Young kids can seem a genius and then stabilize,” Freeman agrees. “It’s not because the child has deteriorated; it’s because others have caught up.”

After the Popa-Urria family saw Freeman, they wondered what to do with their toddler. Because both of his parents work—Laura as a consultant for the oil and gas industry, Juan Carlos as an artist—Anthony is in Felicia’s care most of the time. (He also spends two hours a day at a neighbourhood preschool.) She often challenges her inquisitive grandson with books and puzzles, but they wanted to provide Anthony with more enrichment.

Mensa began in 1946 in Britain as a society for exceptionally bright people. Today, it has about 110,000 members in 100 countries around the world. Mensa Canada split off as its own distinct group in 1967, and has major chapters from Halifax to Vancouver. Prospective members have to take the IQ test or provide “prior evidence,” like scores on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Once somebody’s admitted, they’re welcome for life. There are perks to the annual membership fee of about $60. “Sometimes it’s a speaker night, or going for dinner, or to the movies,” says president Millie Norry, who lives in London, Ont. “We’ll get together and play puzzles and games, drink, eat and socialize. It gets a little geeky sometimes.”

Mensa members are an incredibly diverse group. Norry, who’s now retired, served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 35 years; others are entrepreneurs, businesspeople, government workers, teachers, “and there’s an awful lot of computer tech people,” Norry says. The social aspect of Mensa is extremely important. “Community—that’s exactly it,” says Hoch, who’s principal of Springbank Middle School in Calgary. “It’s no different than a bridge club or a hockey team. It’s like-minded souls.”

Some Mensa members trumpet their high-IQ status, but most keep it to themselves. Hoch is a rare Mensan who’s gone public: in 2010, he was the subject of a splashy article in the Calgary Herald seeking “Calgary’s smartest person.” The fallout wasn’t pleasant. “Talk about being thrust into the spotlight,” he says. Hoch’s friends set out to stump him with pub trivia and bar games, quizzing him endlessly, “like seeing if you can strip the puck from Sidney Crosby. If you don’t deliver, it’s like, ‘You’re not all that smart.’ ”

If the spotlight can be a little bright for Mensa’s adult members, imagine what it’s like for kids. Emmelyn Roettger’s “poop” clip appeared on websites around the world, and is sure to haunt her for years to come. After the Calgary Herald published a piece on Anthony comparing his IQ to Albert Einstein’s and Stephen Hawking’s, his parents got interview requests from as far away as Romania (the Popas emigrated to Canada when Laura was 11). “I just declined all of them,” Laura says, although they agreed to speak with Maclean’s. “I didn’t think the exposure was right for him.” Some of the online comments about her grandson were less than kind, Felicia adds.

Labelling some kids as “gifted” is controversial among educators, as it sets up a series of expectations that could dog them for life; calling a select few “Mensa members” certainly qualifies as the same, but that label is exactly what some parents are after. “Some want to say their kids are in Mensa for the prestige,” says Van Gemert, whose position as American Mensa’s gifted youth specialist became full-time a little over two years ago to cope with growing demand. “Some feel it gives them a bargaining chip with schools—if they say, ‘My child’s in Mensa,’ they’re hoping the school will hear, ‘My child is different.’ ”

Juli Simon Thomas, who lives in L.A., is mom to Bram, a four-year-old Mensan with his own Twitter feed. (She maintains it, tweeting his observations.) “We’ve always known there was something different about him,” says Thomas, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles. “He was always more advanced. He was having a lot of frustration hanging out with kids his age.” Bram joined Mensa, where he’s found new friends. Thomas seems unworried about the baggage that could come with being a Mensa member. “We decided that, just because other kids are the same age, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re his peers,” she says. “We wanted to make sure he finds people to whom he can relate. If they’re older, or gifted, that’s fine.”

Mensa Canada doesn’t offer specific programs for youth, although its website lists resources for gifted children, and Hoch is happy to help parents find activities for their kids near where they live. American Mensa has more formal offerings for its youth members: everything from discounts on Stanford University’s online education program for gifted youth, or at popular website ThinkGeek (purveyor of astronaut ice cream, novelty T-shirts, gadgets and “geek toys”). There’s a magazine for American Mensa’s youth members, called Fred, written by the child members themselves. Amy Simko’s son Hayden, 5, pens book reviews for Fred. “That’s what he likes most [about Mensa membership],” says Simko, who lives in Oxford, Mich. “He think it’s just great. I look at it as a good opportunity for his resumé when he’s older.”

When asked if she believes intelligence runs in her family, Laura is modest. Unlike Anthony, neither she nor her husband know their IQ scores. Her mother pipes up. “Laura has four degrees, including a master’s in economics,” Felicia says. “I don’t recall being as gifted as Anthony,” Laura counters. “She was,” Felicia interjects. “Mom is proud of me,” Laura says. “I’m an only child.”

Our understanding of intelligence is still incomplete: the debate of “nature vs. nurture” rages on. “If you have a newborn child and leave him in a cupboard all day, he won’t learn anything,” Freeman says matter-of-factly. “It’s interaction with the outside world. If your parents are teaching you all the time, you’ll learn.” In Anthony’s case, this certainly seems to be true. He spends his days surrounded by books, maps and educational toys, under the enthusiastic tutelage of his parents and grandparents. Beyond his high IQ, his family takes delight in his creativity, his curiosity, his sense of humour.

Whether it’s worthwhile to administer IQ tests to toddlers—and then sign them up for Mensa—remains up for debate. After all, Mensa membership doesn’t necessarily confirm that a child will become a great musician or an architect; it doesn’t say much about whether they enjoy sports, or if they can play well with others. And while testing a young child’s IQ can be worthwhile, “it is a bad idea to put a lot of pressure on them based on their IQ,” Davidson says. After all, a toddler is still a long way from Stephen Hawking.

It’s impossible to say where Anthony will be two decades from now, but his parents aren’t fretting about it. There’s been a new addition to the Popa-Urria household: in June, Laura gave birth to their second child, Nicholas. The baby is doing “great,” Felicia says happily, and Anthony adores him—he’s already trying to teach his little brother the letters of the alphabet.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.