The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Scary smart

Scary smart. It's a term I hear often when Julia does something unusual or supposedly beyond her years. Generally, it's said by a well meaning friend, and I try to take it in the complimentary way I honestly believe it to be intended. But even as I glow with typical parental pride at my daughter's accomplishments, in the back of my mind every time, there is always a nagging doubt. Is she really so smart? And if so, should that really be scary?

It's not particularly scary to me that Julia is starting to read. Paul and I both taught ourselves to read at a young age -- I was 4 and he was 3 -- and so it stands to reason that our offspring might just have inherited the early reading gene. Given that fact that we have both, despite our high IQs, turned into completely ordinary adults, it's hard to think of Julia's newest skill as indicative of anything other than an early ability to decode letters on a page. She's not going to Harvard tomorrow (or ever if she also inherited our collective lack of academic motivation). She's just... reading.

And doing math in her head -- the kind that involves negative numbers. And reciting poetry. And writing elaborate sentences (provided someone is willing to assist with the spelling). I don't know for sure, but I suspect some of these things are a little unusual for a kid who's not yet 4. And I also suspect that right now, every parent with a child around Julia's age who is reading this either thinks I'm a braggart or a liar or both. Probably both.

Every kid is born with some sort of innate talent or skill. Julia has friends who can flip easily and gracefully over a parallel bar while Julia can't even get her feet up in the vicinity of the thing. She has friends who can kick a ball clear across a regulation sized soccer field while Julia's lucky if she can get her foot to connect with the ball at all. She has friends who can keep time to music effortlessly while Julia's clapping along to a completely different -- OK, nonexistent -- beat. I don't worry that my kid isn't doing those things, because physical aptitude is genetic, and my poor kids got my genes. I think it's cool that some kids can do things like that, and I'm the first one to compliment a parent whose child has such a skill. But I don't waste any time on comparing Julia to those kids. It wouldn't be fair to Julia.

And yet, when people say something about Julia's skills, I often feel like there is an underlying unease about the exchange, like other parents are comparing and they're bothered by the fact that Julia is doing a few academic things before she's "supposed to." I feel as if her particular talents are viewed as less "natural" than her friends' physical ones, as if I'm being silently accused of running flash cards with my kid or coaching her to get ahead. Nothing could be farther from my reality, and yet I always end up feeling defensive. She's not so different. I know plenty of kids her age who are doing things like this. It's not so great. And that feeling sucks. Because it is great when a kid learns to read -- no matter what age she might be -- and it is great when she grasps a new concept or articulates a new idea. And yet every time I share a story about my child with another parent, I worry about how it's going to sound. I'm pretty confident that no one else is afraid I'm going to be upset that the kid standing next to Julia can hop across the room with out falling over. But I'm always afraid that other parents might be bothered by the fact that Julia can read the word "hop."

It doesn't scare me at all that Julia's natural talents appear to be academic in nature. But it scares me that I might alienate my friends if I talk too much about her accomplishments. And it equally scares me to think that I might actually be making too much of her milestones. Maybe most kids are doing these kinds of things and I'm just the foolish mother who can't keep her mouth shut about them. I'm scared that Julia's different, and I'm equally scared that she's not. There's plenty of scary going on around here, but truth be told, it has little to do with Julia and everything to do with me.

Is Julia scary smart? Maybe, maybe not. Is it all just plain scary? Absolutely. But when it comes right down to it, what about parenting isn't?


At 3:11 PM, Blogger Kristy said...

(RSS lets me get all over your post immediately).

Truth be told, I've wanted you to write about this for a while. My comment on yesterday's post was a direct challenge, actually. And, while we're telling the truth? Yeah, I'm a little, um, jealous(?) that Julia is reading and my daughter is fighting me tooth and nail to make more than a scribble on the paper. But that's *my* problem, not yours. Let me tell you this: I'm not in ANY way put-off by your sharing your daughter's milestones, and I hope you've never felt that from me. If you feel it from someone else, pooh on them. You SHOULD be able to share. Because it is marvelous, in the root sense of the word. Just like everything else any child does, like you said.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger chichimama said...

Pooh pooh on others. You have every right to talk about it as much as Joe Schmoe's mommy talks about his ability to hit baskets from the 3 pointer line. Every kid is different.

I also can't think of a friend I know who would be alienated by Julia reading, but I suppose it's possible that I don't know ALL your friends :-).

And hey, if parents don't make big deals about kids milestones, no matter when they happen who will?

At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Gretchen C. said...

Hey! I resemble that remark!

I don't mean "scary" as in scary; I mean it as in wow, incredible, unbelievable. And like it or not, I value intellect above all other things. Parallel bars? BFD. Reading at age three? Now I'm impressed. Those are my personal values, and I'm unapologetic about them because I don't insist that anyone else share them. (Maybe that's why I'm a Jewish wannabe? Because Jews tend to highly value learning and education.)

So Julia knocks my socks off. Don't second-guess it, my good friend! Just say "Yes. Isn't she amazing?"

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I have to admit that I'm jealous -- I was an early reader myself, and honestly it disappoints me that my son isn't following the same path. But like Kristy said, that's my problem, not yours.

On the other side of the fence, I totally hear you. We've made a point not to tell most people at what age Baby Blue said her first word, because I don't want people to think of her as "scary smart."

With both kids, I find myself frequently (and unconsciously) leading converations with other parents with my children's weaknesses rather than their strengths. My kids will probably be talking about it in therapy someday, but the other parents (through whom all potential playdates must go) are less threatened if they know more about, say, my kids' small size and potty training issues than they do about some of their more prodigious abilities.

I know it's not fair that parents of sports prodigies don't feel equally sheepish about their children's early accomplishments, but that's the reality in this culture where "smart" is (rightly or wrongly) equated with "elitist."

At 11:24 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Smart isn't scary. And neither is a parent who is proud of her child's accomplishments. I can't say I'm jealous over academic issues - maybe because I don't foresee reason to be concerned about my own children in that area. Everyone catches up eventually and yay for Julia for leading the way.

If I'm being honest though, I'll admit I am tempted to roll my eyes at "bragging" when a parent (ok, I'm talking about one specific friend, as long as I'm being honest here) makes a point to note, when my child is having a childish moment, that her children never meltdown and that she never has "They are driving me nuts" moments. So, what does that tell me? That I value Stepford children over smarts? Nah...I think I'm just more afraid of my children turning into Goth teens than I am afraid they'll be illiterate. LOL.

People label things "scary" when their own insecurities pop up. You have every right to be proud - and to share it!

At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Joy said...

Yes, she is so smart. No it shouldn't be scary. And I don't ever think braggart or liar. I think "Wow!"

I agree that the underlying unease is from the other parents comparing their child to Julia, but I think they are bothered not so much by Julia doing things ahead of schedule, but more by the fact that their child isn't doing the same things.

Yes, it might bother some friends if you talk a lot about Julia's accomplishments, but like the others have commented, that's their problem (unless of course, that's all you ever talk about ;-))
I say keep making a big deal out of the milestones you want to make a big deal out of. They aren't going to stop talking about the physical skills, why should you stop talking about the academic ones?!

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Rosemary said...

My kids were "scary" smart. Luckily, I guess, I was too busy to have friends to brag to and the rest of the family wasn't at the pro-creating stage. Most important thing, looking at kids in 20's now, is to nurture it and praise it. It is *so* hard for kids to go through school always being at the top of the class. You need to start very young giving lots of positive reinforcement that they are awesome - and that you hold the bar high for them (as appropriate). My nieces, raised by their mother, have had no one to hold the bar high - though probably equal in brains to my own kids. Their low expectation level is sorrowful to me.


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