23 September 1999
My May Moms list just had a discussion about gifted children. I wanted to join in but I’m ambivalent. Okay, full disclosure -- I might have anyway, but I’m so behind in email that by the time I actually read the posts, the thread was gone and forgotten. Plus, they’d reached the same conclusions I would have. Namely, that there’s no such animal. At least not at this age.

Everyone thinks their kid is the smart one, the gifted one. If he walks at nine months, aha! He’s gonna be a star athlete. If she talks at seven months, aha! A nascent writer, destined to win prizes on the debate team; later in life, surely a journalism Pulitzer. Life mapped out before you smush your hands into your first birthday cake.

I’m as guilty as anyone. Damian wanders over to the piano, plunks a few keys, spreads his delicate little fingers across the keyboard, sounding out an ear-pleasing chord. And you know, it sounds pretty damned melodic. Coincidence? He just happened on the right combination? Maybe. Probably. But I don’t want to think that. I’d rather spin fantasies of a budding Mozart, who after all was already composing at, what, age three?

Why do we do this? A baby kicks in the womb, people say "oh, she’s going to be a soccer player, a dancer, a gymnast." Why not let her find out for herself in due time? Why this rush to pigeonhole? But it goes farther than that. It’s not just a categorizing thing. It’s a "my kid’s the best ever in the history of the world" thing.

July 4th weekend last year, a cousin of mine was in town. She and a friend came over for dinner and to meet the new little cousin. Damian, all of two months, lay on his Gymini play mat (the kind with the arches and toys hanging down) and batted in the general direction of his toys, occasionally hitting one and squealing in delight. We talked about how much more conscious he was getting all the time, how much more dexterous. My cousin kept teasing that he was the best, the brightest, the most genius baby ever. I know she extrapolated that from what we said, how we said it, but that’s not what we meant. We weren’t comparing, we were simply reveling in watching this up-close awakening of the senses, of the mind. Why make the leap to hearing "he’s the best?"

I think because everyone does it. It’s implicit in questions like "you mean he’s not walking yet?" and "when did he start being interested in books?" This constant compare and contrast we do as parents. That somehow my child is lagging behind and will never catch up if he’s not walking with ease by a year, that yours is imagination deficient if he hasn’t sparked to reading by the time he’s six months old. Why can’t we just let them grow at their own pace, revel in the differences? Why constantly test for "is he really as good as I think?" Is it that we want concrete proof that our kids are worthy of our adoration? Or is it that we want others to agree with us that our children are special? Okay, but why can’t they be special because they give the best hugs, because they come out with the most interesting comments on the world around them, because they share their toys without a fuss, or even because they have the loudest laugh? No, we get stuck on milestones. It’s in our culture. What do you ask when you meet someone? "What do you do for a living?" We judge based on that, everything stems from that. I understand why: it’s a tangible, hold-it-in-your-hand definition of a person. But in defining so narrowly, we lose the whole.

It’s fun to look for clues to our kids’ intelligence, to their personalities. The latter I see, the former I’m deeply suspicious about. You see, I was a gifted kid. I doubt I talked early, I certainly didn’t walk early. I didn’t learn to read before first grade. I didn’t even have sleep problems as an infant (supposedly one of the signs). The first time I realized my brain worked a little differently was in ninth grade, high school. I had been in a progressive junior high; it worked on the open classroom model, which supposedly meant you got to work one on one with teachers, developing your own curriculum to challenge and enlighten. What it really meant was hours and hours wasted hanging out with friends telling tampon jokes, drinking cherry cokes and eating the world’s best french fries. So much for good intentions.

For high school I switched to a public school. An arts magnet school, sure, but still, a pretty rigid "sit your butts in your seats, do your homework, no excuses" sort of environment. I got grades for the first time. And oh my god, they were good grades! I was shocked. I’d never identified myself that way. I went around for days -- weeks -- months? -- crowing about my grades. I turned into an obnoxious little braggart, but it was really just shock and a new definition of self.

Yes, I want my kid to be smart. I suspect he is, I suspect he’ll set the world on fire when he’s older. But I try not to look for signs, because I know those signs can be deceptive. I have a friend whose daughter is very precocious, talking in complex sentences at age three. But you know what? She talked late, not early. As if she was storing it all up, putting the pieces together in her brain and then when she was ready to converse, talking fluently and completely. How do you categorize that?

How do you categorize smarts, anyway? I’ve known a lot of intellectuals. Frankly, most of them bore the bejeezus out of me. They don’t seem to synthesize what they learn, make it concrete, find life lessons there. So really, what’s the point? Dan thinks I’m smarter than he is. I’ve got more book learning, I guess, but he constantly astounds me by coming out with these incisive, perceptive remarks. The society we live in prizes left brain test score smarts over right brain intuitive smarts or gut level street smarts or compassionate people smarts, but who’s to say what’s a more valuable skill? And why not cherish all of it?

Truth is, I think bragging about our kids is bred in the bone. And maybe it should be. Last night my father called, Dan picked up the phone and chatted for a while. The discussion naturally turned to Damian. As Dan was telling my dad all about the wonder that is our son, Damian got this delightful expression on his face. Hard to describe -- sort of gleeful, sort of sly, sort of self-conscious, but most certainly pleasure. He started showing off. Chattering, walking across the floor in his wobbly sailor-on-deck way and gesturing, arms wide, taking in the whole world. He understands just about everything we say now. He certainly understood that his daddy was glowing about his accomplishments and that made him glow too. And that’s the best reason to continue finding signs of talent and uniqueness: it makes our kids feel special, like they can do anything and everything. And isn't that is one of the best gifts we can give?

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