(For the origins of the title, see this post.)
I know this will come as a shock to many of you, but I was an… unusual kid. I spontaneously started reading when I was 18 months old. By the time I was 5, I was reading on an eighth-grade level. For those of you who prefer more standardized data, various estimates have put my IQ anywhere between 166 and 190, depending on the day, my age, and the test — and yeah, I know IQ is a bogus measure in many ways, but bear with me, because the point isn’t how bright I was, but how bright my parents were.
You see, when the folks in Nashville in 1971 found out I was … unusual… they called my parents and basically suggested I get the Doogie Howser treatment. Years later, my folks told me that apparently someone had suggested a program at Vanderbilt, but I don’t know if such a program existed or was merely someone’s brainstorm, and in any case, the issue was moot, as Mom and Dad said not only that they weren’t going for that, but that no, I wouldn’t be skipping any grades at all, and I was going to attend my neighborhood school like the rest of the kids in my neighborhood. Their reasoning? As Mom said, “We figured you’d have your whole life to be smart, but you only get one chance to be a kid.”
This is something I’ve tried to keep in mind as the father of a remarkably gifted kid. On the one hand, when she tells me about being bored at school, or about telling jokes and using terms that none of her peers get, I remember exactly what she’s talking about, and the sense of ostracism I felt at her age. On the other hand, I’ve pointed out to her that life involves a wide variety of people, and one of the things you have to be able to do is deal with that variety, understanding that different people have different abilities and perspectives, but that they’re still people with hopes, needs, fears, and dreams — and that there’s stuff we can learn from all of them (even if it’s how not to be).
Now, like all parents, I want the Spawn to have a better life than mine, and I try to advise her not to repeat some of the mistakes I made — many of which involved my own lack of self-discipline and my unwillingness to do things that didn’t interest me. At the same time, though, I try to remember my folks’ wisdom, that she only gets one chance to be a kid. Consequently, we’ve never pressed MondoSpawn into activities. Our only rule has been that if she chooses an activity, she has to stay with it until the “season” (typically a school year) is over. At the end of that time, she can walk away if she wants to, and she has on several occasions. Since she’s not a big joiner, this means she spends lots of time reading, writing, and drawing, and she’s very good at all of those, especially for her age. In that regard, we’ve encouraged her to be the intellectual version of the “free-range kid“, although I sometimes have to remind myself that there’s a difference between laziness and disinterest — just as my folks had to with me; both they and I had various level of success.
Now, my point in all this was to introduce an interesting article that ran at Slate last week. Emily Yoffe examines a new movie, Race to Nowhere, a first effort at documentary filmmaking by Vicki Abeles, a lawyer with three kids. Her contention is that it’s too easy for parents (especially of a certain — elite/elitist — type and class) to buy into the Tiger Mom myth that we’ve heard so much about lately, and to thrust their kids into the Red Queen’s Race. The result is a realm of overscheduled, overstressed parents and (especially) kids. It’s kind of like when someone stands up in the first row at a concert or a ball game. As a consequence, the folks behind them have to stand, which means the folks behind them have to stand, and so on. Ultimately, everyone winds up having to stand, even though no one really gets a better view.
One key point Abeles makes is that one of the things that puts the Red Queen’s Racers into full panic mode is the specter of our/America’s kids being passed/humiliated by kids from elsewhere on standardized tests. Now, Robert Weissberg has made some interesting points about why that is, but as Abeles observes:
[W]e’ve never led the world in test scores: “We’ve led the world in innovation.”
And that, in turn, leads me back to my parents, and my efforts to balance my worldly hopes for the Spawn with my spiritual/emotional hope for her to have the most joyous life available in our postlapsarian world. It’s a balance that’s important to remember, but easy to forget in a culture panting down our necks. But she’ll have all her life to be smart. This is her only chance to be 14.