Tag Archives: advanced child

i’d say he’s average

I could see the penalty shoot out, but only just. Five balls in the back of the net and you win a prize! My two sons were standing in line, waiting, kicking up the dirt together in anticipation. It was the older one I couldn’t bear to watch. If I looked closely, I knew what I would find: determination etched into his face like warpaint. Desperation too. I would remember the times in the past he had crumpled under the inability to meet his own towering standards. I would get that queasy feeling in my gut, the one he of my four kids stirs up most regularly. This child, my first child, has never taken failure lightly.

And fail he did. Not a single shot in. At seven and a half, he was able to hold it together long enough to find me and stuff his face into my armpit before starting to cry. We walked away from the field slowly, closely, which somehow made getting to the heart of the matter easier. ‘I’m rubbish at football!’ he said, between sobs, a declaration but maybe in some small way a question. Could his mother, by the sheer power of her answer, make him better at something than he really was? ‘It was hard,’ I conceded, ‘the goalie was big.’ ‘Yeah, but Gabe scored twice.’ We are well past the age when they are oblivious to how their strengths and weaknesses stack up against their friends’.

‘Keep practicing,’ I offer, but the kid practices all the time. He’s out in the back garden after school kicking the ball around for hours, some nights I have to drag him inside flailing in protest. Effort is not the missing ingredient. Talent very well might be. ‘You’re not going to be good at everything,’ I say, and he hiccups a little though he’s heard these words before. It’s a standard line in our house, something I tell my kids almost as often as I cheer them on. And I cheer them on a lot.

The truth is that I don’t know how good Oliver is at football. Other things he does are more quantifiable to me. I know, for instance, at what level he reads. I know that when he was younger he was spectacularly bad at drawing. I know that he can sing sweetly and in tune and that he can’t run very fast for his age. I don’t know how good he is at football, but I can make an educated guess. I’d say he’s average.

The dreaded ‘a’ word. The ugly step-sister of that other ‘a’ word, the one thrown around in playgroups and parks with a frequency that belies its meaning: ‘advanced.’ Or if not advanced, then at least above average. It feels like every other child I know has been described to me as advanced or above average in some respect. Sure enough, a handful of them are. But the rest? The bell curve of life tells us they can’t be. The issue is not the kids, who are no doubt each uniquely wonderful (I mean that). It’s the moms and the dads and the stunning lack of objectivity that seems to go hand in hand with parenting these days.

We start out exaggerating wildly about them when they are tiny - ‘The cutest baby in the whole world!‘ - because we think the pitch of our language should match the ferocity of our love. Then they become toddlers and we see everywhere in their ordinary achievements signs of genius because we are bewitched by the magic of milestones. Finally they go to school where teachers and testing and teams reveal they aren’t as perfectly well-rounded as we imagined, but we continue to applaud them indiscriminately just the same. This time because we are convinced it is the way to re-boost their self-assurance. It’s an American phenomenon, this party of praise, says Christine Gross-Loh in Parenting Without Borders. It’s also a relatively recent one.

I wasn’t raised like that. If telling it like it is were an Olympic sport, my mom would medal in it. Her matter-of-factness didn’t always make me feel warm and gooey, but it did give me a realistic perspective on myself. It helped me to appreciate what I was actually good at. And it encouraged me to work damn hard at what I wasn’t. I never felt like my mom supported me any less in her candor: she was my biggest advocate. What I felt, rather, is that she saw me more for who I was and grounded me, as a result, in that vision.

Which is what I hope to do for my own children. Being honest with them about their deficits as well as their gifts is a choice, personal and deliberate. I can’t watch my kid miss five out of five penalty shots and think he did a ‘Great job!’. I won’t tell him he did, either. I don’t want him to expect success around every corner just because he turns it. What I want for him is to learn how to find enjoyment in the things he loves but doesn’t excel at. To grow as a person by striving for what doesn’t come naturally. Most of all what I want for him is to see himself clearly and to take pride in the picture nonetheless.

True confidence stems as much from self-awareness as it does from self-esteem.

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This post is part of a ‘blogging carnival’ about cultural attitudes toward self-esteem and praise, inspired by the book Parenting Without Borders. Read the other participants’ thoughts at the links below:


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Hothousing is what we do when we try to make our small children learn more or faster than is ‘appropriate’ for their age. It is a fairly derogatory term in the sense that it points to an unnatural, stilted way of interacting with kids: not simply encouraging their development through the old-fashioned channels of play and conversation, but actively seeking to accelerate it by the use of specially selected music, videos or classes. It is a thoroughly modern concern. Think Baby Einstein and you’ve got the picture.

Hothousing isn’t all bad. It stems from the discovery - the very important discovery - that babies are far more capable from a cognitive point of view than had previously been imagined. This is particularly true when it comes to language. Experiments show that newborns, from as early as days after birth, have an unmistakeable ability to recognize cadences of their mother tongue. As a result, we now know that babies start to understand what we are saying to them long before they embark upon the road of speech themselves.

Knowing this is empowering. It means that by talking to our babies regularly, by singing to them, by reading to them, we can stimulate their first efforts at communication. Early language acquisition of this kind is a promising sign for the future, but it also makes for an easier toddlerhood: a more immediate, but equally noble, goal. The 18 month old who can effectively tell you what he wants is going to be much less frustrated than the one who can’t and that is no small potatoes.

And yet, and yet. Chattering to your four month old in a singsong voice about the yellow duckies on his sleepsuit is an altogether different beast from taking him to a ‘literacy class’. I saw a sign for one of these at a local softplay and I had to stifle a laugh. A literacy class for a little kid, funny enough. A literacy class for 0-9 month olds, hysterical. And rather disturbing. No doubt the class involved the usual litany of pat-a-cakes and twinkle-twinkles and all the things that are good and nice for a baby that size. But the fact that it was branded in such an intelligence-boosting, skill-mastering way is where the problem lies.

Confession time. When I was pregnant with baby number one, my husband and I went to an Expo, a huge conglomeration of different booths selling the hottest and latest in baby gear. We bought one thing. It was a ‘Brainy Baby’ toy, best described as an electronic board with multiple activities on it, levers to switch, buttons to press, swirls to whirl. A toy I have now seen variations of at every toddler group I have stepped foot in. The truly embarrassing part of the story, more so than the fact that we were lured into the ‘Brainy’ tent in the first place, was that there were two versions of this toy on offer, one for the left side of the brain and one for the right, and that we actually had a conversation about which to choose. Based, wait for it, on a solemn assessment of our own intelligence. Baby Oliver needed the right-brain board, we decided, to compensate for our collective over-left-brained-ness.

Oliver hated that toy. He never did baby sign language either, though I painstakingly tried to teach him and he didn’t listen to Classical music mainly because I didn’t listen to it myself. He was an early talker despite a lack of literacy classes, though he didn’t learn his letters until much later. In retrospect I am interested that I didn’t push this, touched as I was by the brainy baby culture, for he was the kind of kid who would have been receptive. I think it just didn’t occur to me that a two year old should know the alphabet.

It would probably occur to me now, seven years on, as learning letters at an increasingly young age has become a hallmark of hothousing. But thankfully I have already watched two children learn to read - the purpose, after all, of knowing letters - and have seen that a toddler’s rote mastery of the ‘a,b,c’s is as connected to reading as acquiring your color words early is to art appreciation. Not wholly unrelated, but not necessarily predictive either. As a friend of a bright boy who knew his letters at two has said: I expected him to be reading by four, but it’s not the same thing.

The endgame of early learning matters. We learn letters to read and express ourselves in writing, numbers to count and perform mathematical computations, colors to see and describe our environment. Sure, these are the building blocks of our ability to function (and succeed) in the world, ultimately. But ‘mastering’ them before they have meaning is an exercise only in itself. Which is fine, so long as it is fun and child-led. When it ceases to be either of these things, it’s time to reassess.

Hothousing is not always about a specific task or skill set. As a general phenomenon, it is an effort to make our kids more intelligent full stop. Can we do that? Studies suggest not really. But as new parents we aren’t combing the psychology journals or thinking too rationally about it: we haven’t yet seen a child flourish in school, or in life for that matter, without literacy classes. As ever, we are simply slaves to the latest parenting trend and to the fear that our kids will somehow miss an advantage. So we pipe the Mozart into our pregnant bellies and we put the Baby Einstein on the TV and we flash the first word cards over and over again and we hope it might do a little good. And when the second kid comes along, we try to remember why it seemed so important.


This post is part of a ‘blogging carnival’ about cultural attitudes toward academic pressure, inspired by the book Parenting Without Borders. Read the other participants’ thoughts at the links below:


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the paradox of milestones

I am a milestone junkie. A tooth cut, a word spoken, a button done, a dry night had: this is the stuff of motherhood to me. Even when my fourth child took his first wobbly steps a few months ago, it bowled me over. I cheered him on, I made the video, I broadcast the news to the relevant family members. Of course I had seen it before, but it didn’t cease to thrill.

A baby’s development over the first two to three years of life is an objectively impressive transformation. What starts as a wholly stationary, wholly nonverbal, and wholly helpless bundle of reflexes slowly but surely evolves into a full-fledged little person: a little person with the ability to move and to manipulate things, to harbor desires and ideas separate from our own that can be expressed with ever-increasing sophistication.

When that baby is your baby, the process is even more amazing. Not only because you are there to witness it first hand, but because the countless, selfless hours of love and attention that you have poured into that baby are in large part responsible for the fact that it has happened at all. It is hard not to see one’s offspring as an extension of oneself in this respect.

And yet, every healthy baby will ultimately make this transition. They will all master the pincer grip and scale the sofa and sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in the cutest voice ever. They will all write their names in oversized, wonderfully irregular letters. These firsts feel unique and astronomical when they are happening, and they are, they really, really are! But at the same time, in the larger context of children everywhere, there is a sense in which they are utterly routine.

Milestones are, in this way, both magical and mundane. It is a paradox, true enough, and maybe even an obvious one at that, but I think it explains much of how we react to our children’s early ‘achievements’. It is why, for example, we can’t respond with the same emotional heights when we hear about somebody else’s kid taking his first steps or saying his first words. It is why most of us instinctively know to save this kind of information for the select group of friends and relatives who are close enough to our own kids to actually care.

Most interestingly, the paradoxical nature of milestones could explain why we invest so much meaning these days in the rate at which they occur. Every healthy newborn will make the transition from blobby baby to walking, talking toddler. But they won’t all do it to the same schedule. The variance in when developmental milestones are hit by different children has started to matter to parents…a lot. Our generation’s preoccupation with the ‘advanced’ child can be written off as competitiveness - and sometimes, no doubt, that’s exactly what it is. But perhaps there is also a more tender psychological motivation at work.

In this climate of parenting where everyone knows the points of the Denver Developmental Screening Test intimately and where comparisons between children run legion (even if only in our minds), perhaps the emphasis on doing things early is simply a protective instinct. A way to keep these creatures who are the epitome of specialness to us special in the eyes of the rest of the world.

One of the most exciting, and frightening, things about having a baby is the tabula rasa effect. It is exciting because the opportunity to shape these blank slates who have come, so suddenly it seems, into our care feels boundless. It is frightening for exactly the same reason. Milestones offer a measure of the job we are doing in this respect or, at any rate, periodic proof that we are somehow doing it ‘right’. And let’s be honest: we all need this kind of reinforcement from time to time as we navigate the murky waters of parenthood.

Milestones are markers but they are also windows. What I love about discovering when different babies will do different things is the glimpse it gives us into their identity. Each new ability takes us one step closer to answering the question we are all desperate to know from the moment they are born: just who are you?

In this way, the order and speed at which small children reach milestones might very well be telling. Early talkers might be highly literate; early walkers, particularly athletic. The ‘smart’ baby who counts to ten at 18 months might be top of her class. This is part of the fun. Speculating about our kids is a natural element of parenting them. So is wanting them to succeed. And so is, to some degree, labelling them. But this is where we have to take care, both in terms of our own expectations and how we talk to our fellow mothers and fathers.

There was a spoof making the rounds recently about how 100% of grandparents think their grandchildren are gifted. Bias can be an adorable thing, particularly when it is acknowledged as such. Claims of grandeur in the face of typical development, on the other hand, are far less cute: not only because they are often misguided, but because they tend to make other parents feel bad or worried and unnecessarily so. Context is everything here. Most of us don’t have the appropriate data set to know what exactly the range of normality is one way or the other when it comes to, for example, how many words a two year can string together. But we should know enough to realize that amongst our audience for this feat - whatever the number is - might be the mom of a two year old who struggles to utter even a single word. Not to mention the mom of a two year old who is already starting to read.

We can’t control the culture in which we parent. Peruse any milestone forum on any parenting website and it is clear that the push right now for advanced - one could say premature - learning amongst even the littlest children is palpable. What we can control, however, is our awareness that the pride and awe we feel, the pride and awe we should feel, as we watch our child progress through his early years stands side by side with the fact that someone else’s child is making that very same march. Maybe a little bit faster, maybe a little bit slower.

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